There’s A Reason You’re Seeing So Many Rom-Coms Right Now

In Ticket to Paradise, ex-spouses David (George Clooney) and Georgia Cotton (Julia Roberts) find themselves in the most unlikely — and truly uncomfortable — of positions, sitting beside each other on a long haul flight to Bali. They’ve been divorced for over a decade, but time really doesn’t heal all wounds, as they bicker over their unsuspecting middle seatmate. “The worst 19 years of my life,” George Clooney’s David says to the flight attendant of his marriage. “We were only married for five,” Roberts’ sparrs back. Their seatmate requests champagne A.S.A.P. 
It’s a situation that’s the thing of nightmares IRL, and it’s also the makings of a great romantic comedy. It’s a formula movie watchers know well: Boy meets girl, boy and girl deny feelings for each other due to some seemingly insurmountable reason (maybe it’s that they’re rival bookstore owners, or they have a secret BF/GF pact, or in the case of Ticket to Paradise, because they’re divorced), and then, inevitably, boy and girl realize their true feelings and admit them to each other. In between, there’s hilarity, miscommunication, and probably some great physical comedy. And, it’s something movie watchers have been missing over the last decade, as romantic comedies on the big screen have been replaced with billion-dollar franchises like Marvel and Fast and the Furious.
But thankfully, movie tastes seem to be going back to simpler times. Because Ticket to Paradise is only the latest in a slew of romantic comedies that have premiered or are coming to theaters and streaming services. There’s the recently released Rosaline (Hulu), Bros (Universal Pictures), and February’s Marry Me (Universal Pictures) with Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, influenced by a changing industry as well as audiences that — after years in a pandemic — just want to feel good. 
To be clear, coining this period of time as the return of the rom-com isn’t exactly accurate, because rom-coms have been back for awhile — at least on our TV screens. While we’re seeing a rom-com resurgence on-screen in a big way in 2022, Scott Meslow, the author of From Hollywood with Love: The Rise And Fall (And Rise Again) Of The Romantic Comedy, points to the summer of 2018 as the defining or pivotal moment that kicked off this rom-com-aissance, based entirely off viewing habits on streaming services. “What Netflix discovered with their data about what people were watching was that people were rewatching old rom-coms,” Meslow tells Refinery29. “They would license movies like Pretty Woman and they would do really, really well and [viewers] would go back to them over and over again.” Akin to re-renting your fave VHS at Blockbuster every week (*ahem* A Cinderella Story *ahem*), Netflix, noting this phenomenon, decided to tap into an underserved market. During what some have called “The Summer of Love,” the streamer released cult-classic contemporary hits like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Kissing Booth, Set It Up, and Sierra Burgess Is A Loser

“Rom-coms were uniquely devalued by an era similar to where we are now, [where] everything is a $300 million Spider-Man movie or a $10 million indie that might win best picture."

“Netflix discovered that [these movies] were these massive global hits immediately and they were critically acclaimed and embraced by audiences who then did, in fact, return to them over and over again,” Meslow tells Refinery29. And, he says, these films were relatively cheap from a production standpoint (no complicated effects needed), utilizing emerging talent and creating stars instead of tapping into existing star power. 
Of course, the idea of rom-coms as star-making vehicles isn’t anything new. That’s been the MO of the genre from the start. The 1990s and early 2000s heyday, the time of now-classics like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, gave birth to some of our now most iconic and household stars, introducing actresses like Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts to audiences while presenting actors like Hugh Grant and Matthew McConaughey as likable leading men and celebrity heartthrobs. “There was something about the star\wood stardom looked like in that era,” Meslow says. 
Around 2010, that formula stopped working, thanks in part to a few factors. After over a decade of genre and career-defining hits, a slew of romantic comedy films that just didn’t sit with audiences in a way that would motivate them to the box office were released. Meslow points to movies like How Do You Know? and Larry Crowne as examples of this. And in an era where both audiences and studios seemed to be putting an emphasis on big box office franchises as well as awards contenders, romantic comedies — which have historically and from a place of sexism been devalued in film canon — just didn’t stand a chance, especially when it came to spending big money to get them into theaters. 
“Rom-coms were uniquely devalued by an era similar to where we are now, [where] everything is a $300 million Spider-Man movie or a $10 million indie that might win best picture,” Meslow says. Compared to these films or the few rom-coms that did get garner acclaim, typically with a white male protagonist at the center, “commercially, [rom-coms] were never going to make $1 billion worldwide, and critically, they were never going to get the awards applause that studios are hungry for,” Meslow says. “So there was a sense that they weren't serving the purpose that the studios needed them to.”
Which is where streamers like Netflix come in. In October 2018, Netflix reported to Variety that over 80 million subscribers had watched their rom-coms over that summer, using the rapid and explosive growth of some of its stars’ Instagram followings to indicate the popularity of the movies. (Talent like Lana Condor and Noah Centineo’s Instagram followings went from 100,000 to 5.5. million and 800,000 to 13.4 million, respectively). Other streamers like Amazon Prime and Hulu soon followed. And the next natural progression, Meslow says, are studios. When he finished his book, turning in the final copy last year, Meslow ended with the prediction that Hollywood studios — who’d ignored screenwriters with romcom pitches for years — would be tapping into them within a year. “And that’s where we are now,” he says.
There’s a reason people tune in to these films and why studios should be returning to them, and it’s much the same reason audiences would trek down to Blockbuster to re-rent Sleepless In Seattle for the seventh time, because they do serve a purpose. “There are a multitude of reasons as to why we love tuning into a rom-com movie, “ Emma Kenny, a UK-based TV psychologist, says. “There is something delicious about the intertwining of humor and love, and unlike in many genres of films, the reality is that it is unlikely the viewer will end the movie feeling sad or feeling that the characters did not get the happy ending that they deserved.” As opposed to many people’s IRL experiences that can be stressful, “watching movies like these can reduce stress levels, have been shown to increase bonding in relationships, [and] most importantly, provide an escape from the work-life balance issues that many of us face in modern culture.” 
This is especially true of our viewing habits during and post-pandemic. If you feel like all you wanted to watch in the depths of the pandemic and all you turn to now are shows that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, then you’re not alone. “Without a shadow of a doubt, the reason that people tune into rom-coms more during periods of crisis and stress is because of the distraction that these genres offer,” Kenny says. But there’s a deeper psychological reason too. “Human beings love love,” Kenny explains. “We love connection, we love intimacy, we love our family and friends. So at times of mass discontent and disharmony in our world, we return to the one thing that truly makes us who we are: love, family, connection, humor, and a conviction that above everything else, this is what matters. Rom-coms embody these traits and relationships and that is why they are cherished so deeply.”

“A rom-com to me is like a warm blanket. It helps you sleep at night.”

kaitlyn Dever
For Kaitlyn Dever, who stars in both Rosaline and Ticket to Paradise, the return is a welcome one, specifically because it is so familiar. “I love rom-coms,” she tells Refinery29. “[Rosaline] especially, feels like the movies that I loved growing up and that really shaped me and who I am as a person now.”
Of course, this iteration will be different. While films like Ticket to Paradise are utilizing genre OGs and heavy hitters like Clooney and Roberts to get people into seats, this will most likely still be a rarity for now. The nature of the movie industry has changed since the 1990s, meaning that more often than not even huge stars won’t necessarily motivate audiences to pay for theater viewing. 
“We're in an era where audiences won't go to a theater for just any movie,” Meslow says. “I don't think that's coming back. If people feel like they can just watch it on Netflix, they will, [and] if you put out a movie as great as When Harry Met Sally in theaters now, I'm not convinced it does the same kind of box office.” Which means we may see films that are more hybrid in genre (think The Lost City, a classic Sandra Bullock rom-com but mixed with Indiana Jones action), and the continued rise of streaming rom-coms. 
Regardless of where audiences turn to see their favorite stars fall in love, what’s guaranteed is that they will tune in. “A rom-com to me is like a warm blanket,” Dever says. “It helps you sleep at night.” And that’s a feeling no one’s going to pass up. 

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