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Where has the romantic comedy gone? To Netflix

Where has the romantic comedy gone? To Netflix
Shannon Purser, left, stars in "Sierra Burgess Is a Loser" with Noah Centineo, who also stars in "To All the Boys I've Loved Before" with Lana Condor. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

On Monday, Reese Witherspoon posed a question to her 2.3-million Twitter followers: “Why aren’t there more romantic movies?!??!”

Like many of her contemporaries — Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lopez — Witherspoon built a career starring in romantic comedies like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Just Like Heaven.” Neither of those films were particularly well reviewed, but that didn’t matter — she still went on to become a bonafide movie star, the kind who could jump between Oscar bait (“Walk the Line”) and commercial fare (“Four Christmases”).

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And yet when Witherspoon appeared last September in “Home Again” — a romantic comedy produced by Nancy Meyers, the undisputed queen of the genre — it was one of only three rom-coms to be released in a multiplex in 2017 (none came from a major studio). Opening against the mega-hit horror film “It,” “Home Again” went on to gross just $27 million.

Which is why, as the 42-year-old told her Twitter fans, she’d turned to Netflix instead of the movie theater to watch a “GREAT romantic comedy” last weekend: “Set It Up.”

Released in June, “Set It Up” has all the hallmarks of a classic rom-com. The film features two genetically blessed up-and-coming actors, Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell, as two frenemies who eventually fall in love with each other despite their best efforts not to. And while Witherspoon may just have caught up with it, the movie almost instantly built up a rabid fanbase eager to anoint its two leads the next Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

“I kept hearing from people who said how surprised they were at how much they liked it,” said Katie Silberman, the film’s screenwriter. “When I grew up, a romantic comedy was a good thing. Something happened in the last decade or so where all of a sudden, it had a negative connotation. It’s been so rewarding to hear how hungry people were for romantic comedies.”

Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell in a scene from "Set It Up."
Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell in a scene from "Set It Up." (K C Bailey / Netflix)

Netflix, as it turns out, has been picking up on that hunger for the last few years. Matt Brodlie, the company’s director of original film, said that executives began to observe how many users were opting to watch old romantic comedies from Netflix’s extensive catalog of films.

“We realized there weren’t a lot of these films being made theatrically anymore, and we wanted to fulfill the need for people to watch a satisfying romantic comedy,” Brodlie explained. “As the theatrical marketplace has gotten more competitive, distributors have been wanting — and needing — to make four-quadrant films. So there’s a space for other films that may be more targeted.”

(Los Angeles Times)

That business decision has led to what Netflix has deemed “summer of love,” a three-month period in which the platform is releasing a slew of exactly what Witherspoon described longing for: “romantic movies.” They’re not all comedies, per se, but they’re the kind of movies that give viewers the feels. There are high school romances aimed at the young-adult set: “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” (Aug. 17) and “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” (Sept. 7); a period-piece tearjerker based on a popular novel, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” (Aug. 10); a heartwarming father-daughter bonding story co-starring Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammer, “Like Father” (Aug. 3).

Kelsey Grammer plays Kristen Bell's estranged dad in "Like Father."
Kelsey Grammer plays Kristen Bell's estranged dad in "Like Father." (Cara Howe / Netflix)

And those are just the films featuring big stars, the kind of talent that filmmakers say Netflix is now able to attract not just in the television space on acclaimed series like “The Crown” and “House of Cards.” Lauren Miller Rogen, the writer-director of “Like Father,” spent four years trying to get her movie made. But because she was a first-time filmmaker, she said, no studio was willing to let her direct the project without a big star attached.

“Everyone kept saying, ‘We love the script, come back when you have cast.’ I was like, ‘I need you to help me get cast!’” recalled Rogen, who is married to fellow filmmaker Seth Rogen. “And that’s essentially what Netflix did. Once they got on board, we got Kristen Bell. It legitimizes it.”

Silberman, too, was disheartened by how long it took “Set It Up” to find a home. The movie was initially set up at MGM, but after Emilia Clarke dropped out of the role Deutch was later cast in, the studio dumped the project. That’s when Netflix swooped in.

"After I wrote 'Set It Up,' there was this weird limbo where everyone kept saying they loved this kind of film but no one made them anymore," recalled Silberman. "It was stated like a fact, kind of — this sigh, like they were bummed about it too. So I'm really curious as to whether it's going to create a new platform for romantic comedies to go, or whether it will spark more interest in them across the board."

Increasingly, Netflix is getting on board with these kind of projects earlier and earlier — as with “Like Father,” which the company financed. But it acquired the independentlyproduced “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” after the film was shot but before it hit the festival circuit. And it is releasing “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” which stars Lily James, after the film debuted in theaters in the United Kingdom earlier this summer.

Lily James stars with Michiel Huisman in "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society."
Lily James stars with Michiel Huisman in "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society." (Kerry Brown / Netflix)

“Guernsey,” which has grossed about $16 million in nine foreign territories since April, was directed by Mike Newell, the filmmaker behind the beloved Oscar-nominated rom-com “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” The 76-year-old’s latest movie is far more serious: It stars James as a journalist who falls in love with a pig farmer (Michiel Huisman) on a remote island in the English Channel, where she has traveled to research the impact of local Nazi occupation.

To promote the film’s traditional theatrical release, Newell said, he did the typical circuit, talking to journalists for a couple of days in interviews set up by publicists.

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“But Netflix is something completely other,” he said. “What Netflix says to its audience is: We know you and we love you, and we have your best interests at heart. We know your secret longings, and we long to satisfy those longings, because we can look at what you watch and our magnificent computers can perceive what you like. That's not me hammering on the door saying 'Look at us! Look at us! Just step over the line and it'll all be terrific.' This says: We are deep in your DNA, and we are going to give you this thing because we know you will love it.”

Certainly selecting a movie on Netflix can be easier than doing so at the theater, given the platform's suggestive algorithms — but in an era where shutting off your phone for two hours seems unfathomable to many, watching a film at home can also be a social outlet.

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"These kinds of romantic ​movies enable you to get a group of people together and watch, because you can kind of talk through it and comment on it​," said Susan Johnson, the director of "To All the Boys I've Loved Before," an adaptation of Jenny Han's bestselling YA series, starring rising actress Lana Condor. ​"​If you're watching 'Fight Club,' you're not gonna say a peep. I think romantic comedies give you the chance to be social."

Noah Centineo and Lana Condor star in "To All the Boys I've Loved Before."
Noah Centineo and Lana Condor star in "To All the Boys I've Loved Before." (Netflix)

Still, Johnson said, she feels like traditional studios may be realizing the error of their ways in backing away from romance. In one week in July, she was sent three romantic comedy scripts — one of which was set up at Paramount, while the other was at Fox.

"People have been very public about enjoying these films on social media, and there's been a lot of articles about how people are excited about them,​" said Netflix's Brodlie, referring to "Set It Up" and "The Kissing Booth," a high school romance that became a cultural phenomenon and turned its young leads into massive Instagram stars after it debuted in May.​ ​"S​o the industry is hearing that. And we certainly hear that back from the industry, that they're inundated with new scripts in the genre."

​Shannon Purser, the 21-year-old star of "Sierra Burgess" — a sort of modern-day "Cyrano de Bergerac" — is just grateful that there are some new love stories out there for kids her age. Growing up, she said, she and her friends didn't have "teen movies" to watch.

"There were the iconic movies of the Brat Pack in the ’80s and a resurgence in the early 2000s, but I wasn't quite old enough to appreciate those when they came out," said Purser, whose first major role was an Emmy-nominated turn as Barb in Netflix's "Stranger Things.” "I watched 'Hunger Games' and 'Harry Potter,' but those were kind of heavy; I didn't have those lighthearted, wholesome teen movies."

(L-R) - RJ Cyler and Shannon Purser in a scene from "Sierra Burgess is a Loser."
(L-R) - RJ Cyler and Shannon Purser in a scene from "Sierra Burgess is a Loser." (Netflix)

In "Sierra Burgess," she plays a teenager who Catfishes her school crush, fooling him into believing he's talking to a popular cheerleader instead of her. The film, Purser said, "reminds me of John Hughes movies — a very classic teen movie with a 'Pretty in Pink' vibe.”

“I think the world needs it,” she continued. “I almost feel like that might have something to do with [the resurgence], because these are kind of scary political times that we're living in. We have a lot of very dark, well-made television and movies, but I think teenagers are kind of neglected. I think we could all use a bit more light in our lives."

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