Universal and Paul Feig are hoping that holiday rom-coms made at the right price can still pay off theatrically with “Last Christmas,” which opens Friday starring Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding. “It’s a love letter to London and it felt like the kind of movie we need now,” says the “Bridesmaids” director.

But since the days of sentimental yet satisfying movies like “Love Actually” and “Four Christmases,” the audience for that type of romance has mostly defected to Netflix. The streamer went full-bore into holiday fare with “A Christmas Prince,” “A Christmas Prince: Royal Wedding” and “The Christmas Chronicles” with Kurt Russell. In the next few weeks, Netflix is adding “The Knight Before Christmas” and “A Christmas Baby: The Royal Prince.”

So “Last Christmas,” which is projected to open mildly at north of $10 million, will test the waters to see if there’s still a theatrical audience for lovers wandering around London in cozy attire. Stephen King adaptation “Dr. Sleep” looks to dominate the box office this weekend with upwards of $25 million, but “Last Christmas” is planting the holiday flag early in the season, a week ahead of the U.K. launch. The hope is that it can become a word-of-mouth hit. The budget is estimated at about $30 million, making “Last Christmas” a relatively modest risk for the studio.

“We wanted to give the film as much runway as possible to play during the holiday season,” Universal senior executive VP Erik Baiers told Variety.

Set in London, “Last Christmas” teams the “Game of Thrones” star Clarke with “Crazy Rich Asians” leads Golding and Michelle Yeoh. Emma Thompson, who also appears in the film, wrote the screenplay with Bryony Kimmings. The movie naturally includes George Michael’s 1984 hit song “Last Christmas” — also a key plot point — and several of his previously unreleased tracks.

Clarke plays an aspiring singer who takes a job as an elf in Yeoh’s Christmas store and meets Golding’s too-good-to-be true character on the job. She’s recently recovered from an illness, but her life is a mess. She’s drinking too much and engaging in ill-advised hookups. She’s a very different kind of heroine than some of the earlier rom-com princesses — an edgier, more relatable character for an era that’s grown more skeptical about the whole “meet cute” concept.

Thompson and Feig were supposed to collaborate earlier. He was originally supposed to direct “Late Night,” which found the Oscar winner co-starring with Mindy Kaling, but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts.

“Emma dropped me an email last year about this script and it clicked so many boxes,” Feig said. “I needed to direct something emotional. I was in a very cynical mood when I directed ‘A Simple Favor.'”

Feig sent the script in a Christmas gift box to Universal Filmed Entertainment Group Chairman Donna Langley and immediately got the go-ahead. From the start, he knew he wanted Clarke to play Kate.

“I was a ‘Game of Thrones fan’ and she was so stoic in that,” Feig said. “I met her and we hit off. She’s effervescent, bright and funny and I thought ‘this is the one, she can do it.'”

At that point, Feig had just worked with Golding on his dark comedy “A Simple Favor” with Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively.

“I had become good friends with Henry on ‘A Simple Favor,’ in which he’s very dark. But this movie is who he really is,” Feig added. “So we had our two leads just like that and we started shooting in November. My favorite projects are the ones that feel like runaway freight trains.”

Since Feig’s breakout hit with “Bridesmaids,” romantic comedies have fallen from favor at the box office. 2016’s “La La Land” and 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians” were the last certifiable box office successes for the genre with ticket sales reaching $445 million and $238 million worldwide, respectively. Paramount’s gender-swapped remake “What Men Want” is the highest-grossing romantic comedy this year with receipts at $72 million worldwide.

But with the reasonable price tag, “Last Christmas” doesn’t need huge box office to slot itself into the hunger for comforting holiday fare on streaming services and cable.

“Paul Feig is one the most versatile filmmakers working today and seamlessly and effortlessly jumps from comedy to action to mystery and everything in-between, so for his first traditional rom-com, he is covering two genres. Perhaps it is he who can reinvigorate both the Christmas-themed movie and the rom-com in fell swoop with ‘Last Christmas,'” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Comscore.
If Feig pulls that off, he may have achieved something remarkable. A genuine Christmas miracle.