Hollywood operates by very specific and frequently nonsensical rules. If a film flops, it is often decided that the reason it under-performed is because the entire genre is a wash-out, not because the individual film itself wasn’t very good. It happened with pirate movies following Cutthroat Island, while swords and sandals epics were written off almost entirely until Gladiator was a smash hit. The same is true for the opposite rule: A film will do well if it’s copying what all the hit are doing, as evidenced by every studio’s attempt to make their own expanded universe franchises happen because it worked so well for Marvel. In an industry where it’s already tough enough for women’s stories to get their dues, these arbitrary laws exact harsh sentences on oft-maligned narratives. Case in point: The death of the romantic comedy.
Much has been written on the supposed decline of the rom-com genre. Previously a safe box office bet and a route to stardom for many up and coming actresses (not to mention basically all the Chrises), it was seemingly decided overnight that the industry had no more use for such movies. It didn’t help that profits were sliding but the problem extended beyond an implied distaste for the genre. The mid-budget movie was dying off across the board as the blockbuster age took root and all the major studios started to make less and less films. This is an issue that will only get worse as Disney acquire 21st Century Fox. Unless you’re making low-to-mid budget prestige fare, smartly budgeted horror franchises or $200m epics, there is weirdly little place for you. After all, nobody wants to watch rom-coms anymore, right?
2018 has seen a revival of the genre, or at least a revival of the rom-com as it stood in that period of peak popularity between 1995 and 2005. Films like Crazy Rich Asians, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Set It Up, The Kissing Booth, and even Netflix’s attempts at Hallmark romances all appeal to that nostalgic niche of love in a simpler time. It wasn’t just that these films did well with audiences but that the hype leading up to their releases was surprisingly intense. The historical importance of Crazy Rich Asians cannot be overlooked but neither can the simple thrill of seeing people revved up for an old-school romantic comedy that was proudly marketed as one. Now, Twitter is ablaze with giddy fandom love for To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, a rom-com based on a young adult novel, thus breaking the other rule that claims YA adaptations are dead in Hollywood.
As has been noted by many already, the rom-com didn’t disappear entirely. The Judd Apatow oeuvre may work as hard as it can to avoid the girly label but they’re still rooted in rom-com conventions. I would posit that the genre declined in large part due to the bro-ification of the medium. However, indie film and television helped to plug many of the gaps, from HBO’s Insecure to The Mindy Project to the criminally underrated movie Sleeping With Other People. Yet the basic structure of the genre and the centring of the narrative’s focus on romantic entanglements with jokes has frequently been dismissed or excluded. It’s not that romances left film, but more often than not, it feels like we only see that climactic kiss as a reward for the buff male hero without any real build-up or story interest in the relationship itself.
That’s what is so striking about this current rom-com revival. So many of these movies feel like their basic plots could have come from a 2001 movie starring Julia Stiles and Freddie Prinze Jr. That’s not a slam on those films but a sign of how timeless the genre’s core audiences find those structures. Updates have been made, however: The genre’s gotten more diverse and less heterosexual in its central romances - see films like Dear Simon and Alex Strangelove - the genre politics are better, and the raunchy aspects are less tacked on. What remains is the earnest glee for a good old fashioned over-the-top romantic declaration.
It’s no coincidence that a large part of this rom-com revival is driven by Netflix. The streaming service’s strategy to appeal to literally everyone on the planet has had many criticizing their approach as being one of quantity over quality. That’s tough to argue with but one of the upsides to such a tactic is how it’s encouraged the higher-ups to invest in those ‘dead’ genres. Rom-coms are inexpensive to produce, don’t need massive stars in the major roles, and can be made to appeal to a variety of age groups. Audiences may be less likely to put their money down at the cinema for such films but they’re definitely going to curl up on the couch on a lazy night in and binge watch a ton of them. If every other studio is going to make less movies, and rom-coms will be sacrificed as a result, then Netflix will happily make all the movies to balance things out.
Of course, it’s easy to get tangled up in the theorizing behind the rom-com boom but the real reasons seem ridiculously simple: Rom-coms make people happy and right now we want to be happy. We want love stories with guaranteed happy endings; we want to see good looking people fall in love across various barriers; we want love stories to be more inclusive; we want positivity and we want feminine coded narratives to get as much attention as anything featuring explosions or guns. We’ve been saying all this for quite some time now but few seemed to be listening. Now, we have a rom-com at the top of the box office and a rom-com on my Netflix front page that everyone is talking about. These aren’t ironic pleasures, nor are fans cloaking them in the disclaimer of ‘guilty pleasure’: Fans are damn proud of their rom-com love and want to share it with the world.
Who knows: Perhaps this will lead to more investment in straight-up romance movies too. After all, Shonda Rhimes’s Netflix deal includes plans to adapt Julia Quinn’s novels. The audience is there for it, clearly.
Header Image Source: Netflix