Once sidelined, romantic comedies rise again this summer

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Alexa Davies, from left, Jessica Keenan Wynn and Lily James in a scene from "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again," in theaters on July 20. (Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures via AP)

LOS ANGELES — Summer is always full of action and superhero pics, but this year a once dormant yet utterly adored genre is coming back in a big way: the romantic comedy. After a 2017 without any from a major studio, this summer is proving to be a re-birth for this lost Hollywood staple with five notable releases, including “Crazy Rich Asians “ and a “Mamma Mia! “ sequel.

The reasons for the genre’s decline are many. A post-recession focus on international audiences, franchises and superheroes have helped to push rom-coms off the priority list for studios. Also, after a long and fruitful run in the late ’80s through the 2000s, enthusiasm started to wane. They had become stale. There were a few outliers, of course, like Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck,” but the big studio rom-coms became derivative, lazy and dull.

“They didn’t reflect the way that society was changing. They were all about white, straight couples. They fell back on the conventions that define the genre,” said Erin Carlson, author of the book “I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy” and an upcoming book about the films of Meryl Streep. “People just got tired of them.”

A death, of sorts, was necessary for the genre to rise again with a new set of voices. It didn’t hurt that “The Big Sick” made a splash at the box office and went on to get a screenwriting Oscar nomination — the kind of prestigious recognition rarely afforded to classic rom-coms that don’t have a “Silver Linings Playbook” edge.

“(‘The Big Sick’) showed that people still want a good rom-com at the multiplex, but they want one that pushes the genre forward in new, interesting ways that reflect real life today, not tired tropes of yesterday,” Carlson said.

And indeed, the rom-coms of 2018 are continuing that forward movement. Earlier in the year there was Paramount’s “Book Club” and its focus on older women, 20th Century Fox’s “Love, Simon’s” gay, teen protagonist, and the bilingual “Overboard,” which has become the highest-grossing film for Pantelion Films.

“Set It Up ,” a Netflix release out Friday, is perhaps the most throw-back of all the upcoming films. It is about people with actual jobs that consume their lives instead of playing a glamorous backdrop to whatever romantic exploits the movie dictates. Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell star as assistants who decide to set up their miserable and difficult bosses, played by Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs.

It was dreamt up by Juliet Berman, the head of development for Treehouse Pictures, and screenwriter Katie Silberman, both ardent rom-com fans who met as assistants in Los Angeles.

“I grew up at a time when rom-coms didn’t have a negative connotation, they were just my favorite movies,” Silberman said. “I wanted for a long time to try to write something that would make audiences feel the way the movies I loved growing up made me feel. They’re fun and kind and warm and nice and smart.”

The script got the attention of Hollywood with a spot on the coveted Black List in 2015, a survey of the industry’s best unproduced screenplays. It was picked up by MGM and even had “Game of Thrones'” Emilia Clarke to star, but it started to fall apart when the studio wavered and Clarke had to go back to shoot her television show. The team, including Powell, was undeterred.

“We met with a lot of people who really liked the script but so many people would say, ‘oh it’s not right for our platform,’ or ‘it’s not right for our slate,'” said “Set It Up” director Claire Scanlon. “There were so many rules for people who were picking up films and if it didn’t fit perfectly with exactly what they had coming out, then they didn’t want to do it.”