‘Sleepless in Seattle’ Producer Lynda Obst on Why Nobody Makes Romantic Comedies

The veteran producer's new book "Sleepless in Hollywood" checks in on a business that only cares about foreign audiences and comic book films

Lynda Obst went looking for Hollywood and what she found was an industry obsessed with the wants and whims of teenage boys and foreign audiences and indifferent to traditional virtues like originality, humor or heartbreak.

Where, the veteran producer of “Contact” and “Sleepless in Seattle” wondered, were the films for grown-ups?

To answer that question, Obst (pictured left) surveyed her lists of industry contacts, a group that included heavyweights such as Fox Chairman Jim Gianopulos and Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, and produced a tart-tongued work of memoir and reportage entitled “Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales From the New Abnormal in the Movie Business.”

Also read: Nora Ephron: From ‘When Harry Met Sally’ to ‘Julie & Julia,’ She Made It OK to Eat

Her book hits stores this week. It’s a witty and frequently incisive look at a business that is attracting an ever more globalized and diverse audience by manufacturing increasingly homogenized content that can be sequelized, rebooted and monetized across a dizzying array of platforms.

“The business of studios now is to build properties into franchises,” Obst told TheWrap. “That’s why they don’t want to do romantic comedies any more. They’re one-offs. There’s a cap on how much money you can make. What are you going to do after happily ever after? The divorce? The affair?”

It also means that films are geared towards emerging markets like China and Russia at the expense of domestic moviegoers.

Also read: 6 Actresses Who Should Play Hillary Clinton in ‘Rodham’

“What foreign audiences are looking for are these IMAX 3D spectacles that can only be made in America,” Obst said. “Other than that, they would rather see their own indigenous movies for films that have nuance and subtleties, so they don’t have to deal with the dubbed dialog.”

A decade ago the enormous profits from DVD sales gave the industry enough of a cushion to keep greenlighting a diverse slate of movies. That enabled producers like Obst to find studio backing for films like “The Fisher King” or “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” that would have a harder time attracting interest today. Their cardinal sin? They lack a man in a cape or cowl.

Yet the rise of streaming services like Netflix has led to a precipitous fall in home entertainment spending from a a peak of  $21.8 billion in 2004 to roughly $18.7 billion in 2012. That’s made the business increasingly dependent on foreign markets to make up the shortfall.

Obst said she first became aware of the “new abnormal,” as she christened it, roughly five years ago when her production company was still based on the Paramount Pictures lot.

She had a hot script — a ripped-from-the-headlines story about an intelligent design trial that had attracted interest from some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. But instead of setting off a bidding war or scoring a greenlight, Obst said executives at Paramount listened to her pitch with blank stares.

“It socked me between the eyes that I was living in a paradigm change,” Obst said. “I didn’t realize it, but a systemic shift had taken place and the kind of movies that I made, namely romantic comedies and dramas for adults, were not happening anymore.”

It was a shake-up that would eventually result in Obst leaving Paramount along with scores of other producers who saw their on-the-lot deals evaporate in an onslaught of corporate cutbacks and an emphasis on fewer, bigger movies made from board games and comic books.

So she moved on and found opportunities on the small screen, where she currently produces the hit TV Land sitcom “Hot in Cleveland.” It’s a change that she has embraced, reporting that she is loving contributing to the creative renaissance currently flowering across the television landscape.

“It’s edgier,” Obst said of television. “You have hit shows where you have mothers selling pot and having affairs or teachers selling crack and dying of cancer. In movies you can’t have a guy selling crack, let alone dying of cancer.”

Obst may love the freedom that television offers, but she acknowledges that many of her fellow producers have a hard time adjusting to life off the movie lot.

“The past 10 years have been catastrophic for movie producers,” Obst said. “If you just made good movies, but you didn’t have a partner who was a movie star or a hedge fund operator or a bank, you were out of luck. Merit didn’t matter. It was a complete reversal of the order of things.”

Welcome to the new normal.