Welcome to Noticed, Vox’s cultural trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.
What it is: Charming, romantic, and frivolous mid-budget films of the kind we’re used to saying “don’t get made anymore” are back in theaters! The twist: they all feature the same people who used to be in this kind of movie back when they did make mid-budget films and put them in movie theaters on a regular basis. The stars of the ’90s and 2000s are back in a rom-com near you.
Where it is: Currently, you can see George Clooney and Julia Roberts bickering, falling in love, and drunk dancing in theaters in Ticket to Paradise. (Julia does a wasted white girl hair dance of searing authenticity.) Earlier this year, it was Sandra Bullock in The Lost City. In 2018, it was Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder in Destination Wedding. Jennifer Lopez, never one to underachieve, has two of these movies coming out within the space of 11 months: this past February’s Marry Me with Owen Wilson, and Shotgun Wedding with Josh Duhamel, slated to premiere next January.
Why you’re seeing it everywhere:
Sometime in the 2010s, the mid-budget film began to disappear from Hollywood. Movies for grownups about love, justice, and the American way used to be a central part of the movie business. Since they lacked expensive stunts and explosives, they would rely on the power of their stars for appeal. When you went to the movies in the 1990s, odds were good you were going to see a movie star’s charisma on the big screen: Julia Roberts’s brilliant smile; George Clooney’s Cary Grant cool.
As the market contracted under the twin pressures of the 2008 financial crisis and the advent of streaming, studios stopped relying on mid-budget films. They began to focus their energies on tentpole blockbuster movies filled with superheroes and CGI, with a little room in the margins for Oscar-bait prestige films and indie art movies. The easy and reliable charms of the mid-budget film were by and large shuttled over to TV, or went straight to streaming.
None of these new formats, though — the superhero movie, prestige films, or the TV series — are well suited to making movie stars in the old-fashioned sense of the term. Superhero movies are about their IP, not the actors who animate them. Television creates an easy intimacy between audience and actor that doesn’t always translate to box office appeal for the big screen. And while prestige films can still mint stars like Jennifer Lawrence or Anya Taylor-Joy, the whiff of disreputability that lingers around the romantic comedy from its death throes in the 2000s means our latest crop of leading ladies seem little inclined to pick them up again. The new generation of actors who do make romantic comedies, like Zoey Deutch, find themselves stuck in the direct-to-streaming realm.
All of which means that on the occasion a studio does consider making a mid-budget film like a rom-com again, there are very few movie stars available to carry the film.
Without a true star in the lead, a mid-budget film simply won’t be able to justify a theatrical release. People won’t go to a movie theater to watch it, not when they can stay home and watch the Hallmark Channel’s flood of Christmas rom-coms from their couches. So the solution studio execs apparently came to is: go to the previous generation of movie stars. They are, perhaps uniquely in the history of stars, well suited to going back to the trenches of cheerful middlebrow movie-making.
Today’s stars have access to what we might euphemistically call “anti-aging technologies”: the professionally optimized diet, exercise, and skin care regimens that all of them will admit to, and the use of plastic surgery and steroids, which remain shrouded in secrecy. These arcane arts allow Clooney to strip off his shirt on camera at age 61 and Roberts to wear a bikini at age 54 without shocking the prudish and age-phobic American public. After all, Clooney and Roberts don’t look the way normal middle-aged people look. They look like movie stars.
So when you watch one of the new nostalgic rom-coms, you’re generally not watching a romantic comedy where part of the hook is that the lovers are old, à la the Nancy Meyers oeuvre. Instead, you’re watching a romantic comedy just like the ones you grew up on, the ones you still watch every year at Christmas or on a fall night, or when you’re feeling particularly cozy. They even still star the same people.
The mid-budget film may never again take on the cultural supremacy it held in the ’90s. Movie theaters belong to the superheroes for now, to the comic book costumes and the massive crossover events. But for a few more years at least, we can go back to theaters and dream of getting mail again.