For obvious reasons, the last few weeks have seen me revisiting a genre that was assigned to the mental dustbin for a decade - RomComs.
The first movie was on Valentine's Day. My girlfriend was travelling with a friend, so after work, I found myself rewatching Notting Hill for the first time since entering adulthood.
Notting Hill was released in 1999 - before 9/11, before the Iraq war, before smartphones, before Facebook, before the global financial crisis, before Brexit. Watching Hugh Grant fret about falling in love with a Hollywood celebrity, all the while managing his struggling travel bookshop, made me nostalgic for a simpler time. That was a time when one's main concern could be grappling with true love. In today's political climate, that feels rather quaint.
The second movie I watched was Before Sunrise. It's about a couple of strangers who meet on a train and end up spending the day together, falling in love, all the while knowing that their time is limited. It's a beautiful movie that revolves around the dialogue these two strangers have as they walk through Vienna together.
I first watched Before Sunrise when I was 15. It tapped into this pre-existing notion that there is a magic to be unlocked by bringing strangers together. In my eyes, strangers colliding represented something that ought not to happen, happening. It has unbounded possibility - in learning, serendipity or love.
This is captured perfectly in a short-scene when a homeless man offers to write the strangers a poem, and if it stirs something in them, they could give him money.
Daydream delusion, Limousine Eyelash
Oh, baby with your pretty face, Drop a tear in my wineglass
Look at those big eyes, See what you mean to me
Sweet cakes and milkshakes, I am a delusion angel
I am a fantasy parade, I want you to know what I think
Don’t want you to guess anymore, You have no idea where I came from
We have no idea where we’re going, Lodged in life,
Like two branches in a river Flowing downstream, Caught in the current
I’ll carry you. You’ll carry me
That’s how it could be
Don’t you know me? Don’t you know me by now?
I actually didn't remember this scene at all from my first viewing, but watching this scene 13 years later made me fall in love with this movie even harder.
Watching these two movies reminded me of the promise of a good Romantic movie.
In a society where feel-good interactions are scarce and optimism for the future is low (environmental catastrophe, political catastrophe, economic catastrophe, etc.), RomComs are a reminder of the magic that exists when strangers meet. Its renewed resonance probably points to a deeper spiritual hole in our lives.
Romance Is (No Longer) Dead?
The Rom-Com genre has undergone an interesting journey over the last few decades. Here are a few of the most interesting developments I found.
1. Movie Producers & Audiences fell out of love with RomComs
Over the last 2 decades, RomComs have seen a declining market share of tickets sold - from 10% in 1999 to 2% in 2019 (US Box Office only). If you were to look at the top 20 grossing RomCom movies of all time, only 1 is in the last decade - Crazy Rich Asians which comes in 14th place. Over the same period, Adventure & Action have scooped up market share (think of the rise in superhero movies).
2. The way people in relationships have met has dramatically changed in the last two decades
For relationships that started in 1999 - the peak of the RomCom genre - the most common way for people to meet was through mutual friends. Over the last two decades, meeting online has skyrocketed (from low single-figure percentage points to over 40% of current relationships starting online.) Over the same time period, meeting in a bar or restaurant has increased from 20% to c.27% of relationships. The cynic in me would say that most of us have resorted to meeting new people through the safety of a screen, and if meeting IRL, we need copious amounts of alcohol to deal with an increasingly unfamiliar context. Does this not translate across to cinema well? Or perhaps we haven't had the right writers / storytellers tell the stories that we're more familiar with today?
3. In the post-MeToo era, RomComs have aged pretty badly
I was watching a scene from The Notebook where Ryan Gosling hangs off the ferris wheel and threatens to let go if his love interest doesn't promise to go on a date with him. Once upon a time, this was considered romantic. Today it feels like psychological abuse and manipulation. There are so many examples of this. But a genre that has normalised stalking, harassment and ignoring consent, doesn't live in today's world the same as it did a few decades ago.
As a side point, in the context of India (where I am based right now), I feel that Bollywood has also had a toxic effect on the way young men treat women and what they think is acceptable behaviour. So many Bollywood "heroes" get the attention of their love interest by harassing, stalking, ogling - and how this has bled through into real-world interactions rarely gets much discussion.
In light of all the above, it was interesting coming across a new podcasting company called MeetCute. It caught my attention for three reasons:
Andy Weissman from USV was an investor and I've been a fan of his tweets & essays on music & culture (in fact, I think it was through him that I discovered Trapital which studies hip-hop through the lens of business strategy, distribution & innovation).
The name sounded cool. I hadn't actually heard of it before but I recently discovered that "meetcute" is a phrase to describe a scenario in which "two individuals are brought together in some unlikely, zany, destined-to-fall-in-love-and-be-together-forever sort of way." It's the 'aha-moment' of a RomCom movie.
I was intrigued by MeetCute's focus being purely on RomCom.
In spite of the above, I definitely didn't quite 'get' it at first.
Granted, one wouldn't associate me as being their primary target audience. But if RomComs were seemingly dead, why was MeetCute purely focusing on it?
What’s To Love about MeetCute?
It's only been since revisiting Notting Hill and Before Sunrise that I can appreciate the genre in our current societal context, and then understand why MeetCute is fascinating.
MeetCute is an efficient & consistent emotional-transformation experience
MeetCute structures itself into series. A series is comprised of 5 episodes, each 3 minutes long, that explore one "meetcute" scenario. The company describes its series as a "MeetCute to Happily Ever After" in 15 minutes.
What I like about this is that the product grounds itself in taking a listener on a specific emotional journey - from two people meeting to a happily-ever-after.
There's no variety in the outcome: there are different "meetcute" scenarios explored, but there is consistency in the emotional journey.
To ground a product in emotional-transformation is something that gets overlooked in conversations around product and community in the consumer space. But to reliably deliver an emotional experience to someone is its own moat - the product is forever associated with how it made you feel.
This is something we've found with HaikuJAM. Our tagline is "write together, feel better". What we so often find is that even if people disappear from HaikuJAM, they eventually come back when they want that 'emotional-delivery' - e.g. I'm feeling down and I want to express myself to feel better.
What's interesting about delivering this in a podcast experience with minimal time-investment is that the emotional fulfilment of the product isn't something that gets tainted with the typical issues of mobile apps. Namely - this is addictive, this is taking over my life, and eventually, the feeling that my life would be better without it.
Whenever someone wants to tap into the magic of a RomCom, MeetCute can do that for you in 15 minutes. It's a powerful hook.
A fixed narrative structure & closed-ended storytelling experience is a breath of fresh air against the winding, confused, made-for-addiction, Netflix-approach to storytelling
Netflix doesn't make me feel good. I get lost in a Netflix series but I don't feel good for doing so. The twists in the meta-narrative of a Netflix Series tends to keep me engaged (and addicted to a series), but the actual details of a story tend to end up being bloated, confusing and ultimately exhausting.
Storytelling in a fixed-structure format where you know the beginning and ending of a series is 15 minutes long, and it's not designed to make me wait for the next series, makes for an interesting consumption experience.
It feeds into the first point around efficient emotional-transformations. A MeetCute series is designed to be a small space of magic that delivers on making you feel good. The simplicity makes the feel-good transformation undiluted.
RomComs resonate more deeply in a world where serendipitous meetings are rare, people are meeting online but not necessarily happy about it, and dating-app fatigue is driving people to seek out "meetcute" scenarios.
I didn't expect to feel the nostalgia I did when watching Notting Hill and Before Sunrise. But the RomCom scenario of just serendipitously meeting someone, fumbling through conversation, and then putting your pride on the line when asking to take things further, feels like an impossible magic today.
RomComs have the opportunity to remind us of something we've lost. It's been interesting seeing a lot of my friends abandon dating apps and turn to real-world physical contexts with the hope of meeting people - e.g. joining Salsa clubs.
Because the ideal scenario of a RomCom are so far away from today's experience, they could have a deeper resonance. Especially if the genre is repackaged to modern consumers without the cultural baggage of the stories from two decades ago.
Building a deep-community around an emotional-experience gives MeetCute leverage in production over potential competitors
After being introduced to podcasts with Serial, what made me go deeper into the podcast format was Beautiful Anonymous.
The premise of Beautiful Anonymous is that Chris Gethard (the host) has a phone call with an anonymous stranger for 60 minutes and everything is recorded.
Before an episode is about to be recorded, Chris posts his phone number on Twitter / Instagram and people phone in for a chance to be heard.
This approach creates a virtuous loop for being able to source stories: the community themselves are the story, and are a continual source of future stories. The chance of being the story incentivises new listeners to want to tell their story and phone up.
Similarly, MeetCute are looking to source real "meetcute" stories from their community for a chance to have it turned into a script. The community in turn provides a repository of stories that MeetCute's team of writers and voice actors can turn into episodes.
What's interesting is that MeetCute also retains IP on the scripts, and can therefore pitch it into stories for other formats - e.g. a Netflix series.
In theory, this production process is community-driven, nimble, and a funnel for potential value-generation if a story succeeds and is sold to a producer for another media format. This is the approach that Wattpad are attempting with its community of fiction writers.
The big 'IF' about this strategy is MeetCute being able to develop a strong community. Judging from a quick look at its Instagram and Twitter, and the stories its currently published, there doesn't seem to be deep engagement around people suggesting stories and having it successfully turned into a podcast series.
Potential for the podcasts to create brand equity and serve as a funnel for other products and experiences
If the Wattpad-approach to monetisation doesn't quite work, I think MeetCute could leverage dissatisfaction with existing dating apps and its brand positioning around 'Happily-Ever-Afters' to create alternative physical or digital world experiences that try to restore the magic in people meeting. There are people doing interesting things in this space - e.g. bighead.app from @Paari where people meet online behind anime avatars.
I love the idea of grounding products as emotion-transformation experiences. I think if a consumer experience reliably helps people feel better, it immediately stands out from the emotionally-draining experiences that monopolize most of our digital life.
While old RomComs carry a lot of cultural baggage of the pre-MeToo days, there is an opportunity to deliver the magic of a RomCom to a new generation of consumers. Doing so as a podcast that is 15 minutes long (in 5 segments of 3 minutes) is perfect for tapping into those small spaces of our day that could do with some more magic.