The death of the romcom and how streaming platforms are reviving the genre with a twist

While the Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks romance days are long gone, Netflix and others are having great success with their teen-focused easy watches

'When Harry Met Sally', left, was credited with launching the golden age of romcoms in 1989, a genre which had fallen out of fashion and favour until the success of Netflix's 2018's 'The Kissing Booth', right. Photo: Columbia Pictures, Netflix
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Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lopez. The list of actresses who can lay claim to the title of queen of the romcom is long and jam-packed with A-list names.

But one actress stands head and shoulders above the rest: Julia Roberts.

With films such as Mystic Pizza, Pretty Woman, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Runaway Bride and Notting Hill under her belt, Roberts is the undisputed mistress of the genre. But it's a genre, she recently admitted, that has failed to spark her interest in the past two decades.

“If I’d thought something was good enough, I would have done it,” Roberts, 54, told The New York Times Magazine about whether she would ever return to her romcom roots. “But I also had three kids in the last 18 years. That raises the bar even more because then it’s not only: Is this material good? It’s also the math equation of my husband’s work schedule and the kids’ school schedule and summer vacation.”

The interview made headlines largely because of how easy it was to read between the lines: Julia Roberts, romcom queen and one of Hollywood’s last bona fide movie stars, has not been sent a decent script in the genre in almost 20 years.

Cinephiles have long lamented the death of the romcom in the post-Avatar, big-budget, special effects world. But, as it turns out, the genre still has some life left in it. And we have Netflix to thank for not giving up on it…

When romcoms ruled the cinematic world

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in 'Sleepless in Seattle', left, and Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson in 'Fool's Gold'. Photo: TriStar Pictures, Warner Bros Pictures

Once upon a time, romantic comedies were a staple of any Hollywood studio’s slate. Throughout the late 1980s, the '90s and early '00s, they were charmingly told, relatively cheap to make, and most importantly, profitable.

They gave us the legendary, recurring onscreen pairings of Hanks and Ryan, and Hudson and Matthew McConaughey. Not to mention Bullock and, well, anyone of her co-stars, because that lady could have chemistry with a wooden chair.

The golden age of romcoms began in 1989 with the classic When Harry Met Sally..., starring Ryan and Billy Crystal. Ryan would become synonymous with the genre, going on to star in Joe Versus the Volcano, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, all opposite Hanks; as well as 2001’s Kate & Leopold with Hugh Jackman.

The Hanks-Ryan trilogy also made a star of writer-director Nora Ephron, who defined what romantic comedies should be for the next few decades.

When Harry Met Sally put Nora Ephron at the top, and for good reason; by writing When Harry Met Sally and directing Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, she did more to both embrace and entrench romcoms in the 90s than any other filmmaker,” said Scott Meslow, author of From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy, in an interview for writer and journalist Anne Helen Peterson's newsletter Culture Study.

They don’t make ‘em like they used to (they actually don’t)

The early 1990s were halcyon days for cinematic creativity. With no social media-driven fanbases to placate and answer to, and no superhero films as we know them today, there was plenty of room for experimentation with movies such as Edward Scissorhands and Clerks.

New filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino, were starting to break through, and blockbusters were largely reserved for their traditional spot during the summer or on Boxing Day.

“The huge blockbuster productions that today come in the form of Marvel and DC movies were still many years away, leaving room for a variety of genres to flourish,” said ScreenRant’s Mike Jones. “It was in this environment that the romantic comedy gained its foothold, arguably kicking off with 1989’s When Harry Met Sally, whose success created momentum.

"In both 1998 and 1999, respectively, three of the top twenty highest-grossing films were romcoms.”

What killed the romcom?

The release of the groundbreaking 'Avatar' in 2009, with its special effects and 3D, hastened the demise of the romcom. Photo: 20th Century Fox

With two facts about Hollywood universally acknowledged, that’s it’s a bottomline town and is famously risk-averse, the new array of cinematic genres the 2000s ushered in swept through Tinseltown like a gasp of relief.

Franchises, which already existed with Superman, Batman, Indiana Jones and Star Wars, were starting to be taken more seriously as businesses in and of themselves. Tent poles — big-budget films with earnings that could cover the studio’s less profitable movies — shot to the top of studios’ wishlists, and 3D became the buzzword du jour.

The technical innovation of 2009’s Avatar broke new ground in what cinema could do, causing romcoms to fall sharply out of favour.

Whether it was their lack of explosions and million-dollar special effects, the formulaic structure which hadn’t changed in decades, or the over-reliance on stereotypes (the sassy best friend, the manic pixie dream girl, the man who has given up on love, etc), the genre entered the mid-2000s dead in the water.

“There's a little mini-boom [around 2009],” said The Atlantic’s David Sims. “And with Katherine Heigl as the final star whose entire career, for a few years, was romcoms. Post–Knocked Up, there was 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth, Killers, Life As We Know It. She was there at the death rattle around Bride Wars, where critics at the time thought: This is warmed over. They’ve been pushing this on us for 20-plus years, and we’re sick of it.

“There were bright spots with the likes of Easy A or Crazy Stupid Love, but these likely succeeded because they had evolved out of the limited framework of romcom.”

As had been seen in other businesses and brands across the world, such as Victoria’s Secret, BlackBerry, Kodak, Abercrombie & Fitch, romcoms committed the ultimate sin: they didn’t evolve with their audience and move with the times.

Netflix to the rescue

Netflix's foray into romcoms has created a new generation of stars, including 'The Kissing Booth's' Jacob Elordi. Getty Images

While romcoms did occasionally enjoy brief resurgences thanks to the new blood injected into them by the genre-subverting 500 Days of Summer (2009), and the prolific output of writer-director Judd Apatow with Knocked Up (2007) and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), the argument can be made that the only thing that had really changed was the classification rating, taking them from PG to 15.

It was into this long-neglected space that Netflix launched itself head first back in 2018.

Its 2018 teenage romcom hit The Kissing Booth, which would turn then-unknown male lead Jacob Elordi into an instant star, led Netflix's chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, to tell Vulture the film was “one of the most-watched movies in the country, and maybe in the world.”

The second in the trilogy racked up 66 million views in only four weeks, and Netflix enjoyed further success in the shape of the trilogy To All The Boys, starring Lana Condor.

Teen-skewing romcoms seemed to be the way forward. But the genre also got wise to plot devices big-budget movies had enjoyed great success with: crossovers.

Introducing the idea of franchising romcoms, something Meslow has dubbed the “Netflix Christmas RomCom Cinematic Universe”, films such as A Christmas Prince and The Princess Switch series are set in the same universe, creating the potential to keep on expanding.

“In broader strokes, I think romcoms are following the same trends you can see across the industry,” said Meslow. “The studios seem to think — and, I’m sorry to say, have increasingly good proof — that modern audiences won’t go to movie theatres unless a movie is successfully sold as 'an event'.”

“Basically everything that might make romcoms unattractive to the studios makes them more appealing to the streamers. They’re relatively cheap and straightforward to make ... require minimal special effects ... offer attractive leading roles for stars who want to show how funny and charming they are. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have all increased their romcom output over the past few years, and I think they’re just getting started.”

Updated: April 23, 2022, 4:21 AM