Maybe you’re just not as interesting as you think you are

The online magazine IndieWire has noted something interesting:  movies with gay leading characters aren’t doing big box office.  In the 90s, movies such as The Birdcage (based on the audience tested La Cage aux Folles), Philadelphia (about the still-headlining catching scourge AIDS), and In & Out (with a pleasing Kevin Kline as a gay teacher trying to hide in the closet) were big sellers.  In the first decade of the 21st century, the numbers went even higher with Brokeback Mountain (surely one of the most demoralizing movies about gays ever made), which grossed over $80 million in 2005.  Other gay-themed movies didn’t do as well in that decade (topping out in the $60 million range with Sacha Baron Cohen’s gross-out Bruno), but they were still bringing at least $30 million each.

In the last few years, though, gay themed movies (that is, movies with the main protagonists being gay), have failed to bring in the big money.  IndieWire assembles the numbers:

Top Grossing Films With Lead LGBT Character (2010-present)
1. The Kids Are All Right (2010) – $20,811,365
2. I Love You, Phillip Morris (2010) – $2,037,459
3. Farewell My Queen (2012) – $1,347,990
4. I’m So Excited (2013) – $1,216,168
5. La Mission (2010) – $1,062,941

Even the highest grossing of the bunch couldn’t match the lowest grossing gay-themed movie from a decade earlier, well the remaining ones couldn’t even get into the high single digits (when counting by millions).  So what happened?  IndieWire offers five theories, only the fifth of which I’ll quote in its entirety:

1. There’s just not as much of a need for these films anymore. [snip]

2. There are less LGBT films being made, so there will clearly be less of them grossing $1 million. [snip]

3. There are less marketable LGBT films being made. [snip]

4. All the good LGBT representation is on TV.  [snip]

5. The market has simply changed. Here’s where the most significant answer lies, and it very much encompasses the last 4 explanations as well.  The economic world of film is vastly different in 2013 than it was in 1993 or 2003.  Back in the 1990s, studios were making the kind of mid-budget films in which “Philadelphia,” “In & Out, “The Birdcage” and “To Wong Foo” encompass. Then in the 2000s when studios all had started specialty divisions (like Universal’s Focus Features and Fox’s Fox Searchlight), LGBT content seemed to be delegated there with smaller budgets (like with “Brokeback Mountain,” “Kinsey,” “Milk,” and “Capote”).  Nowadays, even those kind of $15-$20 million budgeted LGBT films are rare.

I think that the “market has changed” theory is on the right track, but it’s too narrow an analysis.  The problem for blockbuster gay-themed movies isn’t just the “type” of movies being made (i.e., big budget versus small, art film versus action, etc.).  It seems to me the audience just isn’t that interested anymore.  Depending on which statistics you believe, a generous count is that the entire LGBT spectrum, from “L” all the way through “T” makes up at most 10% of the population.  Straight women who want romances or rom-coms aren’t going to want to see gays or lesbians as the main characters.  Straight men who want action movies aren’t going to be interested in anything but a macho lead, because the little boy part of each men still thinks that, under the right circumstances, he too can be that hero.  Teen boys through to young men in their early 20s, who seem to be homophobic no matter how gay-friendly and supportive their community is, will watch gay stuff only in the context of gross-out sex and feces jokes, a la Bruno.

The gay-themed movies of the past had broad audience reach for reasons very specific to those movies:  Some, like Philadelphia spoke to very big issues with which society was struggling.  Others, like The Birdcage and In & Out, had brilliant (and, I might add, straight) comedic actors with great scripts that happened to tap into a time when audiences still got a sort of thrill from being hip enough to watch a gay-themed movie.  Brokeback Mountain?  Great acting and a serious plot about pathetic human beings.  That’s got to appeal to the nation’s “elite” movie-goers.  Also, it was a sufficiently serious movie that people who would normally only be willing to watch gays in a comedic context could contemplate the spectacle of watching R-rated gay sex in a movie theater without any laugh lines.  (Incidentally, effeminate comic figures have been in Hollywood movies since the dawn of talkies; other than that, they stayed discretely locked away, both on screen and off.)

But now, for the majority of straight Americans, the thrill is gone.  Gays are indeed ubiquitous on TV.  They’re also pushing to the forefront of the media everywhere, in numbers disproportionate to their representation in the American population.  The vast number of Americans are not homophobic, even if they don’t want the ancient institution of marriage extended to gays.  And as for gay marriage, increasing numbers of Americans support that too.

We no longer see gays as stock comic figures.  We no longer see gays as tragic martyrs to disease.  We no longer see gays as closeted victims.  We no longer see gay images in movies as titillating.  And, assuming we’re heterosexual, we don’t see them as acceptable lead characters in romances, rom-cons, action movies, or teen flicks.  That leaves a very, very small market for movies with gay leading characters.

In other words, now that straights have run out of reasons to see gay movies just because they’re gay, it turns out that gays might not be as interesting as they think they are.  A gay movie has to offer entertainment on its on terms without preaching at audiences.  And gays probably want to make movies that aren’t demeaning to them — which I think Bruno (staring the straight Baron Cohen) was, insofar as it presented gay sexual behaviors as grotesque, disgusting, and perverse.

Until a gay-charactered movie has crossover appeal, offering a solid product that appeals to Americans’ cravings for comedy, romance, action, or serious stuff (which, insofar as gays goes, has mostly been done), I supect gay-themed movies will continue to languish economically.

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  • 11B40

    But, but, but, I thought propaganda was supposed to be free ???

  • jj

    You’ve landed squarely on the basic issue – which I’m sure you knew.  Anybody who self-selects a target audience of fewer than 10% of the population is leading with his/her/its chin anyway.  Most businesses pretty generally try to hit the broadest audience possible, that being generally recognized as the best way to make money, which is why we’re here doing this.  The other 90%+ are done with being fascinated with – or even vaguely interested in – just the proposition itself.  You want my attention, you better tell me a story, and it should be somewhat compelling.  Just throwing “gay” at me never did get it done (me, personally), and these days doesn’t get it done for just about anybody.
    IndieWire could skip their first four reasons.  The first one’s just silly; was there ever a ‘need?’  The second and third ones are, along with being silly, grammatical atrocities.  The fourth is ridiculous, TV has never been and is not now allowed to be as gritty as film, so you get absurd characterizations, and (at best) a touch-and-go relationship with reality.
    I’ve said this before, but it never gets stale: the purpose of Hollywood is the same as the purpose of GE, Boeing, Ford, and McDonald’s: to make money.  When they’re making money then they’ll do stuff for other reasons, like political propaganda.  When they’re not flush they won’t: and all energy will be focused on the main purpose.  Nobody’s flush right now, and gay doesn’t pay.  Ergo: forget it.  

  • Charles Martel

    I’m going to go with the “you’re just not that interesting” theory. The sexual angst and concerns of a small part of the population don’t interest or fascinate me, same as I could not care less about the sexual travails of 20-something heterosexuals.
    I enjoyed watching “Glee” until it became all gay/all the time. I didn’t like being force fed tropes about how enlightened I have to be in dealing with simpering, effeminate narcissists like Kurt. It was like being drowned in treacle—which is not entertaining.

  • Mike Devx

    Well, I’m both gay and a movie fan, and I haven’t even HEARD of those movies released in the last decade or so.
    The three you mentioned aerlier were much more high profile:
    – The Birdcage had Robin Willians and Nathan Lane, and they were awfully good.  
    – Philadelphia was good, I suppose, but it was a big statement movie with Ton Hanks and Denzel Washington, and directed by Jonathan Demme, who also did the classic Talking Heads concert tim, and Silence of the Lambs.
    – In And Out was a smaller success, and I think mainly because it had Kevin Kline and Joan Cusack, who were both mdeium-level comic draws.
    So I think you had three movies with unusually broad appeal. The liberal politics of all three would irritate me these days, but I do remember that in general, those three were simply well-made movies.
    Thankfully, they don’t seem to be throwing many gay characters into movies anymore just to prove how wonderfully LIBERAL and TOLERANT they are.  The last liberal’ movie I saw by accident was Legally Blonde 2 (I was dragged to it oy others) and it had the most egregious, ridiculous and awful inclusion of a gay character that I think has ever been in a movie, to the point where even my outright liberal friends commented that they were embarrassed by it.

  • Call me Lennie

    Brokeback Mountain may have grossed over $80 million (actually it was more like $90 million)  But it never made much more than half a million each week.  Normally, a movie with this box office would open with a $10 million opening week. BBM never came close to this; not even 10% of this
    What I draw from this is that there really wasn’t a large audience for this movie, but that many in the audience (gay men, of course) went to see it over and over and over again; not just to be entertained and moved but also to make a statement with the box office total itself.  And of course, the media assisted with endless trumpeting of the increasing box office and how this was a historical moment, et cetera. Eventually, some people in the mainstream went to see the movie to see what all the hoop-la was about
    Without this repeat attendance and the tendentious assistance of the media, this movie would have limped to a $20 to $30 million box office as that is the sort of total you would expect for a movie opening at less than a million a week

  • Ron19

     “Maybe you’re just not as interesting as you think you are” 
    aka, Borrring.
    For reference, I thought “The Boys in the Band” was an excellent movie.

  • barbtheevilgenius

    I would like to understand what you mean by the term “homophobic.” You don’t have to be afraid of gay people , or even hate them, to disapprove of what they do. In addition, males who have anal sex are using a part of the body for something that it was never made for. I understand that some people have certain desires, but using the body in unnatural ways seems “unnatural.”
    Teenage boys who make fun of homosexual kids are the same ones who make fun of other kids for different things. One of my daughter’s friends got christened “Amish girl” because she is not dating yet, and dresses conservatively, albeit with her own style. No dresses all the time, no long skirts all the time, no head cap, but she is different enough to get singled out. Are these boys “phobic” about people who stand out from the crowd for one reason or another, or are they just juvenile enough to enjoy making fun of others?

  • jj

    Barb is right: teenage boys make fun of practically everything, including each other.  I was one once, I know!  There was nothing we all enjoyed more than watching a natural leader screw something up and fall flat on his face.  Teenage girls are not much better, and may be more vicious.
    Barb – and Mike – also kick me into a bit of a reminiscence.  I think most guys, except the real professional dickheads, had lines we would not cross.  There is ‘different,’ and then there is ‘different.’  Kids who are different because that’s the way nature made them will draw incredulous looks and remarks for the first couple of days, and then once everybody figures out what the deal is that stuff usually stops.  (A couple of the truly mean-spirited kids, or serious bullies may have to be stopped rather than getting the message and stopping on their own – and they probably will be, as necessary.) 
    And then there are the kids who are different in pursuit of something: individuality, their own vision, whatever.  Amish Girl is probably a good example: she goes her own way, and the fact that she has attained a nickname, (and not a cruel one, she’s ‘Amish Girl;” not ‘Assface,’ or ‘Gimpy,’ or something), is probably a positive accomplishment.  Kids aspire to positive nicknames, it’s usually a mark of acceptance and even admiration.  A good nickname is a plus, not a denigration. 
    And then of course there are guys who just don’t like somebody, for whatever reason.  The stronger in that situation may present as a bully over the weaker, but there will usually be a couple of others to talk him out of it.  (This takes the form either of: ‘why are you bothering?’ or some version of: ‘it’s really boring.  Leave him alone or I’m going to flatten your f***ing nose out for you, OK?’  Boys are rarely subtle with each other.)
    By the time I was 13 I was away from home, being a New England preppie.  That’s a somewhat different world.  You’re far more reliant on yourself to make your way, and find your feet for yourself.  You’re living with guys from all over the place, (the one directly across the hall was from the Rue Faubourg, St. Honore, in Paris – we’re still in touch), and you get accustomed to different outlooks pretty quick.  And you get accustomed to overlooking some things, too.  There are always kids in the freshman class who have never been away from home before, and always a few who spend the first couple of weeks crying themselves to sleep every night.  You’d expect they’d be in receipt of some attention from the rest of the lads for this glaring display of weakness – but they mostly weren’t, at least for those first couple of weeks.  The community gave them some slack to get past it.  (I’d been going away summers since I’d been 8, being away from home was pretty normal for me, and I admit being somewhat taken aback at some of the stark misery around me – but that was my failing, and I got past it to a level of understanding pretty quick.  I don’t think I ever got any meaner about it than saying: “what the &%#! is wrong with you?’  But then I listened to the answer, and learned how very insecure some people are.  I could have been on Mars, it didn’t matter where we were: I had the great good fortune to be totally secure in where my parents stood on me, whether I could see them or not.)
    It was a community, and inevitably a very tight one.  We couldn’t get away from each other, we ate, studied, played: lived together.  It was an odd community, too, in some ways.  You never knew what was going to engage it.  There were people who never fit beyond a single friend or maybe two; there were people who were hounded out, (or I’m sure felt they were, though I never saw an effort to do that to anyone), and then there were times the community closed around someone, guarded them, and kept them below the radar of those in charge while they worked through whatever trouble was in them.  There were occasionally fights, they were occasionally serious, they were invariably kept among us and not brought to the attention of Authority.  (Of course, talking to Authority years later as an adult, one discovers that they knew all about everything, all the time, and quite deliberately chose not to intervene.  Boys always think they’re much smarter than they are…)
    Guys who were gay.  Firstly, the word hadn’t been co-opted yet, and ‘gay’ still meant what it had been meaning for however-many-hundred-years it had been in common usage.  So nobody was ‘gay’ except in English literature, and it certainly didn’t mean what it does now.  The usual teenage misconceptions, misunderstandings, and bad jokes (well, a few were pretty good), flourished.  I was only aware – in fact a bunch of us in my class were – of one guy who was gay.  (And I’m not sure we ‘knew’ he was, don’t even know if he ‘knew’ he was, but he was something of a law unto himself.)  I suspect a lot of guys noticed something, and either couldn’t, or didn’t bother to try to, articulate what was up with him.  I was never at any time aware of him being sexually active among the community – I’d probably have heard – and he was certainly a good guy.  A little quiet, a little reserved, (plenty of us were both of those), not at all short of friends, a great student, not inclined to be an athlete.
    The ‘not inclined to be an athlete’ part is probably more interesting than most of you know.  Because there was no way not to be an athlete.  You could be a good athlete, you could be a terrible athlete, it didn’t matter: it was required.  You were actively involved on a daily basis with a sport in all three seasons (fall, winter, spring) and that was that.  There were 12 varsity and 12 JV teams, and our swim, hockey, riflery, and lacrosse teams were perennial powers.  (450 boys between the ages of 13 and 18 – not one of whom needed to lose weight!)  With this as a background, somehow or other he was not on any teams, except for one season on the JV rifle team.  This was not possible without him being a medical mess, or accorded some complicity from Authority.  I never asked, but my conclusion is that Authority knew far more, and far better, than even those of us who were his friends did.  Our knowledge was somewhat inchoate: we knew Scott was different, somehow.  Maybe a few of us speculated, but the fact in the flesh was pretty well removed from us in those days.  Or at least we never talked about it.  I don’t think anybody cared enough to talk about it.  It was only one guy, after all, out of all of us.  Several of us had active sex lives, he didn’t, as far as anyone knew, and no one found it necessary to speculate.  And I believe, looking back, and following the lives of classmates and alums, he was singular.  Whatever it was, we didn’t seem to care.  Authority didn’t care either, (obviously), and had probably seen it before and knew exactly what they were looking at.  (Scott died, by the way, lamented by many of us, in 1989.  You know how.)
    What’s ‘normal’ is whatever it happens to be that 90% of the people routinely do.  If 90% of the males shtupped the knotholes in knotty pine boards in passing, then that would be ‘normal.’  By definition.  Zoroastrianism, Wicca, sucking your toes, and homosexuality are not normal, quite true.  So, to return to my original point, they don’t much pay.  Put into the context of a good story, they might.  But then you have a good story, and if you take those aspects out of it, it’ll probably in fact sell anyway.  Think the movie The Pelican Brief.  Read the book, the reporter wasn’t black.  But they gave the role to (I forgot who!) in the movie.  It didn’t matter: it was such a good story he could have been anything: black, Hispanic, Chinese – anything.  It’s about the story, it always has been.