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How Netflix Saved the Summer Rom-Com

The streamer gave the once-fledging movie genre a new lease on life.
  • (Photos: Netflix)
    (Photos: Netflix)

    Five years ago, conventional wisdom was that the romantic comedy was dead, or at least on its last legs. With Marvel blockbusters and action sequels dominating at the summer box office, it seemed moviegoers no longer had an appetite for the classic warm weather meet-cute.

    Leave it to Netflix to prove conventional wisdom wrong. Over four short years, the streamer has strategically invested in romantic comedies, filling the void left at movie theaters with hugely popular titles like Set It Up, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Always Be My Maybe.

    Netflix has been relatively quiet on the romantic comedy front so far in 2021, but as June turns to July, the streamer is upping the ante with four major releases, each vying to be this year's “Rom-Com of the Summer.” While it remains to be seen how these movies will compare to their predecessors, a look back at Netflix’s most successful rom-coms is a reminder of how quickly Netflix brought life to a once-dormant genre.

    A complete history of the streamer's summer rom-com boom begins in October 2017, when executives announced that the service would spend $8 billion on content in 2018. A large chunk of this investment was earmarked for original films, with the company revealing it planned to release 80 new films by the end of the year, a sharp increase over the years prior. At that time, Netflix had yet to release a single romantic comedy — its first official rom-com, A Christmas Prince, dropped in November 2017 — but the platform already had several on its 2018 slate, including Set It Up, starring Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell, YA adaptation The Kissing Booth, and Like Father, Lauren Miller Rogen’s directorial debut starring Kristen Bell, Kelsey Grammer, and Seth Rogen.

    With an assortment of meet-cutes and manufactured obstacles on the horizon, Netflix proclaimed 2018 its “Summer of Love,” and a franchise was born. The addition of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, an adaptation of Jenny Han’s best-selling novel, rounded out its slate and, along with The Kissing Booth, helped draw in a younger audience that grew up reading the books that inspired the films.

    Netflix famously doesn’t release viewership data, but all indications were that the service’s “Summer of Love” was a success. Shortly after The Kissing Booth was released in May 2018, the streamer declared it “one of the most-watched movies in the country, and maybe the world,” revealing that one in three viewers re-watched the romance, a figure that was 30% higher than the service's average movie re-watch rate. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before became an earth-shattering phenomenon, earning a 96% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and turning Lana Condor and Noah Centineo into teen icons. And even though it was aimed at a slightly older crowd, Set It Up signaled to studios that the classic rom-com template could still feel fresh provided the writing is strong and the leads have the right kind of chemistry.

    2019, ushered in a new era at Netflix, with Someone Great (which debuted in mid-April), signaling that the streamer was ready to move on from its predominantly-white romances come summer. With the arrival of Always Be My Maybe, starring Ali Wong and Randall Park and directed by Nahnatchka Khan, Netflix lived up to that promise and then some. Who can forget Keanu Reeves’ unbelievable cameo and the memes that dominated Twitter for months afterwards?

    Despite its all-out dominance during the pandemic, 2020 was something of a down year for Netflix romantic comedies as the streamer pinned its summer hopes on The Kissing Booth 2. While successful with viewers — Netflix claimed that it was watched by 66 million households in its first 28 days, a figure that doesn’t include re-watches — the sequel didn’t dominate the discourse in the way that the first film did, and interest quickly waned.

    This year the streamer looks to be making up for lost time with four high-profile summer rom-coms. First up is Good On Paper, dropping today, the most adult-skewing of the bunch. Iliza Shlesinger stars as Andrea Singer, a stand-up comic who learns that her meek and mild boyfriend (Ryan Hansen) is hiding a dark side. With its big-name stars and raunchy tone, Good On Paper has all the trappings of a Set It Up-style hit — even down to Hansen’s combed-over hairdo, a Powell specialty.

    In July, Netflix heads to Mauritius in Resort to Love, starring Christina Milian and SNL alum Jay Pharaoh. Described by director Steven Tsuchida (Life Size 2) as a “vacation for the eyes, heart, and soul,” Resort to Love features a love triangle (and a setting) that harkens back to Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the great rom-coms of the 2000s.

    Of course it wouldn’t be summer without a new Kissing Booth movie. On August 11 Netflix will say goodbye to The Kissing Booth franchise in the series' third and final installment, which is set to follow Elle (Joey King) as she decides whether to follow Noah (Jacob Elordi) to Harvard, or go to Berkeley to be with her best friend Lee (Joel Courtney). While some may have skipped out on the second film, millions are expected to stream The Kissing Booth 3 to see how the story ends.

    Perhaps the most interesting of Netflix’s rom-coms releasing this summer is He’s All That, a gender-swapped remake of Freddie Prinze Jr. and Rachel Leigh Cook’s 1999 classic. Streaming August 27, He’s All That stars TikTok phenom Addison Rae as Padgett Sawyer, a high school cool girl who accepts a challenge to turn an awkward boy (Tanner Buchanan) into prom king in just a few weeks. Netflix announced it had purchased streaming rights to the remake in March 2021, and in the months since, it has released a steady stream of photos and teasers, which is generally a strong indicator of the streamer's confidence in a project.

    Tanner Buchanan and Addison Rae in He's All That. (Photo: Netflix)

    Could He’s All That win the title of prom king and Rom-Com of the Summer? Thanks to the double-whammy of Millennial nostalgia and Gen Z TikTok fervor, all signs point to yes — that is, unless Joey King and Jacob Elordi get back together ahead of The Kissing Booth 3 premiere.

    Either way, we'll have Netflix to thank.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Netflix, Always Be My Maybe, The Kissing Booth, Set It Up, To All the Boys I've Loved Before