By Bruce Fretts / The New York Times
It may be one of this summer’s most popular movies, but “The Kissing Booth” is not playing at a theater near you. Netflix released the teen rom-com on its streaming service with little fanfare in May, and it quickly swelled into a stealth sensation.
“Fans found it, liked it, and decided to pass it on to other people,” said Vince Marcello, the film’s writer and director. “You can run commercials, you can do all the conventional stuff, but none of it is as powerful as people on their Twitter feeds saying, ‘Oh my God, check this out, it gave me all the feels.’”
Netflix specializes in the soft sell, expecting viewers to stumble across its original films while scrolling through menus of suggestions. “We weren’t aggressively marketing the film,” said Ian Bricke, the service’s director of independent film. “But when people find a movie like this on Netflix, they feel like they’ve discovered it for themselves, and there’s a degree of ownership and investment that translates into word of mouth.”
This user-generated strategy seems fitting given the D.I.Y. origins of “The Kissing Booth.” In 2011, Beth Reekles, a 15-year-old in Wales, started posting chapters of the story on Wattpad, an online platform that allows amateur writers to read and comment on one another’s work.
“It was easier to share it with total strangers online than people I knew,” Ms. Reekles, now 23, said in an email. “I was — and still am — quite self-conscious about my writing.”
Readers responded with surprising ardor to the simple story: An awkward Los Angeles high schooler, Elle, falls for her lifelong best friend Lee’s bad-boy older brother, Noah, after he’s responsible for her first-ever kiss in the fairground attraction of the title. The twist: Elle and Lee adhere to a strict set of rules for their friendship, and one is that dating each other’s relatives is verboten.
“When I first wrote the story, ‘Twilight’ had become popular and all of the young-adult stories I could find were paranormal romances,” Ms. Reekles said. “I just really wanted to read a regular high school romance, and when I couldn’t find that, I wrote my own.”
After Mr. Marcello (who directed four films inspired by American Girl dolls) adapted the novel into a screenplay, Netflix became involved. “We liked the idea that it landed somewhere between an R-rated teen film and younger-skewing fare like Disney Channel movies,” Mr. Bricke said. “The trend in teen movies has been towards edgier, raunchier fare, and it felt like there was a pocket that wasn’t being spoken to.”
That audience swooned for “The Kissing Booth,” with many watching it multiple times. Netflix never releases the equivalent of ratings but it does report that of the viewers who have watched, one in three have seen it more than once, which is 30 percent higher than the normal rate.
Joey King (“Ramona and Beezus”), who plays Elle, said there’s something addictive about the movie. “Young people on Instagram made these fan accounts and started hanging out with each other because they love and relate to it so much.”
The movie has resonated with an older audience as well, Mr. Marcello said: “They’re making comments like, ‘I’m not sure I should be admitting this online, but I’ve watched this movie six times, and I’m 42 years old — oh, God, help me.’”
That was part of the plan all along. Mr. Marcello intended “The Kissing Booth” to be a nostalgia-evoking homage to the teen comedies of the ’80s and ’90s. So he cast the Brat Pack queen Molly Ringwald as Lee and Noah’s mom and used a cover version of “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” from the soundtrack of "The Breakfast Club," in a prom scene.
“The John Hughes films and movies like ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ were formative for me,” Mr. Marcello said. “Hollywood hasn’t been making those kinds of films in recent years, and that’s the reason we’re so hungry for them.”
Not everyone has devoured “The Kissing Booth” with this kind of enthusiasm, however. On the review-aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, the film has received only one positive notice out of eight. IndieWire slammed it as "a sexist and regressive look at relationships“ that highlights the worst impulses of the genre.”
The movie’s star shrugs it off. “The problem with critics, not to bash on them, is that when they’re watching a movie, they’re looking for very specific things,” Ms. King said. “They are forgetting what it’s like to watch a movie and not have to think about how happy you feel. ‘The Kissing Booth’ just makes you feel good.”
Ms. King’s real-life romance with Jacob Elordi, the Australian unknown who plays Noah, has fueled fans’ frenzy for the movie. “It’s exciting for people to know what they saw on screen was real,” Ms. King acknowledged. Added Mr. Marcello, “You never plan for that, you don’t expect it to happen, but they’re so great together, and it shows in every scene.”
The actors’ offscreen chemistry has also raised their profiles online, where they have posted pictures of themselves canoodling. Since the film’s release, Ms. King has gone from 600,000 to 5.4 million followers on Instgram, while Mr. Elordi’s fan base on the same platform has skyrocketed from 15,000 to 4.8 million.
Such popularity leads to the question: Will there be a sequel? “I’d love there to be, but who knows?” Ms. Reekles said. “I know all the fans of the movie and the book would like one.” (On Wattpad, Ms. Reekles has posted "The Beach House," which she describes as “a novella to my book ‘The Kissing Booth’” and follows Lee and Elle over the summer.)
If that happens, the writer might finally make her first-ever trip to Hollywood. Though “The Kissing Booth” is set there, Ms. Reekles said, “I’ve yet to see California.”