From Crazy Rich Asians to Netflix: The “Rebirth” of Romantic Comedies, pt. 2
Katherine E. Morrissey / San Francisco State University


Author's screenshot of the Romantic Comedy category on Netflix
Screenshot of the Romantic Comedy category on Netflix

Author’s Note: This column is the second in a three part series about the supposed death and rebirth of romantic comedy film. In this series, I am tracing the romantic comedy’s shift from medium-budget Hollywood staple into a digital streaming genre.

In 2018, the media conversation about romantic comedies shifted. That summer, one Thrillist headline declared, “The Rom-Com Returns: How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and Netflix Revived a Beloved Movie Genre” (Zuckerman). In August 2018, Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018) was number one at the domestic box office for three weeks (“Crazy Rich Asians”). An adaptation of a 2013 Kevin Kwan novel, the film grossed $174.5 million at the domestic box office (“Crazy Rich Asians”). That same week, Netflix released their To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018), an adaptation of a 2014 Jenny Han novel. While exact numbers on Netflix content are hard to come by, the company reports the film is “one of our most viewed original films ever with strong repeat viewing” (Netflix).

Both of these films feature Asian-American heroines, an important step away from the rom-com’s traditionally white protagonists. However, both films are clearly aligned with the more conservative neo-traditional approach I discussed in my previous column. More than anything else, these films intrigue me because of how and where they were successful. Crazy Rich Asians did well domestically but disappointed overseas. To All the Boys was a success on Netflix, not in movie theaters. Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys indicate two new distribution strategies rom-com creators are experimenting with: rom-com as global media franchise and rom-com as a digital streaming genre. These films remind us of the genre’s ongoing struggles: Efforts to decouple romance from its white heterosexual defaults and efforts to construct romantic comedy films which work as global products with long-term digital lives.

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians struggled overseas, earning $64 million at the international box office (“Crazy Rich Asians”). This is significant given the initial bidding war surrounding the project. In a Hollywood Reporter interview, book author Kevin Kwan explains the project was seen as an opportunity to reach the Chinese market (Sun and Ford). As the first book in a trilogy, the story also had potential as a larger franchise. However, when the film eventually made to China it did terribly there, earning only $1.6 million (“Crazy Rich Asians”). Numerous reasons have been cited for this: The film’s Chinese premiere was delayed until late November. There was a disconnect between the film’s pan-Asian cast and the story’s Singaporean characters. Finally, the film celebrated the “crazy rich” during a time when the Chinese economy was slowing (McGregor). These are just some of the reasons why the film may not have done well in China. Ultimately, however, the film’s struggles overseas raises questions about the viability of romantic comedies in Hollywood given the current focus on film franchises that promise international box office success.


Still from Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)
Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)

Don’t get me wrong, Crazy Rich Asians did important work in the North American market, disproving the tired industry claim that a film with a predominantly Asian cast won’t sell. However, Crazy Rich Asians was a test, it was an experiment in selling a rom-com across a range of global markets. In that sense, the experiment failed.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Netflix reports To All the Boys was one of their “most viewed original films ever” (Netflix). A sequel, P.S. I Love You (Fimognari, 2020), will be released in February 2020 and a third film is anticipated (Takeuchi). Netflix launched To All the Boys as part of their “summer of love” campaign (Andrews; Feldman; Fern et al.; Grady). This set of roughly 11 different films included Set it Up (2018) directed by Claire Scanlon, Catching Feelings (2018), a South African romantic comedy written and directed by Kagiso Lediga, and the Chinese romantic drama Us and Them (2018) directed by Rene Liu. These films featured celebrities well-known to American audiences (for example, Taye Diggs and Lucy Lui in Set it Up), but also included less familiar international actors and directors. The overall mix of stories encompassed conventional romantic comedies, serious romantic dramas, and films like Like Father (Miller, 2018) which focus more on the relationship between a woman and her estranged father.

One of the most interesting features of To All the Boys is the larger range of Netflix content it’s a part of. Rather than relying on one individual film to draw viewers into theaters, Netflix relies on a database populated with many different films to attract many different subscribers from around the world. Since 2018, the number of romantic comedies on Netflix has continued to proliferate. However, when you consider the mix of titles included in summer of love or look at the mix of films included in Netflix’s romantic comedy category, it is clear that Netflix constructs and understands genre taxonomies differently than media scholars might. When the Netflix database loads its list of romantic comedies, international boundaries and time periods are ignored. Here, strict adherence to the “meet, lose, get” plotline is not required.


Still from To All The Boys I've Loved Before (Johnson, 2018)
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018)

One of genre’s traditional cultural functions has been to mediate cultural tensions. Popular genres air social grievances, then work to resolve these frictions and lead their characters towards compromise. Traditionally, this cultural conversation happened en masse as large audiences engaged with individual stories. Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys represent two ways contemporary media enters a broader cultural conversation. The Netflix version of romantic comedy, as a malleable category that can be personalized to mean many things to many people, is the version of romantic comedy that fits more cleanly within emerging media distribution and consumption patterns.

I’d love to point to the version of romance on Netflix and say, “Look! We’re diversifying romance!” However, it’s important to be careful here. To All the Boys represents another experiment with selling romantic comedy. It’s part of Netflix’s efforts to make its content feel personalized, to market itself in a range of different countries, and to offer the illusion of endless choice and variety. In actuality, Netflix has a limited set of products to offer its subscribers. Part of the genius of Netflix is the way the interface is designed to offer a seemingly infinite array of products while also appearing tailor-made for each individual customer.

Media industry demands for globally market-safe franchises signal long-term problems for the romantic comedy in movie theaters. However, the success of To All the Boys suggests an important move for romantic comedy, one away from movie theaters and onto smaller screens. In my next column, I will discuss another recent rebirth of romantic comedy: the rom-com film retold as a streaming series. Specifically, Hulu’s 2019 adaptation of Four Weddings and a Funeral (2019–).



Image Credits:

  1. The Romantic Comedy category on Netflix. (author’s screenshot)
  2. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)
  3. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018)


References:

Andrews, Jared. “What Netflix’s ‘Summer of Love’ Does Right.” Vox Magazine, 29 Aug. 2018, https://www.voxmagazine.com/arts/what-netflix-s-summer-of-love-does-right/article_b068be4a-aa26-11e8-9f14-f329abf8193a.html.

“Crazy Rich Asians.” Box Office Mojo, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/title/tt3104988/?ref_=bo_se_r_1. Accessed 25 Jan. 2020.

Feldman, Dana. “It’s The Summer Of Love: Netflix Releases 6 New Original RomComs.” Forbes, 20 June 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/danafeldman/2018/06/20/its-the-summer-of-love-netflix-releases-6-new-original-romcoms/.

Fern, Marriska, et al. “Netflix’s Summer of Love Movies to Binge-Watch.” Tribute.Ca, https://www.tribute.ca/news/netflixs-summer-of-love-movies-to-binge-watch/2018/07/12/. Accessed 5 July 2019.

Grady, Constance. “Netflix Bet on the Long-Ignored Romantic Comedy This Summer. It Paid Off.” Vox, 17 Oct. 2018, https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/10/17/17989242/netflix-rom-com-summer-to-all-the-boys-ive-loved-before-set-it-up.

McGregor, Tom. “Commentary: Why Crazy Rich Asians Was the Last Movie China Wanted to Watch.” CNA, 7 Dec. 2018, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/why-movie-crazy-rich-asians-flopped-in-china-dismal-showing-11004954.

Netflix. October 16, 2018 Shareholder Letter. https://s22.q4cdn.com/959853165/files/doc_financials/quarterly_reports/2018/q3/FINAL-Q3-18-Shareholder-Letter.pdf. Accessed 10 July 2019.

Sun, Rebecca, and Rebecca Ford. “The Stakes Are High for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ — And That’s the Point.” The Hollywood Reporter, 1 Aug. 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/crazy-rich-asians-how-asian-rom-happened-netflix-1130965.

Takeuchi, Craig. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 3 to Start Shooting in Vancouver in July.” The Georgia Straight, 24 June 2019, https://www.straight.com/movies/1258756/all-boys-ive-loved-3-start-shooting-vancouver-july.

Zuckerman, Esther. “The Rom-Com Returns: How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and Netflix Revived a Beloved Movie Genre.” Thrillist, 23 Aug. 2018, https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/rom-coms-return-netflix-romantic-comedies.




From Crazy Rich Asians to Netflix: The “Rebirth” of Romantic Comedies
Katherine E. Morrissey / San Francisco State University


Crazy Rich Asians (2018) Movie Poster
Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)

Author’s Note: This column is the first in a three part series about the supposed death and rebirth of the romantic comedy film. In this series, I will be tracing the romantic comedy’s shift from medium-budget Hollywood staple into a smaller-budget Netflix and digital streaming genre.

The romantic comedy is back! At least, that’s what many critics have declared, following the box-office success of Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018) and the media buzz around Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018). Apparently, the rom-com had been dead and is now reborn. The reality, however, is more complicated. The supposed death of the rom-com was less a death and more a morphing and rebranding. Since the 1990s, romantic and comedic story elements have been mobilized across a number of different films and categories that critics, industry, and audiences are reluctant to label romantic comedies.

Why this reluctance to notice the changing shape of romantic comedy? For industry, the issue remains, in part, a marketing issue. Calling something a rom-com comes with risks and threatens the product’s ability to attract mixed-gender audiences. For media scholars, the issue is twofold. First, we are still dealing with resistance to investigating (or enjoying) feminized and supposedly middlebrow popular media. Second, and perhaps more important, many scholars are trained to police the boundaries of genre taxonomies. As such, many look for the most normative examples of a genre and overlook the outliers. For the past 15 years, romantic comedy has been appearing in all sorts of places. However, these romantic comedies do not always fit the “neo-traditional” romantic comedy mold that dominated in Hollywood over the course of the 1980s and 1990s.

Recent shifts in the content and distribution patterns for romantic comedy can only be fully understood when we also consider two important factors: One, the rom-com’s historic role in shoring up white middleclass heterosexuals as the default for romance. Two, the technological, industrial, and economic changes that began unfolding in Hollywood over the course of the late-90s and continue to affect Hollywood production and distribution patterns today.

Where did it go? Distribution Patterns and Neo-Traditional Rom-Coms

Over the course of the 80s and 90s, romantic comedies were widely viewed as a reliable bet at the box office. This was due, in part, to their lower production costs. Romantic comedies didn’t earn as much as the major Hollywood blockbusters. However, as “medium budget” films, they also cost significantly less to produce and had solid domestic and international returns. Runaway Bride (Marshall, 1999), with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, cost $70 million and earned $309 million worldwide (“Runaway Bride (1999)”). Runaway Bride, Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993) and You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998) are examples of what Tamar Jeffers McDonald calls the “neo-traditional” romantic comedy (2007). These films overwhelmingly feature white, straight, cis-gender, and middle-class protagonists. They also emphasize “imprecise nostalgia,” tend to intertextually reference past romantic comedies and dramas, and deemphasize sex (McDonald 136).


You've Got Mail (Ephron, 1998), Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993), Runaway
Bride (Marshall, 1999)
You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998), Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993), Runaway
Bride
(Marshall, 1999)

These market-safe neo-traditional stories served as industry counterprogramming in the 1980s and 90s. These were “films that would appeal to that segment of the audience not usually attracted to the male-oriented ‘tentpole’ films” (Radner 117). Rom-coms in the late 20th century were a useful pallet cleanser, counterprogramming to entice audiences not explicitly hailed by the bigger blockbusters.

However, between 2000 and 2009, there were significant economic shifts in Hollywood and the ownership of major studios.[ (( For more see “New Hollywood, New Millennium” by Thomas Schatz (2009) and Hollywood in the New Millennium by Tino Balio (2013). ))] More emphasis was placed on large-scale media franchises spread out across the various production/entertainment arms of media conglomerates. This left much less room in studio budgets for stand-alone medium-budget “chick flicks.” The films that survived were crafted to appeal to more mixed-gender audiences. For example, a cycle of more bro-friendly, raunchy, kinda romantic-comedy films followed the success of the Farrelly Brother’s There’s Something About Mary (1998). Examples of this cycle include The 40-Year- Old Virgin (Apatow, 2005) and Knocked Up (Apatow, 2007). These films reflect an effort at rebranding and eschewing the “chick-flick” label more than they do a radical departure in rom-com content.

The “Other” Rom-Coms

A quieter and more significant morphing in the rom-com genre began in the 1980s and 90s. During this period, the romantic comedy was being “remodeled for (and appropriated by) niche audiences defined by ethnicity, sexual orientation or age” (Krutnik 130). Frank Krutnik tracks a series of innovations in the genre, including an increasing number of romantic comedy films focused on African-American characters and same-sex relationships (2002). Many of the films Krutnik identifies were not marketed as romantic comedies. Instead, they tended to be positioned as African-American, Black or urban comedies. Or, they might be labeled queer, art, or independent cinema. (For example, Booty Call [Pollack, 1997] or The Best Man [Lee, 1999] and The Wedding Banquet [Lee, 1993] or Better Than Chocolate [Wheeler, 1999].) Were these films romantic comedies? I say yes. Would everyone in the audience or industry want to call these films rom-coms? I doubt it.


The Wedding Banquet (Lee, 1993), Better Than Chocolate (Wheeler, 1999), Think Like a Man (Story, 2012)
The Wedding Banquet (Lee, 1993), Better Than Chocolate (Wheeler, 1999), Think Like a Man (Story, 2012)

In 2013, Tatiana Siegel at The Hollywood Reporter declared that the rom-com was, essentially, dead. And, in terms of the neo-traditional rom-coms that  audiences became accustomed to in the late 20th century, that certainly seems to have been true. However, just because one dominant type of romantic comedy faded from view, that doesn’t mean romantic comedy film actually died. In 2014, Vanity Fair reporter Kate Erbland issued a correction. The rom-com was not dead, it just was “no longer the playground of big studios.” Erbland points out two things: 1) the genre was alive and well in the indie film market and 2) when major studios did make rom-coms they were typically “aimed at black audiences.” Think Like a Man (Story, 2012) and About Last Night (Pink, 2014) are two examples of successful romantic comedies featuring predominantly black casts from the 2010s.

These titles are just a few examples of a less recognized but important strain of romantic comedy films that has been steadily remodeling the romantic comedy format since the 1990s. Romantic comedy films were made in the 2000s and 2010s, but they weren’t always fitting into the neo-traditional rom-com mold. Industry, critics, scholars, and audiences seem to struggle with explicitly labelling these films romantic comedy. I suspect this reluctance to label has a lot to do with what we expect the people in a romantic comedy to look like and the audiences we assume a rom-com will cater to.

In my next column, I’ll talk about two films that have been hailed as marking the “rebirth” of romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. I’ll focus on why these two films were hailed as the return of the rom-com and use these films to trace an ongoing transition in the rom-com’s form and in its distribution patterns.



Image Credits:

  1. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)
  2. You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998), Sleepless in Seattle (Ephron, 1993), Runaway Bride (Marshall, 1999)
  3. The Wedding Banquet (Lee, 1993), Better Than Chocolate (Wheeler, 1999), Think Like a Man (Story, 2012)


References:

Balio, Tino. Hollywood in the New Millennium. 2013 edition, British Film Institute, 2013.

Krutnik, Frank. “Conforming Passions?: Contemporary Romantic Comedy.” Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, edited by Steve Neale, British Film Institute, 2002, pp. 130–47.

McDonald, Tamar Jeffers. Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre. Wallflower, 2007.

Radner, Hilary. Neo-Feminist Cinema: Girly Films, Chick Flicks, and Consumer Culture. Routledge, 2011.

“Runaway Bride (1999).” Box Office Mojo, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=runawaybride.htm. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.

Schatz, Thomas. “New Hollywood, New Millenium.” Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies, Routledge, 2009, pp. 19–46.




Stop Teaching Software, Start Teaching Software Literacy
Katherine Morrissey / Rochester Institute of Technology

computer lab

I’ve officially stopped teaching software. I’m done. No more software driven lessons. No more step-by-step tutorials. No more hovering over my students in a lab. Here’s why you should stop too.

There are many different kinds of digital projects out there: essays rendered as websites, class wikis and blogs, digital art, remix videos, imagined iPhone apps, the list goes on and on. I will use a video essay project as my primary example. [ (( For further information on the video essay assignment, see: “The Video Essay Assignment, Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Vol. 1(2)”; the Center for Digital Storytelling; and The Audiovisual Essay ))]

video essay assignments

Video Essay Assignments: Information and Resources.

One: You thought you knew iMovie, but a new version came out last week.
Every piece of software your students need is being overhauled on an annual basis. Some of that software works on a Mac, some of it on a PC. (I have no idea what works on Linux, but that’s important too.) If you reserve a campus computer lab—assuming you’re lucky enough to have access to one—it could be a Mac lab with the latest version of iMovie. Or, it may only offer Adobe Premiere circa 2010. If it’s a PC lab, maybe Movie Maker is installed. Or (more likely), you’ll need to make arrangements with the lab to install it for your class. (This will result in all the students who don’t use Windows looking horrified and feeling deeply confused. But, of course, all the Windows users will have the same experience if you choose the Mac lab.) Then, what about the time students need to spend working on projects outside of class? What good will a lab-session do them when they sit down in front of the technology they use every day?

Amidst all the software choices and limitations, will instructing students in one particular piece of software really help them complete their work and prepare for future digital assignments? I’m not convinced it can. Yes, you might require a cloud-based tool like WeVideo (cheap, browser-based, good for beginners, $0-14 monthly) or Adobe Premiere CC (steeper learning curve, more features, $19 – $49 monthly). However, there are numerous reasons why one of these programs will work for some of your students and another will not. (And, are you really okay with locking your students into a subscription service? Adobe Creative Cloud subscriptions can cost $239 – $499 annually.)

Two: Some of your students know more about video editing than you do. (And some of them don’t know anything at all.)
Here are some of the video editing programs my students used last semester: MovieMaker, iMovie, Adobe Premiere, Open Broadcast Software, AfterEffects, Sony Vegas, Open Shot Video Editor, Final Cut Pro, and WeVideo. Some students were using software for the first time; many of the students were not. Some students want free software that is easy to learn. Others will already have Adobe Creative Cloud subscriptions. Some of your students only own tablets. The point is, individual students have their own technology needs and preferences.

And why shouldn’t they? Why should we shepherd our students into computer labs each semester and push them to learn software simply because it happens to be a) the one we have access to in a particular lab, or, b) the one program we know how to use. Our students come to our classrooms with a wide array of skill sets and skill gaps. Rather than constraining their efforts by teaching one program, it is far more important to teach them essential skills: The basic techniques that they will use again and again, regardless of whatever piece of software they are using at the moment. By teaching key project components and helping student work with software on their own, we model essential media literacy skills: Adaptability, flexibility, and comfort with the unfamiliar.

Our class time is precious. We cannot spend this time telling students which buttons to click and when. Instead, we need to teach students to feel confident approaching new programs and comfortable learning as they go. Over the course of their adult lives, our students will need to adapt to an endless array of upgrades, version changes, and technology setups. These are the new norms for today’s digital practitioners.

Three: Sometimes you still need to teach software.
In recommending that we spend less time teaching software, I am not advocating that everyone immediately stop teaching software. There are numerous courses and degree programs where students need extensive exposure to the specific software, programming languages, and procedures favored by a particular professional field. You will also have students who need intensive help with the software they’ve chosen for a project. These students are not best served by going through the steps en masse. In the process of creating a digital project, many individual glitches and errors can occur. These circumstances nearly always require individualized troubleshooting. You will be your students’ main contact when issues arise. Be ready to meet with students, sit with them next to their computers, and to try different things. Be aware of your limits and know when you need to ask for help from your school Help Desk or Tech Support.

when things break

Advice for When Things Break.

Instead of asking you to give up teaching software, I challenge you to consider why, in your particular class context, you are teaching a specific type of software. If you are teaching software simply because it’s the one you know best or the one the lab happens to have installed, this may not be the best use of your class time. More importantly, you might be doing students a disservice. Think about the time you can repurpose if you shift away from guiding students step by step through a program. Think about the time you are creating for peer feedback and project revisions.

Four: Digital projects are a lesson in time management.

We are all familiar with the process of writing an essay. The steps are so routine we often don’t consider the effort it takes to move from idea to final draft. Digital projects are new and unfamiliar. The steps they require vary from class to class and from one assignment to another. To develop effective pedagogies, and to help students produce strong projects, we need to focus on process.

I am still figuring out the most effective ways to teach media literacy skills rather than software. Over time, however, three core elements are emerging in my own pedagogy: 1) Scaffolding: Isolating the steps/skills needed and taking them one at a time. 2) Normalization and Collaboration: Making students aware of common struggles and alternative approaches. 3) Project planning and work time: Asking students to produce timelines, identify obstacles, and set aside time to work and get help.

Digital projects can be broken down into a series of essential steps and necessary skills. When my students make a video essay they need to know: how to make a screencap; how to make a video/audio clip; how to import images, video, and sound into an editing program; how to work with an editor’s timeline and access various features/tools. These steps can be broken down into individual assignments, all of them building up to the project deadline. Once students learn the essentials, begin complicating their assignments. Students can teach themselves as they go, building up their skills and preparing for the final project.

sample timeline

Sample Timeline.

Students cannot do this work alone. Adapting to new software requires we be comfortable asking for help. Teaching students that their struggles are normal, how to get help, and how to find useful resources, are essential components for developing their media literacy skills.

Each semester, with my students’ assistance, I add to and refine a set of project primers. The primers are kept online and available to students 24/7. Each step or mini-assignment my students take on comes with a list of tips, software options, and general resources. Based on the software students choose, they are placed in small working groups. Working groups allow students to co-learn, assisting each other as they go. After each assignment we discuss what went wrong and what steps students took to address problems. I want my students to learn that importing and conversion errors aren’t a sign that they are failing, but are, instead, are normal part of the process.

project primers

Primers for each project are available to students online.

Finally, students need help with time management and they need time to work. Digital projects are not papers. It is nearly impossible to accomplish them by drinking a lot of coffee and pulling an all-nighter. Students need time to gather materials, deal with errors, and refine their analysis. They also need time to focus and work. The problem is, class time in a computer lab will not be useful to every student. Instead of packing into a single lab together, I schedule working days. Some students bring laptops and work together in the classroom, some groups go to a computer lab that’s been reserved, others work from home. No one gets credit unless they check in and provide a daily to-do list when class starts. When class finishes, they check out by reporting what they’ve done, listing anything they are having problems with, and how they plan to get help. Work days are also effective for the many times when I do not have access to a lab. There are many different ways for work to happen, the important thing is that everyone is working somewhere.

Every situation is different. These steps are will not be effective for every teacher and teaching context. However, there is much to be gained by struggling through as a group, asking for help when needed, and witnessing other people’s work practices. I encourage other teachers to take the risk. Leave your software comfort zones! By working with your students there is much to learn about software, digital genres, and pedagogy. The only way to do this is to cultivate an environment where the students are teaching themselves as much as you are teaching them.

Image Credits:
1. Computer Lab.
2. Video Essay Assignment (author’s image)
3. When Things Break (author’s image)
4. Sample Timeline (author’s image)
5. Project primers (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.