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.