Rom Com Fest Brings a New Sort of Genre Fest to L.A.

The feel-good movie gets its moment thanks to Miraya Berke

Horror movies make some people extremely happy (see: me). Miraya Berke is not one of those people. The San Francisco-based event producer—who has a background largely in organizing food festivals—says even thrillers test her. “I’m such a baby,” she admits. “My boyfriend and I were watching Killing Eve and I couldn’t sleep! There was too much blood and stuff. I was like, ‘This doesn’t make me feel good.'”

Genre fests abound in L.A.—Beyond Fest, Screamfest, not to be confused with Shriekfest—but feel-good movie fests are few and far between. Or, like, non-existent—until now. On Thursday, Rom Com Fest kicked off at the Downtown Independent. It’s Berke’s first foray into the film fest space and, as far as she knows, the only film fest devoted to the genre.

In less than a year, Berke curated a slate of both classic romantic comedies and brand new rom coms by indie filmmakers, enlisting big names like Rachel Bloom and 10 Things I Hate About You writers Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith and Karen McCullah to appear in person. Prior to the release of Crazy Rich Asians, there’d been mutterings that the genre was dead, but Berke’s weekend-long fest is evidence that’s far from the case.

So what made you choose rom coms? 

I love rom coms, they are my favorite genre of films, and had the idea for it last year, after I had wrapped up a conference I’d been working on. I watched To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser on Netflix back-to-back, and I was just, like, I just feel so good and happy and loved and warm. I was walking around and saw a flier for a horror film festival, and I was like, “Why are there so many of these genre film festivals?” I looked it up and there wasn’t a rom com one yet, and I was like, “I would much rather go to one like that than a horror-thriller one.”

It almost seems like it has to do with the idea of fandom and how it’s treated like it’s exclusive to men. 

That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Just felt more like, yeah, those are the things that exist and that men like it and go. Crazy Rich Asians was so fun to watch in movie theater and feel that community feel that I haven’t really gotten to experience with other films that I like. When I go to action movies with my boyfriend, they get so excited, so I wanted to create that experience that celebrates much more happy, feel-good genre around love and human relationships and connections.

Crazy Rich Asians was a big return for rom coms.

I feel like Crazy Rich Asians and then all the Netflix movies have proved that there is an audience. And it seems so “duh.” We [women] have the spending power to make the decisions! Give us the things we want. The dessert festival that I organize has a heavily female audience as well. I just feel like women seek creative experiences and beautiful things, and I want to create more of these experiences to celebrate what we adore.

And also a sense of community too, like you said—a big part of a film festival is giving people an opportunity to gather in a theater and watch these together.

Yeah. It’s so different when you’re together. I feel like a lot of times when you think of a festival it’s like multiple locations and you’re rushing from one to the next, and that wasn’t really the vibe I wanted for this. Maybe one day and some version that, but for now I really liked the idea of it being one venue; so everyone is coming, going through the same space, and the lobby is going to be a gathering space with crafts and activities and things people can connect about.

How did you go about programming it?

So I had this idea in October of 2018 and booked the venue in December. I had this idea to show new and classic films. I felt like the classic rom coms are what people get excited about; it’s that nostalgia, it hits home. But I also feel like some of the classics don’t really showcase the depth of what modern love looks like. I wanted to bring in new stories that can kind of do justice to what love looks like, and also have a little more representation and diversity. I had submissions open for a few months, and we had 70 submissions through FilmFreeway. I watched a lot of rom coms, and narrowed it down to the five features and eight shorts that will be screening. I really thought a lot about strong female leads; that was a big goal for me. I didn’t want the damsel in distress, whiny lady. So, trying to think about that, and also just representation and diversity. And also, realism, so not all of them end happily-ever-after, there’s some where they do not.

I always think it’s refreshing when they don’t have happy endings.

For the new films, it was me finding this range of what love looks like, and for the classics was a bit of a mix of wanting to do anniversary screenings. I mean there’s honestly so many classics that I could’ve picked from, and from doing this I’ve learned everyone’s opinion of what the best rom coms are. I had to start somewhere, and hopefully we’ll set it up for so many more ones for future years, but for me 10 Things I Hate About You is one of my all-time favorites and so that was like a dream come true that the writers wanted to be a part of it and they are like rom-com queens, and wrote Legally Blonde and House Bunny and She’s the Man, like so many. So that was really cool and I really wanted Rachel Bloom of Crazy Ex Girlfriend to be a part. I just think that TV show is such a clever take on modern rom-coms too. And so it was actually her idea of curating her favorite rom com to screen. She suggested Never Been Kissed which I thought was the perfect one and also was a 20th anniversary screening…

Romantic comedies get a bad rap for being retrograde and some of them, yeah, are damsel-in-distress stories. Do you feel like watching these newer ones, do you feel like they’ve modernized?

Yeah, some of them for sure. There were still, I was sad- disappointed with some where I thought it was going in one direction and then something happened and I was like, “No, I didn’t want that to happen!” But I think there was enough that I was like, a lot of them were female-written or female-directed that just felt more real and more, “yeah! That’s what would actually happen.”

The ones you wind up choosing, are most of them made by women?

I think it’s all half-and-half, actually. At first I had this vision like they would only be, and then I decided to that was, maybe unfair? That it’s not, there’s definitely mainly women on my advisory word, like, jury, but yeah. One of the new films that’s having it’s L.A premiere is Tracks and it’s a male director and one of the writers is a women but the other three are men, but, it’s wonderful and just feels really real and fun and yeah. Men can write rom coms too.

Has anyone mentioned that Never Been Kissed is really weird because this teacher is in love with somebody who is (supposedly) a teenager?

No one has said that yet! It’s true I guess…

It’s like, Mr. Coulson, what are you doing?

Totally valid. Luckily that’s not come up yet.

Tickets are still available for the weekend’s remaining screenings here.

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