The onscreen love drought is over — at least, that’s what the recent return of the romantic comedy seems to have signaled. After falling out of Hollywood’s favor over the past decade, the classic genre has started enjoying a new resurgence, bolstered by Netflix’s ability to churn out a slew of charming (and social media-friendly) genre entries and a studio landscape finally willing to bet on projects like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Love, Simon.”
While Netflix generally doesn’t release its viewership numbers, a third quarter report from the streaming giant revealed last year that over 80 million customers watched its original rom-coms over the summer. (Netflix did not respond for a request for comment.) In 2018, “Crazy Rich Asians” made Warner Bros. over $230 million at the domestic box office, and a pair of sequels are already in the works.
The latest sign of the genre’s new life is a new film festival in Los Angeles. With Rom Com Fest, creative director Miraya Berke said she was hoping to bring together a community that in recent times has been relegated to the living room. “In the same way that there is a fandom for superhero movies, people who love rom-coms haven’t really had this opportunity to connect around that in person, and so I wanted to create that experience for them,” Berke said. Her initial inspiration stemmed from a Netflix double feature of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” last fall.
The inaugural edition of the festival provides a handy window into the state of the form, as it boasts appearances from the writers of “Bride Wars” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” as well as a special screening of “Never Been Kissed” hosted by Rachel Bloom. The jury includes rising screenwriter Katie Silberman, whose “Set It Up” helped shepherd the rom-com renaissance, plus Julie Rapaport, the co-head of Amazon Studios’ original movies division.
But the festival is also showcase for several new rom-coms that have yet to be released. There are, of course, some familiar twists — like the rom-com that’s really about a breakup — but there are also some fresh takes, like the rom-com about polyamory or another one styled as a docu-drama that takes place primarily in its lead character’s head. The majority of the competition titles are still in search of distribution, but have played at other festivals recently, including Atlanta, Sarasota, and Cinekink.
As the genre continues to reestablish its value in the entertainment space, the movies populating Rom Com Fest show not only the enduring appeal of the genre, but the ways in which it has evolved for new audiences. Laura Madalinski, who makes her directorial debut with the Rom Com Fest pick “Two in the Bush: A Love Story,” said the genre provided an easy access point for audiences turned off by heavier material. “It’s kind of a safe place that you can go and be like, ‘Okay, I know no one’s going to die in this movie,” she said. “I can care about these characters and not worry about getting my heart broken. I’m going to get the happy ending. I get to feel positive about things. I can cheer for characters and I know that they’ll be okay. That’s really powerful.”
The charming coming-of-age tale “Summer Night” — which stars “To All the Boys” breakout Lana Condor — will premiere at the festival before a summer release from Samuel Goldwyn Films. Director Joseph Cross grew up on rom-coms. “It’s a genre that has sort of fallen by the wayside, but does seem to be making a comeback, which I think is really exciting,” Cross said. “I’m hoping for more of those like emotional, romantic, human stories being told.”
This time around, the genre is showing itself able to outgrow its most tired conventions. Past American rom-coms have largely been homogenized in their approach, with straight white characters in cookie-cutter stories, but the new wave is changing that.
“I feel like romantic comedies in general have just been kind of stale for a long time,” Madalinski said. “They typically follow the same very rigid format of like, boy meets girl, and then they have problems, but then they end up together. Only in like the last 20 years, as more and more people are telling their stories, you end up with these really interesting and unique takes on the rom-com that I just think are so awesome and so exciting and so fun.”
Madalinski was eager to expand the genre by tackling the kind of material that hasn’t always been a part of the rom-com world. She wrote her interracial polyamorous rom-com alongside her partner Kelly Haas, and the duo are hoping it will make more members of their community feel seen in a genre that hasn’t always embraced their stories.
“I am bisexual and polyamorous and I have a lot of friends who are sex workers and I really just wanted to make a movie that kind of echoed my own experience and the experiences of all of this close to me,” Madalinski said. “I wanted it to be a love story, because I couldn’t find any movie out there that dealt with all of those topics in a way that was very supportive and positive and encouraging.”
Writer and director Darien Sills-Evans, who will screen his “One Bedroom” at Rom Com Fest, saw a similar opportunity when he decided to make his first rom-com, which features a majority POC cast.
“I don’t get to see a lot of romantic comedies that have people of color in them as the main protagonist,” Sills-Evans said. “We’re often the sassy best friend in the romantic comedy space. I just kind of wanted to do something that would be a love story that I would see about people I knew.”
While Sills-Evans is cautious about calling the resurgence of rom-coms a given just yet, he was enthused to hear about Netflix’s new films (and especially excited to hear about the streaming giant’s recent rom-coms that feature leads of color). And if the space can provide room for underrepresented stories to be told, especially in a positive way, all the better. The streaming giant has already greenlit sequels for “To All the Boys” and “The Kissing Booth,” and will next release a yet another followup to its popular “Christmas Prince” franchise.
“I think people are craving it, especially communities that are underrepresented on film,” Madalinski said. “Something that feels comforting and something that feels empowering and uplifting. It’s really nice sometimes just to be able to see yourself on screen and have a happy ending.”
It’s no coincidence that Berke was inspired to create her festival after going on a Netflix binge; the streaming giant has spent the past year churning out a slew of charming new rom-coms, from “Set It Up” to “Always Be My Maybe,” which continue to prove popular. They are the kind of mid-budget movies that most studios don’t make anymore, and Netflix is willing to finance them.
“Over the last few years, these big budget movies, even though they cost a lot more to make, are the ones that people are going to see in such large quantities to the theater,” Berke said. “I think now, with the popularity of these streaming services, it’s opened up this whole new opportunity for these types of films to get made that the studios haven’t put the same focus on, just because of the budgetary concerns.”
A good rom-com certainly doesn’t have to break the bank. Even the luxe “Crazy Rich Asians” cost $30 million to make, the kind of mid-budget feature studios have shied away from in recent years. Most of the Rom Com Fest titles were made on slim budgets, and were a labor of love for multitasking filmmakers who still hold down day jobs. “They’re certainly cost-effective to produce,” Sills-Evans said. “And if you’re really good, you only need two people.”
Rom Com Fest runs June 20 – 23 at Los Angeles’ Downtown Independent theater.