How Romance Films Can Make a Return to Popularity


Among film genres, romance movies have become re-watchable classics for both casual viewers and more committed audiences. Movies that revolve around love come in all kinds of forms and varieties. Some are interpreted from beloved books, and others are built upon original screenplays, but each one has its manner of touching viewers. Lots of these successful films succeed as single stories, and others become epic journeys that film fanatics revisit with each new chapter within the series. For twelve years, the most successful movie at the box office was Titanic, a romance film.

It can be argued that romance movies reached their ultimate peak years ago. A 2018 analytical article from Stephen Follows discusses the dissolution of romantic comedies: “They hit their height in 2001 when just over 18% of movies in cinemas were both romantic and comedic.” However, over the past decade, the number of romance films has shrunk, and those that have been made have been moved from theaters to streaming.

Yet the tides might be turning soon. While notable genres like superhero films and beloved franchises like Fast & Furious and Mission: Impossible have underperformed, it appears that audiences are in need of something new and romances might be the next big thing. After all, while many cite films like Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Godfather for kicking off the New Hollywood era, one that does not get enough credit is 1970’s Love Story, released by Paramount Pictures one year before The Godfather and tapped into the young filmgoing audience with a romance they could root for. The comeback of romance films can be a multifaceted process that will hopefully make them as popular now as they used to be in their prime.

Update February 9, 2024: In honor of Valentine’s Day and the release of Prime Videos Upgraded, this article has been updated with more ways the romance genre can make a big return, including an embrace of theatrical releases and major investments in the genre.

Include More Diversity

Since romantic stories first made their way from page to screen, a large portion of romance movies have capitalized on a more expected vision of true love. This example has been represented time and time again in mainstream media throughout the years: a straight, white couple. Centering diversity in up-and-coming movies while avoiding tokenizing identities can give way to a new era of romance flicks and assist in their appeal to many more audiences.

So many excellent movies like these are often looked over by certain viewers, like The Photograph or Bros. These films may not all initially appear to be something that will sell well to a lot of moviegoers, but the significance of these stories stands out. More diversity should be found more often in film overall, including race, sexuality, gender identity, class, and/or ability, among other categories.

The box office success of Crazy Rich Asians should show the power of featuring a diverse cast and making romances that are aimed at an audience who has largely been denied their moment in the sun. Past Lives might not be a traditional romance but it certainly has romantic elements to it and grossed a respectable $23 million worldwide and is currently nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

This also applies to streaming hits like the popular To All The Boys I Loved Before, Happiest Season, Rye Lane, Fire Island, Red White and Royal Blue, and Crush, which all put emphasis on either people of color or queer romances. Notably, Happiest Season was originally set for theatrical release, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sony sold the movie to Hulu. One wonders how that holiday romance movie might have done at the box office had it been given the chance. Nonetheless, it goes to show that romances with diverse casts offer audiences something new a formula they have seen done so many times.

Invest in Mid-Budget Films

During the 1990s, rom-coms reached an all-time peak and took center stage as a dominant box office genre. The portrayal of true love, which was certainly captivating and exciting, the widely admired stars, and the idyllic, often mesmerizing setting influenced the success of rom-coms during this time. However, just as with superhero movies today, studios over-saturated the market, and audiences quickly turned off of them. The term “romantic comedy” was treated with the same disdain and unseriousness as “superhero movie” is today.

The thing about the romance genre is it never really went away in terms of box office; just the ceiling of success changed. Due to massive franchise films, the box office numbers skyrocketed, and studios invested in bigger budgets, hoping for higher rewards. Yet when they have invested in romance films and given them good release dates, they tend to do well.

Many people tried to point to the box office disappointment of movies like The Long Shot while films like Won’t You Be My Maybe did well on Netflix as the death of the romantic comedy as a theatrical experience; that also ignores the fact that not only did Crazy Rich Asians become a major box office hit just a few months prior that Five Feet Apart, a teen romance based on a $7 million budget, turned a tidy profit of $45 million domestically and $92 million worldwide while playing against blockbuster movies like Captain Marvel and Shazam!

Related: The 12 Most Underrated Romance Movies of the 2000s, Ranked

The Lost City was released back in March 2022. That romantic comedy starring Channing Tatum and Sandra Bullock grossed $192 million worldwide, and that was in the early months of the audiences’ return to theaters following the COVID-19 pandemic. In October of 2022, Ticket to Paradise, starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, might not have gotten mixed reviews, but audiences didn’t care, and it grossed $168 million worldwide. Sure, that might not be record-breaking numbers, but it certainly did not lose them money.

Then, in 2023, Sony had a big year with two romantic comedies. First was No Hard Feelings, which was produced on a mid-size budget of $45 million but grossed almost $90 million worldwide. Relying on the old-school tactic of banking on a big star like Jennifer Lawrence and having a strong premise with a summer release proved to be a moderate success for Sony Pictures. Then, in December, Sony released Anyone but You. With two beloved stars in the lead roles and gorgeous Australian scenery to captivate audiences, the movie became a sleeper since it opened over the Christmas season, grossing over $151 million worldwide on a $25 million budget.

The lesson here is to invest in mid-budget romantic comedies. Studios like Universal already do this with horror films, investing small to mid-budgets on films that can turn around a decent profit, so why not do the same with romances? While a romantic comedy might not bring in the same level of box office that a Superman movie would, it is hard to argue that investing in three or four $25 million rom-coms won’t lose a studio more money than The Flash lost Warner Bros.

Give Them Theatrical Releases

Around the end of the 2000s and the beginning of the 2010s, two major things happened: The MCU and The Dark Knight kicked off the modern superhero boom, and Netflix started to introduce streaming. Streaming made watching movies easier than ever before and a cheaper alternative to going out to the theaters. Audiences started prioritizing what movies were big-screen worthy and what they could wait to watch at home. That typically meant blockbuster-heavy VFX films were seen as big-screen worthy, and smaller-scale stories were viewed as not losing anything on television.

Rom-coms eventually fell out of favor as big-screen theatrical releases but soon became cheap films to make for streaming services to increase their own libraries, so movies that in the past might have been theatrical releases like To All theBoys I Loved Before and The Kissing Booth were touted as big Netflix originals. Yet, 2023 marked a notable shift. Aside from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, every major superhero movie disappoints or bombs at the box office. The once dominant genre for over a decade started to fall out of favor with audiences. Meanwhile, due to a post-COVID-19 pandemic where audiences are less likely to turn out to the movies than before, smaller-budget to mid-budget films have a better chance.

Prime Video’s newest romance, Upgraded, starring Camila Mendes, has received positive reviews from critics and is getting a release close to Valentine’s Day to get audiences who want something romantic to watch at home over the holiday. Yet one wonders why the film was not released in theaters over Valentine’s Day weekend as the big romance movie couples can go out to see together. Do Madame Web and Bob Marley: One Love have a better chance over Valentine’s Day weekend than Upgraded? A movie released in theaters and then going to streaming has proven to be more valuable for a streamer, so Prime not giving an Upgraded theatrical release and instead making it a streaming exclusive could hurt it more in the long term.

Also, there have been many examples of movies that were originally meant for streaming, but going to a theatrical release actually turned out to be a smart business move. Warner Bros. Discovery chose to release Evil Dead Rise in theaters as opposed to Max as originally planned, and the film grossed $147 million worldwide at the box office. Paramount moved both Smile and 2024’s Mean Girls from Paramount+ exclusives and bumped them up to theatrical releases. Mean Girls has already grossed $93 million worldwide, while Smile grossed $217 million worldwide and, according to Deadline, was one of the most profitable films of 2022.

Romances like Upgraded, Prime Videos 2022 Valentine rom-com I Want You Back, Hulu’s Rosaline, or AppleTV+ musical comedy romance Flora & Son are all movies that likely could have made a small but respectable box office return, particularly at a time when theaters are struggling, and superhero movies have struggled, and there is need for something new.

Adapt More Romance Novels and Embrace Franchises

Romance franchises like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey drew in big blockbuster numbers on par with any superhero or action franchise. While those might have been based on popular books, there are plenty of popular romance novels that are constantly being published that could make strong mid-budget films and even franchises. Some of the most popular romantic films in recent memories have been book adaptations. 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars to 2023’s Red White and Royal Blue, it is clear that the romance genre is filled with rich cinematic potential that audiences will turn out to.

There is also franchise potential. The same formula that Hollywood studios take to superhero films, animated franchises, and horror series could easily be applied to the romance genre. Why make one film when you could have a long-running franchise like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey? Book series like The Spoiler Alert series by Olivia Dade, The Brown Sister Series by Talia Hibbert, and The Heroine Complex series by Sarah Kuhn are just a few of the many examples of how romance books can be mined for franchise potential. One need only look at how well Netflix’s To All The Boys I Loved Before series did on Netflix as a yearly franchise for the streaming service.

Cast Both Newer and More Established Actors

Many romance movies have been successful in the past because of the familiar faces that are found multiple times within the same genre – consider many Jennifer Garner and Amanda Seyfried films, for example. Movie fans already look out for certain actors, so making multiple appearances in the same type of movie usually creates a lot of success. While predictable, this process can unfortunately also get boring after a while, and that’s where including newer actors becomes important.

The new rom-com The Idea of You, which will be released at the beginning of May 2024, will feature one of Hollywood’s most loved actresses, Anne Hathaway, and pair her up with the upcoming British actor known for his role in the 2022 film Purple Hearts, Nicholas Galitzine. The combination of these two actors of different calibers offers an interesting aspect, which will have many fans feeling excited about the comparison of acting skills and the overall outcome. Like any genre, romance movies don’t need to have their original roster forever, so casting choices should grow and shift organically.

Related: The Biggest Rom-Com Actresses of All Time

Films like Lisa Frankenstein and Which Leads Me To You have found a good balance of new talent that also has a solid track record. Lisa Frankenstein’s leads are Kathryn Newtwon, known for roles in films like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Freaky, alongside Cole Sprouse, who is a teenage heartthrob thanks to his role in the series Riverdale and also romance movies like Five Feet Apart. Which Leads Me To You features Lucy Hale and Nat Wolfe, two stars known for their roles in romance movies and television series.

Furthermore, some audience members haven’t delved very far into the world of movies made in countries and languages other than their own. Considering these options opens up a world of possibilities, including cast members who aren’t necessarily new to the realm of film but definitely new to certain viewers. For example, the French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire portrayed a lesbian relationship through actresses Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel. These two were already accomplished in their own film circles before this particular one was released, but since Portrait found fans in America, it appeared more innovative and refreshing to that market. Romance movies aren’t so cookie-cutter anymore, and that gives them an edge that can help take them back to popularity.

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