With 'To All The Boys', 'Set It Up', & More, Netflix Has Brought Back The Rom-Com — And Here's How
This summer was dubbed the Summer of Love by Netflix, and for good reason. Over the course of the season, the streaming service premiered a half a dozen original romantic comedies, from a YA film about a teen lusting after a forbidden partner to a workplace story about assistants plotting to set up their demanding bosses. All of these movies captured the attention of viewers and critics, making it clearer than ever that Netflix has brought back the rom-com — and here's exactly how the platform is doing it.
The Summer of Love kicked off on May 11, with the release of The Kissing Booth. It's unknown exactly how many people have actually pressed play on the teen movie, as Netflix doesn't release viewer counts. However, during a May appearance at the Paley Center for Media, Netflix programming chief Ted Sarandos called the film "one of the most watched movies in the world right now", according to Deadline, and on June 15, the streaming service released a statement to reporters that one in three viewers of The Kissing Booth had already watched it twice.
The Kissing Booth's success wasn't an anomaly, though. Following that film's release, Netflix debuted several original rom-coms like Ibiza (May 25), Alex Strangelove (June 8), Set It Up (June 15), and To All the Boys I've Loved Before (Aug. 17), and the last one of the season, Sierra Burgess is a Loser, hits Netflix on Sept. 7. Some of these films have enjoyed more success than others — The Kissing Booth, Set It Up, and To All The Boys have been pop culture phenomenons, while the others haven't had as huge of impacts — but the general consensus remains. Netflix is reviving the rom-com, single-handedly doing what no Hollywood studio has done in the past decade. And to find out how Bustle spoke with the filmmakers behind Alex Strangelove, Set It Up, To All The Boys, and Sierra Burgess. It all starts with:
The Meet Cute
Netflix may have released these rom-coms, but it didn't produce all of them. To All The Boys, for example, was purchased by Netflix after it was made, but other movies like Set It Up were brought to Netflix while still in development. "The project was originally set up at MGM," Set It Up producer Juliet Berman explains to Bustle over the phone. But when plans fell through, the producers brought it to Netflix with director Claire Scanlon and star Glen Powell already attached because, as Berman says, "I had heard they [Netflix] were looking for romantic comedies. ... we brought the project to Netflix, and they immediately jumped on it."
Matt Brodlie, Director of Original Film at Netflix, confirmed as much in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter shortly after Set It Up's release. "It was a great opportunity for us to jump into a place where people weren't doing too much. If you talk to any agent in town over the last two years, we've been banging our drums saying, 'Send us your rom-coms!'"
As for why Netflix was specifically looking for romantic comedies, the reason is in the algorithm. In a June press release shared with Bustle, Netflix stated that, in the past year, over 80 million accounts specifically watched love stories on the streaming service. And that kind of demand does not go unnoticed. As Brodlie told THR, "We are aware of what people are watching and how much they watch it and we notice that people are watching a lot of rom-coms."
That said, reviving an entire genre of film doesn't mean just seeing a void and filling it with different versions of the same movie. Yes, The Kissing Booth was a huge success among viewers, but it earned just a 13 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Granted, only eight reviews were counted, but this reflects a greater problem, one that may have contributed to the demise of the rom-com in the first place: critics and "serious" moviegoers have gotten used to dismissing the genre. Therefore, to actually bring back rom-coms, it's not enough to release one after the other. At least some of these rom-coms actually have to be good. Which brings us to:
When movies like When Harry Met Sally and You've Got Mail set the rom-com standard in '90s, the formula was clear: boy and girl meet cute (aka they meet in some sweet, quirky way), awkward dates and comedic situations follow, there's some misunderstanding threatens the relationship, there's a big romantic gesture, and finally, boy and girl live happily ever after.
But looking at Sierra Burgess, Set It Up, Alex Strangelove, and To All The Boys, it's clear that the movies Netflix has chosen to release aren't interested in following the same old rom-com tropes. In other words, Netflix isn't reviving the genre by attempting to recreate the rom-coms of decades past — instead, it's taking the old formula of the '80s and '90s and giving it a modern update, thus making the movies more interesting for young viewers and more impressive to critics, all at once. And the results are there: most of Netflix's original rom-coms have received high ratings on Rotten Tomatoes; Set It Up's stellar score of 89 percent on Rotten Tomatoes is beat only by To All The Boys' 95 percent rating. Both films were also trending on social media the weekends of their releases, and continue to inspire plenty of online content, from thinkpieces to quizzes to fan fiction.
In the old rom-com structure, there were character stereotypes, like the good girl and the bad boy (i.e. Claire and John in The Breakfast Club). This new generation of rom-coms from Netflix, however, actively works against these cliches. "Certainly all rom-coms follow a certain formula and I wanted to acknowledge them while also moving beyond them," says Sierra Burgess is a Loser screenwriter Lindsey Beer over the phone. In Sierra Burgess the "mean girl," Veronica (Kristine Froseth) is actually a compelling, sweet character who befriends Sierra; the filmmakers successfully took a stereotype, embraced it, and then turned it on its head. "I really did not want to vilify the mean girl and make her seem like a vapid, non-human," Beers says. "Obviously, the friendship-love story between the two girls is, to me, maybe the more primary romance than Sierra and Jamey."
Set It Up takes a similar approach when introducing main characters Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell). Instead of an uptight woman meeting a man who encourages her to let loose, it's Charlie who is more reserved and Harper who is more of a risk taker. In addition to this gender role swap likely winning over fans, director Scanlon thinks that part of the reason the movie worked so well is because the characters' main drive isn't to find love (something directly opposite to Sleepless in Seattle, for example). "The stakes aren’t 'I will feel insecure if I don’t get married,'" she tells Bustle via phone. "And that’s not the thesis of the film." Berman agrees, telling Bustle, "I think that’s important today, not having... female characters who are so focused on the fact that they’re single rather than being fully developed human beings."
Women in this new wave of rom-coms are not measuring their worth solely based on the love of men. Nor are they getting makeovers to appeal to the opposite sex. It's notable, for example, that in Sierra Burgess is a Loser, body image is central to the plot, but Sierra doesn't undergo a huge physical transformation to catch the eye of the jock she's crushing on. Yes, she plucks her eyebrows a little, but that's about it. "I didn’t want a makeover there, I wanted her to look like herself and look like a normal girl," Beer explains.
Aside from mixing up gender roles and more sexist tropes, this new wave of Netflix rom-coms are also differentiating themselves by using the genre's structure to explore more diverse love stories. Gone are the rom-coms of the '90s and early 2000s where the story revolved around two gorgeous white people making up a dream heterosexual couple. Both Set It Up and To All The Boys I've Loved Before prominently feature interracial relationships, and the love story at the center of Alex Strangelove is between two young men. "Often in a romantic comedy the protagonist is with the wrong person. That’s the whole thing. The girl has married the wrong guy, and this is the guy she should be with, you know?" Craig Johnson, writer-director of Alex Strangelove, tells Bustle via phone. "In our case, Alex is with the right person, it’s just the wrong gender, and that becomes the conflict.”
It is this willingness to think outside the box that has helped Netflix revive the rom-com genre. It's not enough to bring back movies of the past; fans want to see more diverse representation on screen, and that means updating the wheel by doing things like centering a same-sex romance or casting an Asian female lead. "The ethnicities of the leads in this movie was super important to me," To All The Boys director Susan Johnson tells Bustle. "And I feel like it’s sort of part of a new wave of romantic comedies that are going to be more inclusive and more diverse, so I’m excited to see how the genre changes, and hopefully be part of that change." And one of those changes includes:
The Heartthrob Stars
Or: the lack thereof. Prior to taking his film to Netflix, Craig Johnson had been trying to get Alex Strangelove made for 10 years, but almost every studio passed on the project. "The excuse that I got was that it’s all kids, and we can’t justify financing it because there’s no roles for movie stars," the director says over the phone. And, though he suspects that this may have sometimes been a smokescreen for studios who were really just hesitant to commit to telling a same-sex love story, Johnson does admit that there was some truth to their concerns.
After all, in the 2000s, rom-coms existed mainly as star vehicles. Movies like The Wedding Planner (2001), How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days (2003), Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), and The Proposal (2009) were all made with big name actors attached in at least one of two starring roles. According to Johnson and other filmmakers who spoke to Bustle, studios today just aren't interested in financing rom-coms that don't have huge stars already attached. "It used to be when you had a romantic comedy you would get two famous people and put them in a movie together, whether or not they had chemistry," Scanlon says. "Now we had two people who had great chemistry but nobody knows them."
Scanlon notes that Netflix is now one of the only studios willing to give filmmakers this freedom, because they have such a large amount of films and TV shows that one movie's potential failure doesn't spell disaster. And so while trading in big names for better chemistry (and, thus, a better film) might be impossible at a major Hollywood studio, at Netflix, it's totally feasible. "They told me, ‘If you can make it under this certain budget, then cast whoever you want and we won’t interfere.’ And they were true to their word," Johnson recalls.
Furthermore, casting relative unknowns as rom-com leads has meant that Netflix has launched a handful of young actors into stardom. For example, the LA Times reported that The Kissing Booth's Jacob Elordi's Instagram following grew from 15,000 followers to 4.3 million in a little over one month after his film's release. Noah Centineo and Lana Condor of To All The Boys have enjoyed similar experiences. (Centineo's Instagram followers count is now up to 6.2 million, while Condor's is sitting pretty at 2.9 million and counting, at the time of this writing.)
The casting freedom given to filmmakers by Netflix also allows for more representation on-screen. Scanlon, for instance, believes the diverse casting in Set It Up (Taye Diggs and Lucy Liu co-star) helped the film do well overseas. As she puts simply: People want to see themselves on screen."
But the stars of the movie aren't the only important part of the puzzle. Of course, there's the matter of:
The Pitch-Perfect Timing
Sure, Netflix has been welcoming to rom-coms at a time when Hollywood studios with traditional theatrical releases aren't, and its streaming model allows it to give more freedom to filmmakers regarding casting and plot, but those things still don't explain why these rom-coms have become such cultural phenomenons this summer.
"I think now in our media consumption, we don’t just want irony, or like really dark, sort of realistic tales, or true crime," To All The Boys scribe Sofia Alvarez tells Bustle over the phone. "I think it’s also nice now to say, ‘OK, I’ve had a bad day. Or, the news is really depressing, or work is really hard, I want to see a 16 year old fall in love for the first time.” Sierra Burgess' Beer agrees, saying, "I think we are in darker times. I think that people have been looking for more light-hearted fair that makes you feel good."
Hopefully, going forward, life won't have to be so volatile for rom-coms to experience such huge success. And, going forward, the filmmakers behind Netflix's hit rom-coms will also have some advice for future creators: be different, and hire different. To explain:
If the rom-com wants to survive as a genre, it has to evolve. And if major Hollywood studios want to compete with Netflix in this field, they are going to have to follow its business model, which means not just hiring straight, white men to make their films. In addition to increasing representation on-screen, many Netflix rom-coms have also mixed things up behind the camera. Set It Up, To All The Boys, and Sierra Burgess were all written by women, and two (Set It Up and To All The Boys) were also directed by women. Alex Strangelove was written and directed by an openly gay man, who drew on his own experiences to write the script. This diversity of perspective has been crucial to the success of these films, inviting a brand new demographic of audiences to relate to their stories.
"Netflix gives an opportunity for so many different voices, and that is really refreshing," says Craig Johnson. "And I think people are talking about it because we’re not seeing it in the movies that are coming out by the studios as much anymore.” Susan Johnson agrees, telling Bustle, “I think it [the rom-com genre] has to tell different people’s stories. And I think in that respect, it is all about different creators bringing in their own different experiences. So that we’re not just seeing the same movie over and over again."
Granted, many fans of these new Netflix rom-coms will be watching their new favorite movies over and over again, but, it's safe to assume that Johnson and her fellow filmmakers are perfectly OK with that.