Romance is wilting in theaters but abloom on Netflix

Remember love?
Remember love?
Image: Netflix/KC Baily
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Maybe it’s all that Netflix and chilling. The streaming service found that more than 80 million of its accounts, or about two-thirds of its global subscriber base, watched a romance film on Netflix sometime between March 2017 and March 2018.

Even as Hollywood releases fewer romantic comedies and dramas, Netflix users apparently remain suckers for a good love story. And the platform, which has been investing in more of its own films, released a slew of original romances this year, including The Kissing Booth, Ibiza, Alex Strangelove, and Set It Up. Today (June 20), Netflix announced a new slate of romantic movies that will come out this summer, including Like Father, which stars Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammer; To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a teen drama adapted from a popular young adult book series; and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a period film based on a historical novel comprised of letters written between two lovers.

For a subscription service like Netflix that needs a steady supply of original content, a romance typically offers good bang for the buck. Romantic films can be made on relatively modest budgets and don’t need big stars to be a hit with audiences. The highest grossing romantic comedy to date, unadjusted for inflation, is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and it was released more than 15 years ago—starring mostly unknowns at the time.

That’s why romantic films also make good fare for TV movies like those on Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel, which does particularly well with holiday romances during Christmas (paywall). There’s clearly an audience for them on Netflix, too.

Netflix’s focus on love stories coincides with Hollywood’s apparent retreat from producing romantic movies for the theater. Fewer romantic comedies hit US cinemas last year than in any year since 1989, Box Office Mojo data shows; there were just six, including three movies—The Layover, Almost Friends, and Literally, Right Before Aaron—that had such limited releases their box office runs were not captured by the movie tracking site.

With competition from TV and streaming services like Netflix, movie studios are increasingly looking for films that can be turned into franchises or have stars big enough to compel audiences to go to the theater to see them on the big screen. Romantic comedies rarely fit that bill.

The studios that are continuing to take shots on romantic comedies are leaning toward quirky, modern-day love stories like Amazon and Lionsgate’s The Big Sick and Warner Bros’ Crazy Rich Asians, due out later this year, or romantic dramedies such as Silver Linings Playbook. That 2012 film was the top-earning romantic comedy in the last five years, with $132 million in domestic box office returns, and it won Jennifer Lawrence an Academy Award for best actress that year.

Elsewhere in the romance genre, sexy dramas based on popular franchises such as Fifty Shades of Grey have stood out at the box office in recent years, as have teen romances like Love, Simon and The Fault In Our Stars. But such films are also coming fewer and farther between to theaters.

In any case, Netflix’s numbers suggest that there is still a global audience for romances, and the streaming service is meeting that appetite with its own slate of romantic originals and back catalog of movies this summer. The company did not break down where viewership of romance films was strongest in the world, but noted viewing was global. Netflix had 55 million accounts in the US, as of March, and 125 million worldwide.