While you were streaming: How Netflix reclaimed the rom-com
Katherine McLaughlin | On 23, May 2020
In 2017, Netflix released its first romantic comedy under its “Original” banner: A Christmas Prince followed a comforting Hallmark movie formula, with subsequent sequels, The Royal Baby and The Royal Wedding released yearly to make up an Aldovia-based trilogy. Since then, Netflix’s Christmas rom-com has become a staple of the festive period with High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens claiming the crown as the Princess of the sub-genre with treacly wintry treats including The Knight Before Christmas and The Princess Switch – which has a sequel coming at the end of 2020.
What started as a gentle launch into the genre has since evolved. 2018 marked a resurgence for the romantic comedy and put a refreshing spin on who we saw depicted falling in love. In the same year as mainstream theatrical releases such as Love, Simon and Crazy Rich Asians, Netflix opted for more diverse talent and representation in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
For the dedicated teen audience there’s real value in watching a version of yourself represented on screen. LGBTQ teen rom-com Alex Strangelove allowed queer or questioning kids to watch a story that may resonate with them on the subject of coming out. It was written and directed by openly gay filmmaker Craig Johnson who himself struggled with defining his sexuality when he was younger. In Christmas ensemble rom-com Let it Snow, gender non-binary actor Liv Hewson gets a love story narrative and other Netflix Original films such as The Perfect Date are peppered with gay characters.
The adaptation of Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before sparked Twitter alight with memes and boosted the Instagram profiles of its two lead actors, Lana Condor and Noah Centineo. A film that explored the highs and lows of a Korean-American teenager’s romantic life resonated across the board. According to figures released by Netflix, To All the Boys I Loved Before was the second most rewatched film of 2018 on their site, after the Joey King rom-com vehicle The Kissing Booth – with nearly 50 per cent of viewers revisiting them. Both have spawned sequels with Han’s books already adapted into a trilogy, the second of which, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, was released in 2020.
Just like the John Hughes romances of the 1980s these films have launched new teen heartthrobs – a diverse, millennial brat pack if you will – that, through the influence of social media, has allowed stars from their other Netflix properties to be given their very own rom-coms. The cultural impact of Stranger Things was so huge that they gave Barb (Shannon Purser) a starring role in high-school rom-com Sierra Burgess Is a Loser alongside Noah Centineo. Indeed, Centineo is the clear breakout heartthrob of the Netflix original, who will have featured in five of its rom-coms come the release of To All the Boys: Always and Forever, Lara Jean, which is already in the can.
The first Indian Netflix film was a rom-com too. Also released in 2018, Love per Square Foot blended modern romance with the ever-difficult prospect of getting on the property ladder. Parsi movie Maska appeared in 2020 and is a nice little twist on the rom-com, acting as love letter to Irani cafes.
The world cinema rom-com output from Netflix tends to tackle the impact of class and wealth. The unsubtly titled Brazilian flick Rich in Love a good example, as is the German Isi & Ossi. Netflix also recently had a go at the Richard Curtis-style rom-com with Love Wedding Repeat.
According to 2019 figures, 20 per cent of Netflix’s directors were women. Some of their top-tier romantic comedies feature not only female directors but screenwriters too. Susan Johnson directed To All the Boys I Loved Before and it was written by Sofia Alvarez. Claire Scanlon directed her debut feature film Set It Up, which starred Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs, Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch. The screenplay was written by another newcomer Katie Silberman – whose name is attached to Olivia Wilde’s glorious female-focused teen comedy Booksmart. Jennifer Kaytin Robinson also got to write and direct her first feature film with Someone Great – a romantic comedy where the lead chooses herself. Alice Wu hadn’t made a film for 16 years after 2004’s Saving Face, but Netflix granted her a comeback with The Half of It, a gorgeous rom-com featuring an Asian-American lead who just so happens to be gay.
Established BAME creatives and actors with their own successful creative properties have recently made the leap to the Netflix Original rom-com as well. Fresh Off the Boat creator Nahnatchka Khan, writer and comedian Ali Wong and actor and writer Randall Park delivered another popular Asian-fronted romcom with Always Be My Maybe. The Lovebirds stars Issa Rae, who wrote and starred in HBO’s Insecure (partly based on her web series Awkward Black Girl), alongside Kumail Nanjiani, whose screenplay for The Big Sick landed him and partner Emily V. Gordon an Oscar nomination. With the combination of star power and an already huge built-in audience, this could set another new trend for Netflix and mark another refreshing step forward for the genre – just try and erase The Wrong Missy from your mind.
This article is written as part of our #RomComWeekender, a three-day celebration of the romantic comedy. For more, click here.