Qu(e)eries: Why Don’t LGBT Movies Make Money At The Box Office Anymore?

Qu(e)eries: Why Don't LGBT Movies Make Money At The Box Office Anymore?

Last week, Pedro Almodovar’s “I’m So Excited” crossed the $1 million mark in North America. That’s not so exciting as far as Almodovar films go — every one of them has crossed that milestone since 1988’s “Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (most of them going on to make considerably more).  But it is indeed rare for a film to feature lead gay or lesbian characters — as “Excited” does — to cross that mark, at least these days. 

“I’m So Excited” is the first film with a primary gay or lesbian character to gross $1 million since last summer’s “Farewell My Queen” (which portrays Marie Antoinette as a lesbian), which grossed just over $1.3 million.  It’s also only the fifth film to do so since 2010, following “Farewell,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “La Mission” and “I Love You, Phillip Morris.” One could arguably also include “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Your Sister’s Sister” and “Beginners,” though in all three cases the LGBT characters (played by Ezra Miller, Rosemarie DeWitt and Christopher Plummer, respectively) are supporting a heterosexual lead. Even so, if you did include them that’s still only 8 films in three and a half years where over 800 films crossed the $1 million mark.

What about critically acclaimed and considerably discussed recent LGBT offerings
like “Keep The Lights On,” “How To Survive a Plague,” “Pariah,” “Weekend,” “In The Family,” “Laurence Anyways,” “We Were Here,”
“Circumstance” and “Gayby,” you ask? None of them hit that mark. In fact, only one of them — “Pariah” — even grossed $500,000.

These numbers are all the more striking when you look at what came before them. In the 1990s, 48 films with a significant LGBT characters grossed over $1 million at the box office. In the 2000s, 20 did. If we continue at this rate, the 2010s should end up with just under 15.  

More over, the amount the movies are making has been greatly reduced. Just look at these charts for the North American grosses of films with LGBT leads:

Top Grossing Films With Lead LGBT Character (1990-1999)
1. The Birdcage (1996) –

$124,060,553

2. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) – $81,298,265

3. Philadelphia (1993) –  $77,446,440

4. In & Out (1996) - $63,856,929
5. To Wong Foo (1995) - $36,474,193

Top Grossing Films With Lead LGBT Character (2000-2009)
1. Brokeback Mountain (2005) - $83,043,761
2. Bruno (2009) - $60,054,530
3. The Hours (2002) - $41,675,994
4. Monster (2003) - $34,469,210
5. Milk (2008) - $31,841,299

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

It's definitely worth acknowledging that this decade still has six and a half years to catch up, but there's no denying so far, so dismal. By the third year of the 1990s and 2000s two films had grossed over $30 million -- this decade we've only seen one film gross over $3 million. And that none of these numbers aren't even adjusted for inflation. If they were, all but one of the 1990s titles listed would have grossed over $100 million.

It's already clear that the 2010s will be remembered as a benchmark decade for the legal rights of queer folks in the United States, but for some reason financial success -- even on a very minor level -- is a rarity when it comes to queer folks in the movies. So what gives, exactly? On the next page are five potential explanations being tossed around, some of which seem to definitely be contributing to the issue. Others, not so much.

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1. There's just not as much of a need for these films anymore. Definitely not the case. While it's true that since the 1990s considerable progress has been made in the LGBT rights movement, it has clearly not reached anything close to an optimal situation free of homophobia. But even if it had, it's not like films exist solely to push social movements. When is there ever not a need to see oneself represented in film?

2. There are less LGBT films being made, so there will clearly be less of them grossing $1 million. If you look at the programs for LGBT-focused film festivals like Outfest, Frameline or Inside Out, it's clear this is not the case. Frameline for example had a record-setting 800 submissions this past year which resulted in 82 features and 155 shorts in the program. How many of them end up getting distribution is the true issue here. Of those 82 features at Frameline, it's optimistic to suggest more than 10 will receive distribution deals, and of those few will reach more than a handful of screens nationwide. So it's really more that there are less LGBT films being released than it is there's less of them being made.

3. There are less marketable LGBT films being made. There's definitely a bit of truth to this. Clearly "Pariah" or "Weekend" don't have the same mass appeal as "The Birdcage" or "In & Out." But whose fault is that? The wide-release, studio-made films with lead LGBT characters that were released in the 1990s simply aren't being made anymore. The last film with a primary LGBT character to reach 1,000 screens was "Bruno" (a film many consider a bit questionable in its representation) in 2009, and before that it was "Brokeback Mountain" in early 2006. Studios simply aren't touching films with lead LGBT characters anymore. And without studios behind them, it's harder to get marketable stars or the prints & advertising necessary to even try and rake in "Birdcage" dollars.

4. All the good LGBT representation is on TV.  Steven Soderbergh notably said earlier this year that he made "Behind The Candelabra" for HBO because it was "too gay" for Hollywood. But it certainly wasn't too gay for TV, which has far exceeded film as of late when it comes to LGBT representation, both in terms of quality and quantity. A study by GLAAD noted 4.4% of scripted television's series regulars represented LGBT characters, which is great news. But that isn't a reason why film shouldn't be doing the same. If anything, the success of so many television shows with LGBT characters should suggest there's just as much potential in film.

[iw-photo type="iphoto" caption=""Weekend"" credit="null" alt="Weekend" title="Weekend" url="http://i2.indiewire.com/images/uploads/i/weekendPAGE.jpg"]Weekend[/iw-photo]

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.

But smaller LGBT films -- films comparable to "Weekend" or "Gayby" or "Keep The Lights On" -- existed back in the 1990s too. Films like "Trick" or "Bound" or "Jeffrey" or "Go Fish." And those films all made over $2 million (or more like $4 million if you adjust for inflation), as did dozens more of their size. So why do smaller LGBT films these days struggle to hit $500,000? Yes, in part because a lot of them seem to be making more of their money on VOD or digital platforms than in theaters ("Weekend" being a prime example). But that isn't enough of a reason for me, and it shouldn't be for you either. It's lazy. There have been 117 films released in North America to gross over $1 million so far in 2013. Just the aforementioned "I'm So Excited" featured a LGBT character, and it's not even in the top 100 grossers. That's less than 1%. People are still going to see movies, and it's up to the much more than 1% of the population that are not straight to take up opportunities to go see themselves represented on the big screen when they can. So when "Concussion" and "C.O.G." and "Stranger By The Lake" and "Kill Your Darlings" and "Blue Is The Warmest Color" hit theaters later this year, go see them. In theaters

"Que(e)ries" is a column by Indiewire Senior Writer Peter Knegt. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments

Lizzie

Why isn't Frida on the list? From a representative point of view portraying a latina bisexual woman is important enough to mention, and it grossed enough to be listed 3rd in the 2000's section.

Craig

I've noticed a similar phenomenon at work in LGBT literature as well; with the decline of LGBT-focused bookstores and the increasing integration of LGBT writers and works into the mainstream megastores, paradoxically it can be harder for an LGBT title to reach an audience.

It's almost impossible, in fact, to walk into a mainstream book megastore and come out with an LGBT fiction title that you didn't already know you were looking for — because the titles are just integrated right into the general fiction section, unless you systematically pick up and leaf through every single book on the shelf one by one you're very unlikely to stumble across an interesting LGBT-themed novel by a writer you haven't already heard of, and you're very unlikely to find anyone on staff who has enough expertise in the genre to recommend a specific new title or author to you. So you now have to depend much more than you used to on what you've already heard about through other channels before you walked into the bookstore in the first place.

So while the specific details of how it plays out are different, it's the same basic process: the more we're simply part of the mainstream rather than having our own specialized niches (LGBT-specific movie theatres, LGBT-specific bookstores, etc.), the harder it is for LGBT works to actually stand out, and not just get lost in the undifferentiated mass of all the other things that are competing for our attention.

Norris

Because of 2.8 percent of the public wants to see that gay crap. That's why.

Pedro

Man! You didn't get it!
LGBT films are not box office successes because homosexuality is not something NEW, like it was in the 90's and still in the 00's!

Joe Clark

First of all, stop calling them “LGBT” movies. Nobody interested in gay-male films is gonna line up for a transgender film. LGBT is a lie.

Next, fix your asinine house style. Movie titles go in italics, not quotation marks, by convention. (Second-order items use quotation marks, like songs on an album, not album title, or chapters in a book, not book title.) Your first three grafs are an unreadable mishmash of quotation marks.

Parthasarathy

Not only critically acclaimed films but also critically acclaimed books don't make money. This is similar to people living a principled life not making money!
http://makemoney.hereishelpforyou.com/

Bianxa

Isn't the lead in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" bisexual???

Dan

Why should they make money at the (mainstream) box office? I thought the idea of queer cinema was not only to represent all spectrum's of the LGBTI community but to also challenge mainstream films authority of what a film should be like and therefore not necessarily seek to be popular.

Glenn

I actually think the novelty has worn off for larger mainstream audiences. That and many LGBT audiences are finding films on home entertainment – if you go into most DVD stores they all have a wall of queer titles and without a "must see" element like Brokeback or Milk or The Crying Game it's just easier to wait for DVD where many of these people premiere.

Jaragon

The films that made money had major stars and Oscar nominations. In order to reach a straight audience a gay theme film needs to have a wider appeal.

Jim

Peter, what about the film Beginners?

David Ehrenstein

"Keep the Lights On," "Weekend" and "Laurence Anyways" are all MASTERPIECES. That the moviegoing public would rather waste its time and money on calcified crap like "Iron Man 3" is a result of the anti-intellectual brainwashing this culture vaunts as "hipness."

FrustratedHypocrite

Could it be that less than 10% of our culture openly-identifies as LGTB so, because there's so much representation on television, in film, and really just everywhere you look, it feels contrived? Perhaps what was once a peripheral, alternative, rebellious subcultural group has now been subjugated as a categorical of mass culture so it's just less interesting?

Winnie

People are not curious about the intricacies of LGBT lives at this point. Every form of media forces just about every detailed experience of this lifestyle down your throat all day, every day. I for one, don't care to see any more of it when I can choose what to see. So I buy a different movie ticket, and will keep doing so until the media LGBT Tsunami comes to an end.

John

Ellen makes a very good point — the fact that loads of indies films, including LGBT films — are available from for-profit pirate sites that don't pay the filmmakers doesn't help anyone in the biz, but it hurts small film makers first. If we want indie cinema we have to support it.

Vicente Russo

The answer is quality. American LGBT movies are usually awful. Bad scripts, poor production, bad acting… Even Almodovar's I'm So Excited was very hard to watch… stupid for a lack of a worse word. Why pay to see them in theaters, if they will be available on Netflix a couple of months later? Now a few surprises in 2013, like German's Free Fall and Brazil's Reaching for the Moon.

Ellen

Unfortunate you didn't mention online piracy as a factor. Hate to say it be the worldwide web is overflowing with LGBT-centric movie blog sites that offer downloads and streams to popular LGBT movies within hours of their release. The web operators make money off advertising and undermine the ability of LGBT filmmakers to recoup their production costs.

Aside from the hyperbole directed at the MPAA and "big" Hollywood, unfortunately it's often those who can least afford it, those on the margins who have to struggle to finance their films, that are most at risk from the ravages of online theft (for profit).

Musicians are starting to become more outspoken about their work being stolen by web profiteers….it's time indie filmmakers do the same.

Howard

All the issues in the article above are part of the reason, especially studios not making mid-size films anymore (studios and major independents have more money to spend on marketing, paying bigger name actors and all the things that help make a film a success whereas small indies have more problem with getting themselves out there). But Ventura makes a very important point: most LGBT films, at least the ones made in the U.S. and are indies, are not very good. Weekend, Gaby and Keep the Lights On are derivative, dated, and not very well done. They show little imagination and are the same old, same old. And I'm So Excited doesn't really count either because it's just not very good. The best American gay films in the last couple of years have been Bernie, I Love You, Philip Morris, and a movie that didn't get any real distribution, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, all highly vibrant, original and exciting in approach to plot and subject matter. I have an idea for gay filmmakers–stop making gay films; instead make films with characters that happen to be gay. Do something new and exciting. Take your films to new heights instead of doing the same old thing. Stop making me sit through films where I keep going, "this might have been interesting twenty years ago, but aren't we beyond this now?".

Laurence

I wonder if it's that LGBT people have convinced themselves that all queer cinema is terrible (I certainly have heard this said)? Or that because TV/online representation is so much greater now, the need to escape and see queer stories in a film is less of a compulsion. I don't think the LGBT community feels as much of an onus on them anymore to support queer films. Or straight people feel they hear enough about LGBT issues and therefore feel less inclined to go see a film about them.

Laurence

I wonder if it's that LGBT people have convinced themselves that all queer cinema is terrible (I certainly have heard this said)? Or that because TV/online representation is so much greater now, the need to escape and see queer stories in a film is less of a compulsion. I don't think the LGBT community feels as much of an onus on them anymore to support queer films.

shelly

These films are making money. Just not in the theaters. Sad but true.

Reuben

Would you count Cloud Atlas? It's an ensemble piece, so there's no real "lead" character so much as 6 different leads, but one of them is bisexual.

ventura dirocco

simply because most of them are junk…small old themes. there have always been less lesbian film and most are just as bad…I know they can't be as perfect as "brokeback" but better scripts is the main reason and finding backing but it's so disappointing…

Lea

Also, Weekend earned over a million worldwide?

David

La Mission, should have been mentioned. The LGBT film starring Benjamin Bratt made over a million.

Mia

Isn't that kind of what this article says too?

Tom

How about the fact that there are gay networks and web series a plenty to satisfy the desire for gay-centered fare? Or the fact that theatrical grosses are down across the board because of all the competition for outlets, particularly streaming? I'd also argue that more films are being released now than in decades past, in part because of the shifting distribution model, in part because more people are jumping into the distribution game.

Mia

I wonder how Blue is the Warmest Color will fare?

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