Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Clockwise from top: Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, Set It Up, To All The Boys I've Loved Before, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society

Why did millions of Netflix subscribers watch rom-coms this summer?

Clockwise from top: Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, Set It Up, To All The Boys I've Loved Before, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society
Photo: Netflix, Graphic: Natalie Peeples

This piece was originally published October 18, 2018 and is part of The A.V. Club’s favorite features of 2018

Romantic comedies were once the realm of homogenous blockbusters: You’d have a stacked deck of Sandra Bullocks, Reese Witherspoons, Julia Robertses, and Jennifer Garners on one side, and some Hugh Grants, Mark Ruffalos, Matthew McConaugheys, and Vince Vaughns on the other. Shuffle and deal. The star quality—specifically the star chemistry—was the big draw, even while there were often as many misses (Witherspoon and Vaughn in Four Christmases) as hits (Roberts and Grant in Notting Hill). And they were almost uniformly straight and white.

As Caroline Siede noted in her A.V. Club column When Romance Met Comedy, the traditional rom-com took a downturn with 2003’s How To Lose Guy In 10 Days, when even the combined star power of McConaughey and Kate Hudson couldn’t overcome the film’s outlandish plot acrobatics. Katherine Heigl came along a few years later to pound a heart-shaped nail into the coffin with unpleasant flops like The Ugly Truth.

But in recent months, rom-com lovers cast adrift at the movie theater have found solace in a slightly surprising home: Netflix. In June, the streaming service launched its self-proclaimed “Summer Of Love,” a run of nine original features that trod on what was once the near-exclusive territory of the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime. Unlike those cable channel’s shiny but fairly rote setups (workaholic exec moves from the big city back to her hometown, where she rekindles a lost love!), Netflix’s films have offered more inspired takes on the traditional rom-com. As a result, anyone who had left the house to see Crazy Rich Asians could continue to feed their love of fictional love at home with the witty workplace antics of Set It Up or the John Hughes Lite landscape of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.

And apparently, a multitude of viewers did just that. An earnings report released this week states that more than 80 million Netflix subscribers from around the world have watched a Summer Of Love title. How many subscribers watched which movies? Did any of those subscribers watch more than one? Does that “more than 80 million” figure (out of a reported 118 million subscribers) factor in multiple users accessing the same account? The streaming service is being characteristically taciturn. (Asked for clarification, a Netflix representative said, “Sorry. We won’t be able to provide anything further.”) Whatever the true count, it’s leading to follow-ups: Variety reports that “the next set of original rom-coms” is already in production.

Matt Brodlie, director of acquisitions for Netflix, explains the programming surge: “We noticed that people have watched a lot and enjoyed a lot of romances and rom-coms over the years, and we just noticed also that people were not making them, that they were not in the multiplex.” With rom-com scripts “laying around Hollywood,” Brodlie said, “we thought that it would be a good idea to jump into that world.” And so Alex Strangelove, The Kissing Booth, When We First Met, Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, and more arrived to give a sagging genre a shot to the heart.

The resurgence of rom-coms is not just a result of these movies being ignored by film studios in favor of superheroes, franchises, and sequels (or superhero franchise sequels). It also has to do with more women taking ownership of a genre that has long been viewed as primarily feminine and therefore not to be taken seriously. “Part of that stems from how we, as a society, look upon stories about women’s lives and stories that explore female pleasure and emotions,” said Mashable senior culture reporter Rachel Thompson, who earlier this month wrote how anti-rom-com bias stretches back to the 1930s. Thompson pointed out that Westerns are also formulaic, but don’t get slapped with an “insignificant” designation like the rom-com does. By applying that label, “We have also underestimated the process of creating such films. Romantic comedies might seem like they’re simple to make, but they take a lot of skill to craft. Which might be why we have so many bad ones.”

Thompson identifies #MeToo as additional fuel for the rom-com revival. “Because we’re witnessing a moment in history where women are challenging the way society views and values them, we’re also questioning the value placed on art and entertainment about women,” she says. “There is—and always has been—an appetite for stories about the lives of women. It just took until now for society to realize the worth of that.”

There’s also been a shift over the past decade to a medium more welcoming to romantic stories. “In recent years, the rom-com genre moved away from movies,” Thompson says. “Instead we witnessed a shift toward television with shows like The Mindy Project, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane The Virgin,” created by women like Mindy Kaling, Rachel Bloom, Aline Brosh McKenna, and Jennie Snyder Urman. Brosh McKenna—whose résumé includes screenplays for The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, and Morning Glory—told The Ringer last year, “The ideas dictate where I go… and movies right now—and this is not going to be news to you—they’re not really the home for original ideas, particularly about women, at the moment.”

In a long-running TV series, a romantic comedy has the freedom to play out over a number of seasons. But while those series thrived, Thompson says, “For rom-com lovers like myself, that hunger for a new rom-com movie—one that’s actually good—never really went away. There’s only so many times you can watch Notting Hill or My Best Friend’s Wedding.

Women filmmakers, many up-and-coming, have been happy to take advantage of the resulting opportunities. A quick perusal of the credits of the Netflix rom-coms reveals a number of women creators, some at the early stages of their film careers: Set It Up was the first movie directed by TV vet Claire Scanlon (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Office) and the first written by Katie Silberman, who already has a few more screenplays in development. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was only the second movie directed by Susan Johnson, and the first screenplay by Man Seeking Woman writer Sofia Alvarez, based on a series of YA novels by Jenny Han. Nappily Ever After was directed by Oscar nominee Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first woman filmmaker. Compared to The Wrap’s 2017 report that “of the 149 movies currently slated for a wide release from the six legacy studios over the next three years, only 12 have female directors,” there’s a considerable concentration of women from varied backgrounds calling the creative shots for these Netflix movies.

The Netflix rom-com palette unfurled with a series of movies that ranged from YA dreamboat showcases to cozy-location period pieces, starring appealing, if not yet known, actors. Set It Up, which kicked off the Summer Of Love on June 15, featured two such about-to-be-stars, only adding more established actors in supporting roles. The film’s leads, Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell, play executive assistants who meet on a dinner run for their respective bosses (Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs). They then fall for one another while working to fix up the people they work for.

“The main reason I liked Set It Up so much was because it just made me feel good,” says Washington Post TV reporter Bethonie Butler. “I—and a lot of other people I’ve talked to—felt the same way about To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.” Set It Up is practically G-rated, with some mild swearing. Like a throwback to the genre’s screwball period, the film relies on the chemistry of its leads to carry the movie, and they do it extremely well. As in those old black-and-whites, the film shows how staring longingly at someone’s lower lip can be hotter than any steamy bedroom scene.

“Well, a lot of it is just about the chemistry, right?” says Brodlie. “With Set It Up, Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch are so charming together. And they’re not newer people. They’ve been around, but they haven’t broken out in a big way. It’s been great to work with our publicity and marketing teams in helping them become these bigger stars.”

To that end, just as certain Hallmark favorites rotate into a variety of series and movies, Netflix has established its own stable of actors and creators. Powell is not only the surprisingly dishy romantic lead in Set It Up, but also the Ralph Bellamy-type nice-guy-who-doesn’t-get-the-girl in The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, which Netflix released in August. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and Sierra Burgess Is A Loser both feature the same male romantic lead, Netflix’s biggest rom-com breakout so far: Noah Centineo, as the stand-in-turned-eventual boyfriend in the former and the object of catfishing in the latter.

While it might seem like overlap, Brodlie notes that Netflix’s setup eliminates that kind of competition, since these films aren’t after the same box-office dollars. “It’s not like a theatrical release where you’re like, ‘Well, I just went to the movies last week. Am I going to go again right now?’ People are always in their house. So, it’s easy enough for these movies to actually be additive to each other, rather than competing with each other. Once you finish one, you’re like, ‘Oh, the other one just popped right up as a suggestion.’”

“It was great to see an Asian-American lead at the center of To All The Boys,Butler said of Netflix’s growing repertory company. “The male love interests also seem more sensitive—I think that’s a large part of Noah Centineo’s appeal.”

That appeal helped put To All The Boys at the top of the Summer Of Love class; while there are no figures to back the claim up, Netflix says the YA adaptation is one of its most-watched originals. The film centers on Lara Jean (Lana Condor), who enters into a fake relationship with a popular boy in order to make the real objects of their affection jealous (à la 1999’s Drive Me Crazy). Centineo and Candor have an undeniable, effervescent spark, but best of all is the emphasis placed on the main character. She’s an introverted bookworm who doesn’t undergo any transformative makeover to entrance every guy in her vicinity. She stands up to the school’s mean girl on her own, without having anyone else do it for her, and her Korean ancestry is treated with specificity, sensitivity, and subtlety.

Not all of these movies are worth bringing home to meet the folks. Many viewers took offense at Sierra Burgess Is A Loser’s main storyline: A Cyrano de Bergerac scenario in which hunky jock Jamey (Centineo) texts with the unpopular titular character (Riverdale and Stranger Things star Shannon Purser) under the mistaken impression that she’s cheerleader Veronica (Kristine Froseth). If the genders had been reversed, Sierra Burgess would have received even more backlash than it did for manipulating its love interest so callously. It was also criticized for its transphobic and homophobic jokes and the fact that Sierra gets away with her less-than-noble actions without much comeuppance. Which is a shame, since the movie does contain some worthwhile points about the difficulty of achieving body positivity in high school. (The casting of John Hughes alums Alan Ruck and Lea Thompson—the real-life mother of Set It Up star Deutch—as Sierra’s parents is a nice touch, too.)

Brodlie acknowledges that the film had some problems. “That was an instance where that was a film that we picked up when it was complete,” he says. “It rubbed some people the wrong way in some instances about some subject matters, and that’s something we need to pay attention to.”

Perhaps Sierra Burgess faults are more apparent because other Netflix rom-coms manage to avoid the clichés and stereotypes of their big-screen forebears. They offer more realistic, less fairy-tale endings. Our cute couple ends up together at the end of Set It Up, but both of their careers are still up in the air. At the end of The Kissing Booth—which is kind of like Pretty In Pink if Ducky and Blaine were brothers and lived in a California mansion—it’s unclear if the teen romance at its core will last.

The films also show a greater inclusivity in terms of who gets to have their story told as a romantic comedy. Alex Strangelove is a winning tale of a character who begins the film thinking he’s straight and ends with him coming out as gay, while Nappily Ever After is really a story about a black woman falling in love with herself, as her world shifts considerably when she stops processing her hair. All of these movies are feel-goods, but for the most part, they’re feel-goods done well, with themes, plots, and performers that haven’t already been done to death.

“With To All The Boys, we’re seeing for the first time in a long time a film that truly feels like a celebration of the genre,” Thompson said. “It’s a film that makes you feel good, that you can relate to, that elicits an emotional response. I think that’s a telltale sign of a good rom-com, but it’s also the reason we love this genre so much.” As Netflix itself (snidely) noted last winter about its Hallmark-esque production The Christmas Prince, many viewers gravitate toward these types of stories. As the service more recently pointed out, there’s a lot more of those viewers than you might think.