Crazy Rich Asians and Set It Up are helping revive the rom-com genre. Here’s why it died in the first place.
The box office success of Crazy Rich Asians and the summertime buzz surrounding two Netflix releases, Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, offer a potent reminder of something big: It wasn’t very long ago that the romantic comedy was a mainstay of Hollywood’s annual box office strategy.
As recently as 2005, the bro-friendly Wedding Crashers was the sixth biggest movie of the year, and since then, movies like Knocked Up, The Proposal, and Silver Linings Playbook (a “quality drama” that tried to pretend it wasn’t a rom-com) have crossed the $100 million mark in the US without breaking a sweat.
But for the most part, major film studios don’t make rom-coms anymore. A big-name comedy director like Judd Apatow can push one through (as he did with Trainwreck and Knocked Up), but even Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy, the new Ghostbusters) failed to get a proposed rom-com starring Melissa McCarthy and Jon Hamm made, as the actors weren’t interested. (This is a genuine tragedy; Hamm could be a great rom-com leading man.)
For the most part, modern movie romances trend toward the dramatic (Brokeback Mountain, the Twilight movies, La La Land), or they’re rom-coms made by indie filmmakers (like the Oscar-nominated The Big Sick or the similarly wonderful What If and Sleeping with Other People).
Big studios are less and less likely to take a chance on a simple, goofy story of two people falling in love, instead retreating to the relative safety of remakes (2018’s Overboard, which made $91 million worldwide), sequels (2016’s Bridget Jones’s Baby, which made nearly $212 million worldwide), or blatant movie-star assemblages (like 2018’s $68-million-grossing Book Club).
And yet, here comes a new wave of original rom-coms, riding to the rescue. Crazy Rich Asians made boatloads of money in theaters over the weekend, and Netflix is positively lousy with new rom-coms. Most of them are, ahem, lousy (please don’t see When We First Met), but as with everything Netflix picks up and throws against the wall, a couple of these movies have stuck, particularly the office-set shenanigans of Set It Up and the winning teen romance To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
The success Netflix and Crazy Rich Asians have seen might signify a sea-change in the way big studios think about rom-coms. And in the case of Warner Bros., the studio that made Crazy Rich Asians, a handful of recent successes with romance-focused films (including 2016’s Me Before You) could really translate into a renewed interest in rom-coms.
But my guess is that Hollywood won’t hop on the rom-com bandwagon the way it has for the recent horror boom, leaving the spoils to Netflix, which has … let’s say … lackadaisical quality control measures.
And that’s too bad. Some of the best films in history fall under the broad umbrella of “romantic comedy,” and the generic romantic subplots of today’s blockbusters give romance a bad rap in Hollywood. Who’s to blame for Hollywood’s reticence? Here are seven possible culprits, ranked from most to least likely.
1) The collapse of the mid-budget movie
The answer to most questions about the movies of the last decade — from “Why are most Hollywood movies so mediocre?” to “Why are there so many superhero movies?” to “What happened to the romantic comedy?” — is “Nobody is making mid-budget movies anymore.”
The “mid-budget movie” used to be Hollywood’s bread and butter. Each year, studios would make a couple of tentpole blockbusters (generally with huge budgets — in modern terms, over $100 million) and a couple of micro-budget movies (under $5 million in modern terms). But the majority of their movies would be aimed at an amorphous “adult” audience, star-driven, with budgets somewhere between $20 and $60 million (again, in modern terms). Think of ’90s movies like Jerry Maguire or Liar Liar or even Speed.
In the 21st century, the audience for the mid-budget movie has steadily eroded. As movie tickets have gotten more expensive and theater-going experiences more painful, that amorphous “adult” audience increasingly stays home to watch stuff on DVD or streaming or plain old TV.
Meanwhile, when the DVD market collapsed after the 2008 recession, studios were forced to make up more of their films’ budgets overseas — and few movie genres export more poorly than comedies, which are usually based on shared cultural assumptions of the country they’re produced in. (Watch the excellent German comedy Toni Erdmann, for instance, for a good example of a foreign comedy whose nuances won’t necessarily land for Americans.)
As studios devote more and more of their budgets to the spectacle-laden blockbusters that perform best overseas and the microbudgeted movies that essentially can’t lose no matter how much (or little) money they make, the mid-budget world has dried up — and that’s exactly where the romantic comedy lived. Indeed, you’ll notice the handful of rom-coms that come out each year tend to cater to the specific demographics who are still targeted at the mid-budget level, most notably black audiences.
2) The rise of the YA adaptation
For better or worse, the romantic comedy came to be seen as a genre for women. On the one hand, it was a way for big stars like Julia Roberts to build their reputations and move into other genres once they had developed big enough fan bases. On the other hand, it was always a bit demeaning as a way to refer to a genre with its roots in the very earliest films (including one called simply The Kiss). Anybody can fall in love; the assumption that these stories were “for” women was just a way for too many people in Hollywood to write off romance as a story motivation.
But you also can’t escape that assumption when talking about Hollywood’s treatment of the romantic comedy. Right around the time the rom-com was collapsing (the late 2000s), a new genre, primarily aimed at young women, was coming into vogue: the YA novel adaptation. (Think Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, etc.) These stories often centered on female protagonists and romance, but they also (usually) featured big, genre elements that turned them into blockbusters.
Why not commit to both rom-coms and YA adaptations? That’s a good question we’ll get into in the very next bullet point. But if you’re a studio executive weighing two female-fronted projects, one a rom-com and one a big YA adaptation, you’ve been more likely to skew toward the latter in recent years, thanks to the collapse of mid-budget films in general. But maybe the success of Netflix’s The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys, which are both YA adaptations, will lead to more experiments with this particular genre crossover.
3) Hollywood’s general antipathy toward stories about women
Hollywood has always, always, always cordoned off movies that star women, or that are aimed at female audiences, within their own genre, and for no real reason. A romantic melodrama starring a man could go on to win Best Picture and become one of the best-known films of all time. But for a long time, any romantic melodrama starring a woman was often shunted off as a “women’s picture.”
However, in the first several decades of Hollywood’s existence, there was at least a genuine attempt to build up the “women’s picture” as its own viable economy within the larger studio ecosystem. That genre produced its own stars, its own writers and directors, even its own franchises. And as it morphed more and more into the “romantic comedy” genre in the ’90s, it continued to produce its own stars (notably Roberts and Meg Ryan).
But Hollywood has never entirely lost the sense that the audience it “should” be attracting is primarily male, and films starring men (and their actors) are usually afforded more patience than films starring women. (Just look at how many major flops Ryan Reynolds was in before Deadpool!)
Sure, plenty of moviegoers are male, but it’s not like men are the only people going to the movies. Hollywood’s historic antipathy toward films about women ultimately made it easier to turn off the rom-com faucet.
And this is to say nothing of Hollywood’s struggles to tell stories offering ample representation for non-white viewers. For as good as she is on TV’s Fresh Off the Boat, Crazy Rich Asians’ lead Constance Wu has always been a movie star waiting to happen. That it took this long is a little mind-boggling, and further evidence of how Hollywood’s historic biases have hurt women of color in particular.
4) Young actresses’ reticence to do rom-coms
Writing at Vulture, Kyle Buchanan made this point beautifully. He wrote:
Our new class of A-list actresses has shown little interest in doing that kind of movie. Jennifer Lawrence is better known for her franchise films and dramatic work than for making like Meg Ryan. Years ago in Crazy, Stupid, Love, Emma Stone sparkled like a classic rom-com heroine, but now she’d rather work with auteurs than make the next Bridget Jones. And can you even imagine Kristen Stewart in a light-and-fluffy high-heels vehicle? Their cold shoulder is contagious: New recruits to the lady A-list, like Margot Robbie, Brie Larson, and Shailene Woodley, have no romantic comedies on their docket. For years, this was a genre that would mint superstars, and now young women are content to bypass it entirely.
Buchanan goes on to point out that these young women are much more interested in pursuing interesting work with bold young directors, which is great. The more female-driven films, the better. But anybody who’s seen La La Land knows Stone could have easily become the next rom-com superstar with the right script, director, and costar. She just doesn’t want to. And explaining why requires moving on to the next point.
5) Katherine Heigl
It’s a bit unfair to blame Katherine Heigl entirely for the collapse of the romantic comedy, especially when she starred in a bunch that made money (notably the genuinely terrible 27 Dresses). After all, when she was making her rom-com hits, Hollywood was also cranking out rom-coms from the likes of Adam Sandler and Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s not all on Heigl’s shoulders.
But it remains a fact that Heigl was the leading rom-com star there for a while, and for whatever reason, every movie she made after breaking out in 2007’s (very good) Knocked Up was awful. Maybe Hollywood just forgot how to write and produce rom-coms (entirely possible!). Maybe she just didn’t know how to choose good scripts (also possible). Maybe some of it has to do with Heigl’s prickly reputation within Hollywood (definitely possible). But the fact remains that when Heigl was the leading star of the genre, starring in a rom-com quickly became (to borrow Buchanan’s term) “disreputable.”
Now even Katherine Heigl doesn’t show much interest in the genre, having largely returned to television. Her most recent swing was the indie rom-com Jenny’s Wedding, in which she and Alexis Bledel got married. It — sigh — wasn’t very good.
6) The lack of strong parts for dudes
After spending so much time on Hollywood’s systemic barriers and how they essentially prevent movies targeted at women from being made, I’m going to talk about men, because that’s what really matters.
I kid, of course, but there’s also something to the idea that the best rom-coms, the ones that broke out, featured great parts for both main lovers. In Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts didn’t become a star on her own; Richard Gere was there for her to play off of. The same goes for Meg Ryan with both Billy Crystal (in When Harry Met Sally…) and Tom Hanks (in Sleepless in Seattle). Indeed, the two movies that invented the modern rom-com — Annie Hall and the aforementioned When Harry Met Sally… — are star vehicles for guys.
And if you look back at the handful of rom-coms that have been most successful in the 21st century, they’re almost all films led by women but with strong supporting parts for men. The best romantic movies invite you to imagine falling in love with whichever star you’re most attracted to — and that means two great parts, not just one.
7) Rachel McAdams and Anne Hathaway
This is one of my favorite Hollywood counterfactuals: What if, in the summer of 2005, when she was red hot off the twin releases of Wedding Crashers and Red Eye, Rachel McAdams had chosen to step into the rom-com void left by Julia Roberts’s gradual pullback from working regularly, instead of taking a couple of years off? She was already primed to do so, after films like Mean Girls (comedy) and The Notebook (romance). Hollywood clearly wanted her to do so. But she stepped away, and the chief beneficiary was Heigl.
And yet it didn’t have to be Heigl. The original star cast in Knocked Up was Anne Hathaway, fresh off her success in 2006’s Devil Wears Prada. But she balked at the thought of the film containing a shot of a live birth, fearing audiences would think they were seeing her actual naked crotch.
Hathaway is both a looser and goofier screen presence than Heigl, and she would have had greater star power to demand that her role be beefed up, both of which would have helped the movie’s lead female character feel less like a nag.
In a way, then, both McAdams and Hathaway are trailblazers for the likes of Stone and Lawrence — helping women see that they could have successful careers without starring in a bunch of rom-coms first. (Although anyone who saw McAdams in a nothing girlfriend part in superhero film Doctor Strange — or, similarly, showing off her considerable comedic chops in the recent Game Night — would be forgiven for mentally urging her to travel back in time to 2006, make a great rom-com, and become the megastar she should have been.)
The rom-com might have become disreputable, and young female stars of the past decade may have resented being pushed toward the genre. But I’d take a good rom-com over the generic romantic subplots in blockbusters any day. Bring back the rom-com, Hollywood. It’s not too late!