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Always the box-office bridesmaid.

While more mainstream movies like My Best Friend's Wedding and the new Go offer gay and lesbian subplots, the movies that focus on our lives play to limited audiences, Is the "crossover hit" a myth?

"Gay men are so hot!" sighs Katie Holmes, the everyteen star of TV's Dawson's Creek, as she casts an envious eye on an especially chummy couple of guys, played by Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf, with whom she stars in Columbia Pictures' new "sex, drugs, and rock-and-rave" roundelay, Go.

Hollywood seemingly couldn't agree more. Ever since Rupert Everett danced off with Julia Roberts in 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding--while, next door in the multiplex, Tom Selleck was busy planting a big wet one on Kevin Kline in In & Out--mainstream movies have been embracing gay characters like never before. There's money to be made: My Best Friend's Wedding grossed more than $125 million in U.S. and Canadian theaters, while In & Out topped $64 million. But with dozens of lower-budget gay- and lesbian-themed films still languishing in the lower reaches of the box-office charts every year, what does it really take to tap into that elusive gold mine?

"I love when gay characters are treated just like everyone else. In this movie they're not perfect, but neither is anybody else," says Go producer Mickey Liddell, who had little difficulty enlisting the very hetero director of Swingers, Doug Liman, to helm John August's original screenplay. In fact, Go is so casual about acknowledging the exact nature of the relationship between Mohr and Wolf that it's not until two thirds of the way through the film that their characters are outed.

"It's not The Crying Game," adds Liddell, referring to the surprise ending of the 1992 crossover hit that the studio and the media agreed not to reveal even after the film reached theaters, "but we'll try to keep it a secret until at least the second week of release because it's fun for audiences to discover it for themselves."

Moviegoers are certainly having the fun of discovering more and more gay men and lesbians on-screen in major studio movies in 1999. In February's Blast From the Past, from New Line, Dave Foley stepped in as the de rigueur gay best friend--a figure now used to provide worldly wisdom instead of mere comic relief. Whoopi Goldberg appears as a lesbian police detective in Columbia's current missing-child weepie, The Deep End of the Ocean, starring Michelle Pfeiffer, while one of the sisters in last month's The Other Sister is also a lesbian. And Joshua Jackson, another of the indefatigable Dawson's Creek cast, pops up as a peroxided gay teen in Columbia's Cruel Intentions.

Gay-tinged big-budget films due out later this year include Joel Schumacher's MGM drama Flawless, with Philip Seymour Hoffman (the gay geek in Boogie Nights) as a drag queen who befriends an ailing Robert De Niro, and Paramount's new adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's powerfully homoerotic novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Matt Damon and Jude Law.

Yet there's a paradox at the heart of Hollywood's current infatuation with all things gay. For even while the studios have been busy embracing gay characters, they still view unapologetically gay-themed films with a wary eye. The reason is simple: While one or two gay characters may expand a movie's potential audience, an entire film devoted to gay concerns is still a tough sell. That's a chore left to independent producers.

A look at even reputedly successful lesbian and gay indies reveals a whole different economic scale. Gods and Monsters, for all its critical plaudits, had earned just $3 million before capturing its three Oscar nominations, and it's unlikely to squeeze out much more than another few million before it goes to video. Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss had a splashy debut, with a full-scale klieg-lit premiere at Los Angeles's landmark Mann's Chinese Theater, but then quickly faded, grossing a measly $2.02 million. "We would have liked it to do better," admits David Elzer, vice president for worldwide marketing at Trimark Pictures, distributor of the film. "We figured everybody--gay and straight--could relate to Billy's story about looking for love in a mixed-up world. We had hoped it would cross over to a broader audience--we expected that the gay community would embrace the film and then, through word of mouth, drag their straight friends along to see it. That happened to some extent, but not to the extent that we had hoped."

Billy's screen miss was, in fact, predictable: Love and Death on Long Island opened to glowing reviews last year--critics loved its gentle handling of John Hurt's mad crush on Jason Priestley--but it quickly fizzled, selling just $2.5 million worth of tickets. Ally Sheedy won raves for her fierce performance as an artist-addict in High Art, but the drama died after collecting only $1.9 million. And director Todd Haynes's glam fantasia, Velvet Goldmine, barely topped $1 million.

The bottom line is that $2 million has become a sort of lavender ceiling that unapologetically queer movies are hard-pressed to break. The lesson seems to be that once gay sex is treated frankly and lesbian and gay lives claim the spotlight, mainstream audiences steer clear, and--to be frank--gay audiences don't turn out in significant numbers either.

Just do the math. Assume for the sake of argument that 4% of the U.S. population of approximately 250 million is self-identified gay and lesbian youth and adults. That makes for a potential audience of 10 million ticket buyers. But if a gay movie makes just $2 million--at, say, an average ticket price of $5--it's attracting only 400,000 moviegoers. Which means that even for a well-reviewed, well-promoted gay indie, like Billy's or High Art, only about 4% of the lesbian and gay population is heading to the theaters--even less if you subtract the hetero portion of the audience and repeat customers.

Why aren't gay and lesbian audiences more supportive of these films? In part, queer cinema is becoming a victim of its hard-won visibility: As more and more "out" movies proliferate, it becomes more difficult for an individual gay film to find a foothold. "The market has become flooded," observes Marcus Hu, copresident of the indie-minded distribution company Strand Releasing, which will soon release the teenage coming-out film Edge of Seventeen to art houses. "There are a lot of mediocre gay movies out there, and ticket buyers are just becoming more choosy."

Gay audiences raised on Hollywood fare are also as starry-eyed as anyone else. Apart from whatever Oscar boost Gods and Monsters finally ends up with, there were only two modest hits among 1998's gay lineup--one indie and one studio offering--and both boasted high-profile actresses. The Opposite of Sex, starring Christina Ricci as a teenage seductress who sets her sights on her gay half brother's boyfriend, collected a tidy $5.9 million--almost three times the total of its nearest gay-indie competitors. And 20th Century Fox's The Object of My Affection, starring Friends' Jennifer Aniston as a single mother who sets her sights on her gay roommate, picked up $29 million--almost as much coin as Aniston's previous movie, the straight romantic comedy Picture Perfect. And in keeping with the existing pattern, both films had heterosexual lead characters, unlike Billy's or High Art.

Gay movies face a further demographic hurdle: They must do most, if not all, of their business in the handful of urban areas where gay (and gay-friendly) ticket-purchasing power is concentrated. "There are those pictures that play just in the cities, and then you have those pictures that are able to go more into the hinterlands," explains Sony Pictures Classics copresident Michael Barker. For example, Sony's Wilde, which starred Stephen Fry as the epigram-spouting Oscar, on its way to an eventual $2.2 million gross, "performed really well in the top 12 cities," according to Barker. "But after we got past the top 12 to 15 cities, it didn't play as well."

In contrast, The Opposite of Sex did significant business in the top 50 markets. But in more rural areas, it too encountered resistance. "In smaller towns the newspapers ignored feature coverage of the film," says Barker. "One reason is they tend to gravitate toward bigger studio films, but the other reason is they didn't want to deal with the subject matter of the film."

So is the glass half full or half empty? It's all a matter of perspective. Certainly without its core gay constituency, Ma Vie en Rose, a tiny French picture about a preteen cross-dresser, would never have rung up $2.3 million, a fortune for a foreign-language film. "A small [gay] film actually has a built-in audience," argues Barker. "A lot of small films never even reach that [$2-million] level."

But while $2 million may spell profit for a tiny indie, it spells disaster for a major studio, where the average cost of producing and marketing a film now hovers around $75 million. Hollywood simply isn"t rushing to green-light major releases with predominantly gay or lesbian main characters, even those properties that have already proved themselves enormously successful in another medium. The classic case is the 20-plus-years-in-development The Front Runner, which novelist Patricia Nell Warren and screenwriter Barry Sandier are hoping finally to take into preproduction this year. Rita Mae Brown's landmark 1973 novel, Rubyfruit Jungle, has followed a similar road to nowhere. A more recent example is Peter Lefcourt's 1993 bestseller, the gay romance The Dreyfus Affair, in development for six years at two different studios.

Which brings us back to a Hollywood that prefers to plug occasional gay characters into movies that can be marketed without flaunting the G word. The title character in The Talented Mr. Ripley may clearly read as a closet case, but he never admits or acts on his gay desire. And in Flawless the lead is De Niro, playing a retired security guard, who--as if taking his cues from the curmudgeonly Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets--strikes up an unusual friendship. "The character that Bob plays is just a really interesting character--he's had a stroke, and he doesn't have much money, but he's able to rehabilitate himself with the help of a neighbor, who happens to be a drag queen," explains coproducer Jane Rosenthal. "The movie's really about the fact that people aren't what you expect them to be. The drag queen is actually more of a man than Bob's character is."

So despite an apparent proliferation of gay and lesbian characters, what we've really arrived at is a strategic marriage of convenience. Hollywood is freshening up its old formulas by injecting a frisson or two of gay visibility. Straight stars--and straight story lines--still bring the largest crowds into the multiplex, but once there they're happy to be amused by the gay characters who may usurp center stage. And while the right gay-themed independent film might attract some gay and lesbian moviegoers to the local art house, most of us are apparently content to walt for video.

Kilday is a freelance entertainment reporter who contributes to Premiere and Los Angeles magazines.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Liberation Publications, Inc.
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Title Annotation:gay-themed movies still have limited audience
Author:Kilday, Gregg
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Apr 13, 1999
Words:1845
Previous Article:Our own worst enemy.
Next Article:Go.
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