'Set It Up' and the Rise of the Non-Studio Rom-Com

"If you talk to any agent in town over the last two years, we’ve been banging our drums saying, 'Send us your rom-coms!'" says Netflix exec Matt Brodlie of the genre that is being championed by the streamer and independent outfits.

This past weekend social media heralded Netflix's latest original offering Set It Up as the triumphant return of the romantic comedy. The movie stars Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell as assistants who match-make their bosses (Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs) in order to get some free time for themselves. 

"We are aware of what people are watching and how much they watch it and we notice that people are watching a lot of rom-coms. Even, like, the [worst] ones that are out there," says Netflix's director of original film Matt Brodlie of Netflix's library.

From Sleepless in Seattle to Sweet Home Alabama, the prototypical romantic comedy of the 1990s and early 2000s was known for solid box office returns on middling budgets and helping launch stars like Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock. But in the 2010s, as tentpoles and blockbuster studio fare began to take over the lion's share of the yearly domestic box office, fewer rom-coms could be found on studio calendars. Then the genre went indie and found cult followings with films like Focus Features' That Awkward Moment (also a Treehouse Pictures production), IFC’s Sleeping With Other People and A24's Obvious Child.

But as studios have continued to turn their attention elsewhere, the genre has found new champions in Netflix and independent financier-distributors.

"We did hear a lot, 'We love the script but romantic comedies are hard,'" says Treehouse Pictures' Juliet Berman, one of the producers behind Set It Up, which was originally set up at MGM before heading over to Netflix. "People have always wanted these types of movies but for a while, they just weren’t made. There was a vacuum."

Adds Brodlie: "It just was a great opportunity for us to jump into a place where people weren’t doing too much. If you talk to any agent in town over the last two years, we’ve been banging our drums saying, 'Send us your rom-coms!'"

Rom-coms have become a priority for Netflix. The streamer is in production on an Ali Wong and Randall Park-penned feature Always Be My Maybe and acquired The Second Summer, starring Riverdale break-out KJ Apa, from Gulfstream Entertainment. Another original rom-com acquisition Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, which came to Netflix by way of Black Label, is due out in September.

While met with less favorable reviews then the Powell-Deutch two-hander, The Kissing Booth was also greeted with audience zeal. According to Netflix, one in three viewers of The Kissing Booth, an adaptation of a popular Wattpad story, have re-watched the high school set rom-com, which is 30 percent higher than the average movie re-watch rate on the streamer. Additionally, over the past year, nearly 80 million Netflix accounts, nearly two thirds of all members, have watched a love story, which includes both the licensed and original content.

Independent studios are also prominent advocates of the romantic comedy in the contemporary Hollywood landscape. Destination Wedding from The Fyzz Facility (the company behind the Mandy Moore shark movie 47 Meters Down) will hit theaters this August, reuniting the best of the '90s with Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, while Lakeshore is gearing up for production on The Wedding Year, starring Sarah Hyland from Legally Blonde director Robert Luketic.

"Everyone became a little disillusioned and disinterested because it became formulaic," says Luketic, who got his start in the genre, directing early aughts titles Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! and Monster-In-Law. "As cynical as we have become in 2018 people still want romance. Those people that we were making films for when I was starting out didn't go anywhere, they just got sick of the content."

Jennifer Lopez, who made her own mark on the genre with The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan, is returning to her rom-com roots with Second Act from STXfilms, due out Nov. 21.

"It is hard for a romantic comedy to compete with a movie that could gross $2 billion globally," notes STXfilms head of production Sam Brown. "It is hard to get to attention of Warner Bros., Universal and Disney with a small-ish and charming romantic comedy, because even with a home run you are not going to compete with the home run versions of a global tentpole. For us, a movie like Second Act is our tentpole."

Still, the rom-com is not completely absent from studio schedules. Crazy Rich Asians is a splashy studio rom-com — albeit an adaption of Kevin Kwan's popular best-seller — is headed to theaters this August via Warner Bros, along with Isn't It Romantic, an original rom-com that boasts Set It Up scripter Katie Silberman as a writer, due out early 2019. And sources tell THR that the studio search for original rom-com scripts is beginning to ramp up.

"Romantic comedy is a very hard genre to get right," says Karie Bible, a box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "There are certain genres that are cyclical, like the Western of the musical genre, they go away for a number of years and then they come back."