The Golden Era Of Rom-Coms: What Caused It And Why Did It End?

There’s nothing like watching a rom-com from the ‘90s or early 2000s. The genre may be experiencing a resurgence, but why did they ever go out of style in the first place?

By Meghan Dillon4 min read
Screen Shot 2023-08-24 at 2.30.48 PM
Paramount Pictures/Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Picture this: You’ve been tasked with picking a movie for a girls’ night in. You scroll through new releases via your favorite streaming platform to try to find something good but give up after a few minutes before selecting a rom-com that you loved as a teenager. Have you seen it so many times that you can quote most of it word-by-word? Well, yes, but it’s so much better than movies that are made today.

How did this happen? We're here to break down the golden era of rom-coms, how it ended, and get to the bottom of why we don’t see cute and funny love stories in movies like we did in the ‘90s and 2000s.

The Rise and Fall of Rom-Coms

While there were plenty of popular rom-coms in Old Hollywood like It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it’s safe to say that the true golden age of rom-coms lasted from the late ‘80s to mid-2000s. The mid-1980s had great teen rom-coms like Sixteen Candles and Pretty and Pink, but one of the best rom-coms of all time, When Harry Met Sally, was released in 1989.

What makes What Harry Met Sally so good is that its main focus is on Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally’s (Meg Ryan) friendship and how it develops into a romantic relationship. We see a few other aspects of their life, like their friends (who also eventually end up together), and the story revolves around different types of relationships. It’s funny and relatable, and the characters are the perfect mix of likable and flawed, which makes them easy to root for. Some will argue that it’s cliche and predictable, but that’s what makes it so great. It’s a fun movie with a simple message about love and romance, which is why it’s still popular today.

The success of When Harry Met Sally created the foundation for the golden age of romantic comedies, and movies that told funny and simple love stories became a Hollywood staple. From Meg Ryan classics like Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail to legendary Julia Roberts movies like Pretty Woman, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill, and Runaway Bride, many of these movies dominated the ‘90s. 

In the early 2000s, many rom-coms told stories of career-driven women finding love in precarious situations. Movies like How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, Legally Blonde, The Proposal, and Sweet Home Alabama showed women they could have love and a career. The genre also expanded to family-friendly rom-coms like The Princess Diaries and A Cinderella Story to raunchier movies like John Tucker Must Die and Knocked Up, opening the genre to a wider audience. Even though the genre was expanding, these stories still focused on love, romance, and comedy above everything else. 

It appeared that the rom-com genre was thriving, but the strong female character archetype was concomitantly rising to prevalence at this time. There were plenty of characters who fit this trope who still found love (think of Katniss from The Hunger Games or Diana in Wonder Woman), but the emergence of action and sci-fi movies in the late 2000s and early 2010s led to the creation of female characters who didn’t need a man. This ranges from Disney princesses like Merida from Brave, Carol from Captain Marvel, and Rey from the Star Wars sequel series. As superhero, sci-fi, and action movies gained popularity in the 2010s (mainly due to the Marvel Cinematic Universe), rom-coms fell out of style.

Movies Aren’t Made for Entertainment Anymore

If you think today’s movies aren’t as good as ones from the ‘90s and 2000s, you’re far from alone. One of the answers as to why is surprisingly simple: Hollywood can’t afford to make movies like rom-coms anymore.

In a 2021 episode of First We Feast, actor Matt Damon was asked why movies don’t connect with audiences like they used to. Damon said, “What happened was the DVD was a huge part of our business and our revenue stream, and technology has made that obsolete. The movies that we used to make, you could afford to not make all of your money when it played in the theater because you knew you had the DVD coming behind the release. Six months later, you’d get another chunk, it would be like reopening the movie. When that went away, that changed the type of movies that we could make.”

He went on to explain that movies like love stories are a huge gamble in Hollywood because if you want to make a profit, you have to know that you’ll make it big at the box office – your one and only chance to make a profit. This is why superhero movies, movies with existing IPs (like Barbie), reboots, and remakes are so common nowadays – they already have a built-in audience. It’s easy for studios like Disney to make live-action remakes of beloved classics because they feel guaranteed to make a profit, while a new story idea with new characters is risky.

It’s true movies have always been made with profits in mind (as is everything in business), and it’s also clear that studios are prioritizing profit over creativity and entertainment more than ever before. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only reason why movies feel different nowadays, though. Plenty of movies, like the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, were made for political and ideological reasons, aiming to show that women were just as good as men by way of being capable of leading male-dominated franchises. Even the arc of the kinds of popular rom-coms in the ‘90s and 2000s shows the influence of feminism: First, it was just about falling in love, then it was about a career woman falling in love, and then it was the “strong independent woman.” What comes next in the progression of modern feminism? The woman doesn’t need a man, of course. And you can’t tell a rom-com with that mindset.

Many modern movies walk on eggshells in an attempt to not offend anyone, but the inconvenient truth is that someone who is determined to be offended by everything will always find something to be offended by. This not only makes for boring movies but takes the creativity out of telling what would otherwise be good stories.

The rom-coms of the ‘90s and the 2000s didn’t have to abide by these rules, which is largely what made them so entertaining. Movies like Mean Girls offered a thoughtful commentary on why young women are mean to each other while making audiences laugh, and movies can still do this if they are willing to take creative (and box office) risks.

Fortunately, it seems as if we’re seeing a turn in the right direction. Summer blockbusters are back, and audiences are getting sick of movies with politically correct messages. 

Are We in a Movie Resurgence?

Last summer, Top Gun: Maverick dominated the box office, proving that summer blockbusters were still popular in a post-Covid world. This year, millions flocked to theaters to see Barbie and Oppenheimer, creating one of the most successful weekends in box office history. All three movies had built-in audiences (Top Gun and Barbie had existing IPs, and Oppenheimer was sure to be a hit as a biopic on a prominent historical figure), but that didn’t stop the filmmakers from making an entertaining movie. They took creative risks and successfully told stories with timeless messages, proving that it’s still possible to make a good movie that’s profitable in modern Hollywood. Filmmakers should take note, for they could all learn a thing or two from the success of these three very different but very successful movies.

From To All The Boys I Loved Before to The Summer I Turned Pretty, it’s clear that rom-coms are seeing a resurgence through streaming services. Women want to watch love stories, which can be further seen from the backlash toward the live-action Snow White remake. Set to release in 2024, actress Rachel Zegler has been vocal about how the movie is going to be “modern” and how Snow White “won’t be saved by the Prince.” These comments blew up on social media, with many fans taking to TikTok to voice that they’re sick of these narratives and just want to watch love stories again. 

As much as #girlboss feminism has tried to convince young women that we shouldn’t want to fall in love, it’s clear that they’ve failed miserably. The resurgence of rom-coms and criticisms of the strong female lead archetype is proof that women believe that wanting a relationship doesn’t make you weak, a lesson that Hollywood should have learned by now.

Closing Thoughts

The golden era of rom-coms has been over for a while, and most of us miss seeing these sweet and fun love stories on the big screen. While they might not be as profitable as they once were, they’re making a resurgence via streaming services, and it’s clear that audiences are thrilled about it. With summer blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick, Barbie, and Oppenheimer making a comeback, it’s only a matter of time until we start seeing the return of genuinely entertaining rom-coms like the ones we grew up loving.

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