Romantic resurgence: Why the film genre is making a comeback

The recent renaissance of romantic films continues this Valentine’s weekend, with two major releases that have Canadian connections.

The Photograph, starring Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, was released on Netflix to coincide with Valentine’s Day, as was To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, featuring Vancouver-born Anna Cathcart as the feisty younger sister of the main character, Lara Jean.

The Photograph, about a woman who falls in love with the journalist assigned to write about her late mother, is directed by Toronto’s Stella Meghie. Meghie knows the power of the genre, having directed the 2017 teen romance Everything, Everything. 

“She’s so specific about her point of view in a really refreshing way and knows what she wants, and I think that’s reflected in her work,” Rae, known as the co-creator/writer/star of HBO’s Insecure, told CBC News at Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood event last week. 

Romantic renaissance

Romantic dramas and comedies were plentiful in the 1990s and early 2000s, with such notable films as Pretty Woman, The Notebook, Titanic, Love Actually, Love & Basketball and Notting Hill.

In fact, the top five highest-grossing romantic comedies to date, according to Box Office Mojo — My Big Fat Greek Wedding, What Women Want, Hitch, Pretty Woman and There’s Something About Mary — were all made between 1998 and 2005.

But popularity waned in the decade following.

Meghie says The Photograph was initially a tough sell for executives.

Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae star in The Photograph, the latest from Toronto filmmaker Stella Meghie. (Universal Pictures)

“Every film is a fight,” said Meghie. “Every single one is a fight to prove it’s worth being made. That the audience wants something different, that it’s universal and it’s for everyone.” 

In the past few years, romantic films have proven to be both.

When Netflix found a runaway hit with its teen rom-com The Kissing Booth — it was among the most streamed and rewatched films of 2018 on the site despite a cast of unknown actors — the streaming service found a hole that wasn’t being filled by mainstream releases.

It quickly followed up with more, including Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, Set It Up, Someone Great, Always Be My Maybe and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, which was shot in Vancouver.

To All The Boys is based on the young adult novel by Jenny Han. The second and newest adaptation, P.S. I Still Love You, follows the budding high school romance between Lara Jean (played by Lana Condor) and Peter (played by Noah Centineo). Many of the characters return from the first film, including Cathcart’s.

Teen rom-com The Kissing Booth was one of the most popular movies on Netflix in 2018. (Komixx Entertainment/Netflix)

“A lot of film and TV these days are often turning to dark plots or scary and mysterious genres,” said Cathcart in a phone interview from Vancouver. “Rom-coms and those kinds of films just make you feel good.”

The L.A.-based Radiant Films, an international film distribution company, has also seen the trend moving worldwide. It’s picked up a number of romances, including the teen-focused Endless and the wedding rom-com Plus One.

“Romantic comedies have broadened out in appeal probably because of the streamer content,” said CEO Mimi Steinbauer, referring to services like Netflix and Amazon that produce the bulk of them.

Ali Wong and Randall Park star in the Netflix romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe. (Ed Araquel/Netflix)

But she also says “big, traditional rom-coms with two star names as the leads” is no longer the standard, nor is it necessary. Audiences, she says, are more drawn to a story in which they can see a part of themselves on screen. 

She points to Plus One, Yesterday (a British rom-com about a world in which no one knows The Beatles) and Always Be My Maybe as examples that all have “the traditional romantic comedy framework but are done in a more unique setting, or with a perhaps less well-known cast but featuring characters that are maybe more accessible to audiences.”

‘They get me’

Part of that audience accessibility comes down to another thing many of the recent films have in common: more inclusive characters.

The Photograph has two black leads. 

Stella Meghie is interviewed in CBC’s q studio in Toronto Friday. (Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

To All The Boys was lauded for being the first mainstream teen romance film to feature an Asian-American lead. Crazy Rich Asians was released in theatres the same year, and Always Be My Maybe — also with Asian leads — came soon after. In each film, ethnicity was remarkable for its uniqueness on screen but secondary to the plot. And all of the films proved successful.

“By watching something, you’re like, ‘They get me,'” said Cathcart. “Somebody else is out there who looks like me, who acts like me, who has the same problems that I do. Just feeling understood and represented is such a special and cool thing.”