Romancing the Screen: Could a Bridgerton effect give the romance genre a Hollywood ending?
From when Rick looked at Ilsa to when Harry met Sally, Hollywood has always been in love with love. But until recently, its attitude toward the lucrative romance-publishing industry (which accounts for a quarter of all fiction sales annually) remained dismissive. Juggernauts like Fifty Shades nabbed film adaptations, but predominantly, romance readers had to settle for the likes of chaste, low-budget Lacey Chabert Hallmark vehicles aimed squarely at a lily-white demographic.
"Everybody was not just watching Bridgerton, but talking about it," reflects Gersh agent Alice Lawson, who represents romance authors like Sarah MacLean. "It became a cultural conversation. You can't say that about everything, even if it gets a lot of eyeballs."
Bridgerton's rapturous success builds on the 2018 rom-com renaissance spurred by fellow Netflix triumphs To All the Boys I've Loved Before — itself based on a trilogy of YA romance novels — Virgin River, and Sweet Magnolias; and Starz had already courted a rabid fan base a few years prior with its own steamy romance-adjacent property, Outlander.
But as the most successful original TV series in Netflix's history, Bridgerton should be a wake-up call to Hollywood that romance novels offer a wealth of untapped source material. "Romance is an underestimated powerhouse," reflects Jenna Dewan, who is producing an adaptation of Christina Lauren's rom-com Roomies through her production company Everheart. "It's a female-driven market; it outsells every other genre in fiction. It's at the forefront of some many of our cultural shifts, so it makes sense that it's causing Hollywood to sit up and take notice."
Why then has romance been ignored for so long? Part of it is Hollywood's enduring reluctance to foreground women's voices. "Romance novels were considered a little bit of a guilty secret," says Jinny Howe, Netflix's VP of original series. "What's so guilty about it? When you look at it through the male POV, it perhaps feels a little frivolous. But as we're exploring different lenses into female desire and female power, it's all up for grabs in a way it hasn't been before."
Lawson echoes this sentiment, chalking the disinterest in the genre up to sexism. "People are like, 'It's silly stuff for women,' and they just brush it aside as being fluff," she adds. "What they miss is romance is very feminist."
Jenny Han, who wrote the To All The Boys novels and is now developing her series The Summer I Turned Pretty for Amazon (which she calls "even more romantic"), sees love as the glue that holds all stories together. "Romance shows up in every genre because that's what people care about," she says. "Ultimately, at the end of the world or during a war or an apocalypse or a pandemic, what really matters is love. That's where the stakes are the highest, [whether] it's at the center of the story or not."
Erika Tsang, editorial director of Bridgerton publisher Avon Books, credits the steep financial investment and respect for storytelling of Shondaland—Shonda Rhimes' production company—for finally making audiences and executives swoon. "Historically, romance has not been taken seriously," she says. "Shondaland had a certain vision and put a lot of money and effort into the production."
Executive Producer Betsy Beers previously told EW that both the themes of Bridgerton and upending genre expectations were part of Shondaland's DNA. "There's a general accessibility about the storytelling and the characters that overtakes people's expectations," she said. "On all of our shows, there's often a bias about what you think you're going to see. But there's many things we're trying to say about the world and characters and power structures and the relationship between men and women."
Indeed, the impact of the Shondaland brand is so great author Rebekah Weatherspoon fears it might actually hinder romance's success beyond Bridgerton. "Bridgerton is its own beast because it's a Shonda thing," she reflects. "I'm not 100 percent sure executives are looking at that as a romance adaptation. I think they're looking at it as a Shonda Rhimes show."
Weatherspoon's Cowboys of California series has recently been optioned by Sweet Magnolias and Queen Sugar producer Valerie C. Woods. But Weatherspoon worries outmoded Hollywood perceptions of romance will limit the potential for a Bridgerton bump. "In an executive's mind, Nicholas Sparks is someone who writes books that really lend themselves to great romance movies, even though they're not actually romances," she adds. "I think there's a disconnect between film/TV executives and the romance reading community."
Still, if Hollywood invests, Howe, who helped shepherd Bridgerton to its explosive success, believes audiences will connect the dots and flock to romance. "Bridgerton demonstrates that you can play with established genres and reimagine them and make them your own," she says. "Besides it being period, it felt very fresh, very contemporary, and the Bridgerton success is going to be twofold and open up more avenues in both that contemporary modern space and period romance space."
Bridgerton also hit at a time when audiences were thirsty for escapism and human contact: during an isolating pandemic. "We tend to de-prioritize stories that are all about joy and elevate stories about pain and struggle, because they're considered more complex and important," says Dewan. "But romance is about human connection [and] we're in a moment where that hopeful message is wildly popular."
But does all this buzz (and a swift season 2 renewal — followed soon after by plans for seasons 3 and 4) actually equate to a tangible "Bridgerton Effect"? "The romance genre has always been a rich source," notes UTA agent Mary Pender. "But it's been relegated to places like Lifetime, whereas Netflix gives it an opportunity to be seen by a broader audience." The biggest audience in Netflix history to be precise.
Will Hollywood take that love lesson to heart? "Bridgerton has made its mark," Howe affirms. "The audience has spoken and it's very loud and clear. It's not only given us permission, but really encouraged us to try to find more of these opportunities and define them quickly because we have a very hungry, under-served audience."
Tsang marks an uptick in interest for Avon properties, chiefly in the form of informational meetings. Books aren't yet flying off the shelves to be optioned, but many say the energy in the room has changed.
Bea and Leah Koch, who own romance bookstore the Ripped Bodice in L.A., have had a first-look deal with Sony Pictures Television since 2018, trying to adapt novels like Beverly Jenkins' Old West tale Forbidden. Though Hollywood is still slow to greenlight projects, Leah has noticed a shift in attitudes. "The main change is in the hearts and minds of executives," she notes. "They're willing to take you more seriously, and 'romance novel' doesn't result in an immediate door slam the way it once did. It is easier to get meetings, and they are more interested in what we're selling."
Lawson has also pivoted to selling her client's work as romance with a capital R. "A lot of people try to frame romance by saying 'romantic comedy' to make it more palatable," she explains. "The framing of it has changed. With some people, romance was a dirty word, and now it can actually be true, blue romance."
Many of these romance projects, including an adaptation of bestselling novel The Hating Game which wrapped production in late 2020, were in the works before Bridgerton exploded. Beloved titles, including Alyssa Cole's A Princess in Theory, Mia Sosa's The Worst Best Man, Farrah Rochon's The Boyfriend Project, and Alexa Martin's Playbook series, were optioned prior to the premiere of Bridgerton. And given the sluggish speed of Hollywood deal-making, announcements that have happened since, such as the ones for Kennedy Ryan's Hoops/All the King's Men series and Weatherspoon's Cowboys of California series, were likely already in the works.
But some that have languished in development like Forbidden and Roomies have gained steam. Even the romance publishing industry itself is up for grabs with Peacock developing What She Said, a new series inspired by Bim Adewunmi's 2018 BuzzFeed News story Meet the Women Who Are Building a Better Romance Industry featuring a romance editor heroine.
"Bridgerton seems to have re-energized a lot of enthusiasm for the genre and people are realizing there's a business opportunity here," notes Howe.
In March, production company MRC Film announced a new label to focus exclusively on romance movies. Their announcement described the label as focusing "on the romance genre with a wide berth of stories that are inclusive and expansive, traditional and modern, original and literature based, and real-life stories catering to all audiences."
Dewan says the impact has been noticeable with Roomies. Village Roadshow has recently signed on, and they're nearly ready to begin casting. "We've had Roomies in development for a few years and all of a sudden we're getting incoming calls asking where we're at it with it," she says. "The tide turned a little bit from hustling to get to the next step to people asking us how do we make the next step? The success of Bridgerton for sure opened up the doors for Hollywood executives to be much more open to making a movie like ours."
Bridgerton also proves how ideal streamers and television are as a space for romance adaptation. Over the last few years, the number of producers and production companies interested in this type of content has grown exponentially, a major contrast to the rom-com heyday of the 1990s where a few women like Lauren Shuler Donner and Lynda Obst dominated the genre.
"With the rise of streamers, there's a lot more people who want to play ball with that genre," notes Lawson. "Four years ago, everybody would have said Hello Sunshine. Now there's more, and you don't have to position it as we specialize in a rom-com space. It's just something they also do."
Perhaps part of why it's taken so long to mine romance novels as source material is the fact that streaming platforms are practically built for their type of storytelling, which is often both sexy beyond the PG-restrictions of network TV and serialized. "You tell the story in the format that it needs to be told," Pender adds. "As opposed to trying to shove it to fit into an existing mold of a 90-minute movie or an hour/half-hour episode."
Romance novels are predominantly serialized, following interconnected characters with a different couple at the forefront of each book in the series. It's the type of drama and world-building that fits in perfectly with the flow of multiple seasons of television (even if that does sometimes come with the unfortunate by-product of losing your breakout star after one season).
"If studios are looking for more content that is good, comes with a built-in viewership and already has your story fleshed out for, [then romance is it]," Weatherspoon adds. "You have the bones of something. And coming at a new project where you already have the bones, it's a blueprint when you walk into the writers' room. I would hope that Hollywood would see that there are so many stories that are already there."
Han adds that romance's emphasis on character also meshes well in this medium. "TV makes sense because you get to really dig into the characters," she says. "Romance is really character-driven and less high concept, usually, and it's more about the characters' inner lives. You can really do that in TV and tell a long story."
The successes of the To All the Boys trilogy and Bridgerton also come with a lesson both publishing and Hollywood must take to heart: While To All the Boys had Korean culture built into its storytelling, Bridgerton updated its white source material with color-conscious choices. "Any way you can find to broaden your idea about [who] can fall in love is a good thing," reflects Han. "For a long time, we only saw certain kinds of people fall in love."
But there's still ample room for improvement. "There's an untapped perspective in the romance space we haven't seen before," Howe says, "and these different entry points keep the genre feeling robust, dynamic, and reflective of today." This includes LGBTQ romance, like Casey McQuiston's best-selling Red, White & Royal Blue, which Amazon and Greg Berlanti are developing. "We need more happy queer stories," affirms Weatherspoon.
In the case of Roomies, the novel originally featured an undocumented Irish-immigrant hero, Calvin, who is now Mateo Perez in the screenplay. "Ballrooms or Broadway or however you slice it, romance is about everyone getting their happily ever after," asserts Dewan.
Ever-expanding backlists are there waiting to make executives and creatives burn for them. And after Bridgerton, romance publishing and Hollywood might just get their happy ending.