Screen Time: Can Netflix save the romantic comedy?

Screen Time is a bi-weekly blog featuring TPN staff members’ takes on all things film and television.

More stories from Emily Wolfe

Ten out of the 20 highest-grossing movies of 2018 were sequels; eight out of 20 were superhero movies; 18 were based on existing properties. In an age where movie studios are all about the blockbuster, that’s become the story of the box office.

Still, there were big stories in there. “Black Panther,” the highest-grossing movie of the year, was a cultural phenomenon that captured the national consciousness in a way no other Marvel movie has. And “Crazy Rich Asians,” the Jon M. Chu feature based on a bestselling 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan, grossed nearly $175 million in the U.S. It was the first romantic comedy to do so in more than 10 years. In fact, for most of this decade, the romantic comedy has been just about dead.

When James L. Brooks, one of the most bankable romantic comedy directors in the business, bombed big with 2012’s “How Do You Know,” the genre was on its way out. From then on, it was all but dead, and that fact had a lot to do with the growing ubiquity of franchise movies. Big movie studios want to make billion-dollar hits, so they’re making more franchise movies that seem guaranteed to hit with more demographics.

But there’s one movie studio with a different business model entirely — Netflix. As a streaming service, Netflix is continually making more and more content that will always be around for people who want to watch it, so it can make movies and TV for hyper-specific audiences. That means that these days, Netflix is pretty much the only one in town making romantic comedies.

Netflix broke into the genre late in 2017 with “A Christmas Prince,” the studio’s first romantic comedy that appears to have been watched by a lot of people, though Netflix doesn’t release ratings numbers. “A Christmas Prince” appropriated the Christmas movie formula perfected by the Hallmark Channel, which figured out a long time ago that people like to watch a white man and a white woman have a bland, uncomplicated romance and get the Christmas spirit back. (It is a lot of fun to watch.) Since then, Netflix has made more than 15 romantic comedies, ranging from the allegedly awful “The Kissing Booth” to the sweet “Always Be My Maybe.”

Besides the fact that they’re scratching a long-unsatisfied itch, there’s a lot of good to these movies. For one thing, they’re giving the actors who would be thriving in big-screen romantic comedies their shot at the genre. It’s easy to imagine Gina Rodriguez, who broke through in 2014 on the soapy romantic dramedy “Jane the Virgin,” becoming a bankable romantic comedy star. If big studios aren’t making those movies, at least Rodriguez got her chance at a Netflix rom-com, “Someone Great,” earlier this summer.

Netflix is creating its own stars in the genre, too, or at least trying to. It’s had one big success so far — 22-year-old heartthrob Noah Centineo. Heralded as “the internet’s boyfriend” after starring in 2018’s high school movie “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Centineo has starred or been announced to star in no less than four Netflix romantic comedies to date, including that movie, its upcoming sequel, “Sierra Burgess is a Loser” and “The Perfect Date,” in which Centineo, of course, plays the titular perfect date. It’s possible Netflix will give birth to an entire generation of rom-com stars that would otherwise have been nonexistent.

The problem is that although Netflix has cracked an algorithm that produces consistently good movies, that algorithm doesn’t seem likely to churn out any great ones. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “Always Be My Maybe” and “Set it Up” are the best offerings that the studio has produced to date, and while those movies are charming and even rewatchable — and more diverse than rom-coms of the past — they’re bland in the way that some romantic comedies have always been bland. They lack the magic that brought young women back to the movie theater to pay to see “Notting Hill” or “Sleepless in Seattle” again and again.

When The New York Times’ Kyle Buchanan spoke with two dozen major players in Hollywood about the future of movies for a recent project, writer and actor Kumail Nanjiani was the most straightforward about this problem with Netflix’s at-home streaming service.

“I think the standard of quality for people who watch stuff at home is not the same. If you go see ‘Avengers’ in the movie theater, it better be great, but if you’re just watching stuff at home, it doesn’t matter so much if it’s great or not,” Nanjiani told Buchanan. “I don’t want to diss Netflix too much, because I do think they make amazing stuff and they’re giving shots to people who would not have been given shots 10 years ago, but I also think that Netflix would rather have five things that people kind of like than one thing people really love.”

Netflix makes movies because it wants more subscribers, and it’s decided that after a certain point, subscribers don’t really care about quality when it comes to lighthearted love stories. The platform will fund prestige projects from Alfonso Cuaron and Martin Scorcese because it wants to win awards, sure, but even really good romantic comedies don’t tend to win awards.

Still, all this doesn’t mean that Netflix won’t make the next truly great romantic comedy. It’s not like all or even most theatrically released rom-coms of the 1980s and 1990s were terrific, either. Plenty of them landed in the charming, inoffensive zone of these Netflix TV-dinner movies. So it’s possible that Netflix will give some new filmmaker $10 million to make a small “Set It Up”-style rom-com and end up with the next “When Harry Met Sally.” That just doesn’t seem to be what the service is looking for.

So those of us who want to swoon over a modern romantic comedy, especially on the big screen, should hope Hollywood takes a cue from the success of “Crazy Rich Asians.” Franchise fatigue is coming, and movie-going audiences are ready to see new stories — lighthearted movies that tell love stories that haven’t been told on the big screen before. This should be an era of fresh, diverse romantic comedies. Let’s hope we get to see them.


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