How Netflix Revived the Rom-Com Genre: "Nobody Was Making Them"
The streamer's film co-heads Matt Brodlie and Ian Bricke, part of The Hollywood Reporter's year-end Rule Breakers issue, together revitalized the genre: "Everyone was like, 'Let me just blow the dust off this script first.'"
With feel-good love stories like Set It Up and To All the Boys I've Loved Before, Netflix delivered a romantic comedy run this summer that breathed new life into a fading genre. And as co-heads of the platform's indie film group under Scott Stuber, Matt Brodlie, 50, and Ian Bricke, 43, unintentionally heated up the rom-com market. "It's becoming more competitive," says Brodlie. Netflix has at least three new rom-coms poised for a similar breakout in the queue for 2019 — Gina Rodriguez's Someone Great, Ali Wong and Randall Park's Always Be My Maybe and K.J. Apa's The Last Summer — with no plans to slow down. As Bricke puts it, "Who doesn't love love?"
What made you home in on rom-coms, particularly the YA kind?
BRICKE When we were building the combined acquisition and production slate two and a half years ago, we thought, "We can make so many movies — what should we prioritize? What are genres that feel like opportunities?" We knew romantic comedies used to be a key piece of the studio slate, but the business has moved away from that model.
BRODLIE Yeah, where's My Best Friend's Wedding now? Where is The Holiday? Where are these films now? We asked our colleagues who keep track of what everyone is watching, and they said people are heavily watching our rom-coms from various studios. Our hunch was that people would like to see newer versions of them.
What were the reactions when you went out for scripts?
BRODLIE A lot of agents and producers were like, "Wait, I think I have one back on the shelf here … let me just blow the dust off first." Because nobody was making them. So we got a lot of scripts and made choices.
BRICKE The earliest one was Kissing Booth. We greenlit that about three years ago. It felt like it was in this interesting spot in that it was a little bit more adult in sensibility than a Disney Channel movie but lighter than a lot of the teen/YA romance films we were seeing in the marketplace. We thought maybe there was a lane there.
Your films are a mix of acquisitions and co-productions. How involved are you in the actual making of them?
BRODLIE Sierra Burgess Is a Loser was the only completed film. With the productions, we want the filmmakers’ and the producers’ vision for it, so we are more shepherds in a way, letting them do what they want to do creatively. But we do give our opinions on everything from casting to script notes.
BRICKE And with casting, we have a relative luxury in that our hypothesis, particularly with the YA films, was that it was more about the story and the execution of the movie versus famous names. It was amazing watching [actors like Noah Centineo, Lana Condor and Jacob Elordi] take off on the back of the films. Now those kids are all stars, but it wasn’t a barrier to people coming into the film. I think that was always a real impediment to a lot of these studio movies. It’d be, "Who are the adult roles that we can cast up? These kids aren't a known quantity, we don't know that they can open a movie, so how do we go forward with these films?"
Now that you have these established Netflix stars, are you trying to put them into other projects on the platform?
BRODLIE I think that’s true of any of the actors who become really popular in any other way, whether it's movies or TV or broadcast channels. Their star has risen so now they can be really impactful for us, and it would be great to work with them again.
BRICKE We totally talk to [the TV arm of the company], and one of the things that we want to do as we make more films and they make more shows is find that crossover on the talent side. Like, Zoey Deutch is doing a show for us right now, [Ryan Murphy’s The Politician.]
What is it that allows these films to build rabid fan bases?
BRODLIE They're not snarky or super ironic the way a lot of comedies are. They're really just satisfying and sincere.
BRICKE I feel like the rom-com genre had moved in an edgier direction, and I think the audience is really responding to that sincerity and earnestness, that emotional directness that isn’t trying to be too clever. I think that really connects. Also, people feel like they discover the movies on Netflix and there's a feeling of ownership, a degree of passion and investment. And I think that translates into repeat watching. So many people are watching and re-watching these movies, particularly with the YA films like Kissing Booth and To All the Boys. It’s funny, I was talking to a producer whose daughter is 12 and I asked him if she'd seen The Kissing Booth, and she was like, "Dad, I'm over The Kissing Booth. I've seen it five times already."
I know you’re not going to reveal Netflix’s secret “algorithm,” but how are you targeting certain demographics with these films?
BRODLIE We actually don't have demographic information on our members. We have their credit card and their zip code. So we actually don't know if you're a 35-year-old man or you're a 12-year-old girl. What matters, and how we decide what to promote to you, is based on what you've watched before. So you may have watched the same exact stuff as a 45-year-old man in Norway, so you'll be served similar things. That's how the promotion process works. It's based on your viewing history.
BRICKE Part of it is also that we're creating artwork for the film that lives on Netflix that speaks to all sorts of different aspects of it. So over time we'll learn, "OK, folks who are watching Riverdale are responding to this piece of artwork for this film and this is super resonant there." And that just helps us find more and more people to watch a movie. So, hypothetically, you watch Riverdale and a shot of shirtless Jacob Elordi shows up for you for The Kissing Booth and you're like, "Oh, I'll watch that."
Are there territories in which these films are playing particularly well?
BRICKE It’s true of the Christmas movies and it's true of our rom-coms from the summer: These movies are playing really well all over the world. To All the Boys was a hit everywhere for us — everywhere in the world. Both Kissing Booth and Nappily Ever After were wildly popular in Brazil, for example.
Moving forward, do you want to keep acquiring these types of movies or will you be producing more of them in-house?
BRODLIE We’re getting a lot of scripts in. Of course, now people have been sending us even more. But acquisitions of finished films are always opportunistic depending on what other people happen to be making, so that will always augment what we're making internally.
BRICKE And we'll develop stuff, too. We've seen the value of a great piece of underlying IP and are looking for opportunities to develop in that space. The fun thing about what we do is we can dip into movies at any stage in the process from pitch to completed film, and when you're trying to program a genre like this, you want to have all those options.
Your success with the genre and spiked interest at other studios. Have you fought over any scripts lately?
BRODLIE I think that may have happened … (Laughs.)
Did you win, is the question?
BRICKE Time will tell.
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.