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.