You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Why Don’t LGBT Movies Make Money At The Box Office Anymore?

Why Don't LGBT Movies Make Money At The Box Office Anymore?

There’s quite the slate of LGBT films heading to theaters in the next couple months, from 5 films during the month of August to "The Skeleton Twins," "Lilting" and "The Imitation Game" soon after. But while we certainly hope they all prove exceptions, the odds are against them managing to make much of a dent in the box office.  Only seven films with lead LGBT characters have grossed over $1 million in North American since 2010: "Farewell My Queen," "Kill Your Darlings," "I’m So Excited,"The Kids Are All Right," "La Mission" and "I Love You, Phillip Morris." One could arguably also include "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Your Sister’s Sister" and "Beginners," though in all four cases the LGBT characters (played by Ezra Miller, Jared Leto, Rosemarie DeWitt and Christopher Plummer, respectively) are supporting a heterosexual lead. Even so, if you did include them that’s still only 10 films in four and a half years where well over 1,200 films crossed the $1 million mark — most of them just barely.

READ MORE: 5 LGBT Films You Should See This August (In Theaters!)

What about critically acclaimed and considerably discussed recent LGBT offerings
like "Stranger By The Lake," "C.O.G.," "Concussion," "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 lead LGBT character 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 around 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
6. The Object of My Affection (1998) – $29,187,243
7. Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (1997) – $25,105,255

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
6. Rent (2005) – $29,077,547
7. Capote (2005) – $28,750,530
Top Grossing Films With Lead LGBT Character (2010-present)
1. The Kids Are All Right (2010) – $20,811,365
2. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) – $2,199,787 
3. I Love You, Phillip Morris (2010) – $2,037,459
4. Farewell My Queen (2012) – $1,347,990
5. I’m So Excited (2013) – $$1,368,119
6. La Mission (2010) – $1,062,940
7. Kill Your Darlings (2014) – $1,030,064 
It’s definitely worth acknowledging that this decade still has five and a half years to catch up, but there’s no denying so far, so dismal. By the fourth 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.

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 nearly submissions this past year, and screened over 100 of them. How many of them end up getting distribution is the true issue here. It’s optimistic to suggest much more than 10 features that screened at that fest or any LGBT film fest 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" or "Stranger By The Lake" 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 last 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. "Orange Is The New Black," "Looking," "Please Like Me," "The Normal Heart," "Pretty Little Liars," "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"… We could go on.  A study by GLAAD noted 4.4% of scripted television’s series regulars represented LGBT characters, which is great-ish 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.

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 2014 than it was in 1994 or 2004.  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 109 films released in North America to gross over $1 million so far in 2014. Not one featured a lead LGBT character. Not one.  People are still going to see movies, and it’s up to the many among them that are not straight to take up opportunities to go see themselves represented on the big screen when they can. So when "The Skeleton Twins" and "Love is Strange" and "To Be Takei" and "Lilting" and "The Dog" and "The Imitation Game" hit theaters later this year, go see them. In theaters

This Article is related to: Features


Comments

Lana

Gay and lesbian films tend to focus on just that, homosexuality. I blame the Bush / Blair era. Theyade everything acceptable. It's a joke!!

Fred Piott

Can we at least be honest about this one issue. LGBT folks make up about 5% of the population. Would you market any product that had only 5% of the whole as the target demographic? It's a losing proposition to start with and should not be a surprise to anyone.

Andrew

I have to agree with earlier comments…this is really a trend affecting movies in general, not just LGBT movies in particular. That's not a lazy explanation, it's very likely the correct one.

CJ

This article fully misses the issue/ point as the entire focus and all the numbers are based on theatrical box office. "INDIE FILMS" in general are not making money in theaters anymore – regardless of gay content and that's largely because "Hollywood" has nearly stopped making and/ or distributing movies with any risk. And so the cineplexes are full of sequels and superheroes. The result of this is that the entire face of the film industry has changed – it's not just about gay content.

But there is a shifting market for "gay" and non "gay indies." It's shrinking. And much of the interesting work is moving to television. But if you did a comprehensive study you might be surprised to find out from producers of "gay indies" that they're getting more distribution and making more money on average than non "gay" indies. We still do have a niche market that results in some sales where the exploding numbers of non "gay" indies have very few viable options for distribution beyond self distribution.

Paul

Marketing. I had the great pleasure of working on C.O.G. with Kyle. It was a gem. But there was little marketing (advertising). If the audience doesn't know it's out there, then there won't be any box office. Pretty simple equation. A very famous and successful producer once told me, "I have to spend as much or more than it cost to make my film, just letting people know I did."

JB

Hollywood has nothing original anymore and movies are just bad these days.

BlackBeachBum

The scripts aren't very good and rarely have anything novel to say.

aldviam

For many directors, the telling of their coming out is a personal and cathartic experience and is usually relegated to where most other films that depict "personal" stories are put. Generally, they belong to the art house circuit. This is why most audience members of America don't see, let alone know about these films. Once you get the that aspect out of the way, then you have to deal with what kind of film it actually is, and usually it's not a genre that can be easily defined. Explain to me what genre My Own Private Idaho is, and I'll shut up.

However, this seems to be the "problem". Genre films like Brokeback, Birdcage, etc all made money because studios knew how to market them. I think Soderbergh was honestly trying to be controversial when he said that the studio didn't want to make Behind the Candelabra because they thought it was too gay. It's far less "gay" than anything in Brokeback, and that movie made over 300 million, so you'd think by the logic of the studio system that they'd be clamoring for another story of social outcasts finding love, which is essentially a story many people outside of the gay community can also relate to. Soderbergh most likely got backlash either because his film didn't fall into the kind of three act easy to follow structure that Brokeback did, or because it didn't have a happy ending, or he's just bullshitting. I wouldn't doubt all three.

I think it's funny that you put Blue is the Warmest Color as your opening picture, probably the most divisive LGBT movie in recent memory among the LGBT community, because that movie seemed to epitomize, more or less, what being gay currently means in many western cultures. I also think that it made a lot of money for an art house French film because of the controversy, but also because so many people could relate to it. The controversy just made people pay attention to it, and the movie did the rest of the work on it's own. Just in the way that Brokeback was relatable to both gay and straight to some degree, that might be the key in which studios know how to market films about a subject that has more to do with being an outcast than anything. Studios aren't very smart, as we know.

gina

I'd like to point out some aspects to the more recent crop of "LGBT" films. First of all, they're overwhelmingly about gay characters… they aren't LGBT films, they're gay or lesbian films. Moreover, they're representations of white often middle-class gay people. Perhaps the audience is beyond seeing this group portrayed in films. The reality of most queer film festivals is they feature films still overwhelmingly about this group of people. Maybe audiences have moved passed thinking this group and its version of gay culture is especially entertaining? Honestly, most LGBT films look more like 1980s tv movies. Who wants to see some straight actor (or straight acting gay one) play a drag queen when they can just watch Drag Race. (and I'm not even mentioning the issue of having non-trans people playing trans women… which is never as interesting to an audience as seeying someone trans up on the screen.) Which leads to…

Almost all the performers playing LGBT characters are played by straight, cisgender actors. The very act of casting these actors (which, yes, probably do aid in getting financing and spots on queer film festivals) is they ultimately have a blandness and even a lack of complete credibility which using queer/trans casts might have. I'm not saying this is always the case, but I believe gay/queer/trans films which aim for a middlebrow (which is most of the featured films you see at gay film festivals these days) are boring and usually quite predictable.

Indy films are absolutely competing against tv which, not infrequently, does it better. Many series on cable feature GLB (and sometimes T) plot lines which are developed over a longer period of time and, therefore, tend to be more full bodied than those displayed with the shorthand of film. Moreover, there is a lot of GLBT entertainment and subject matter content on the Internet which is delivered way faster and largely for free. How people view film is greatly impacted by what's on YouTube where you see "real life," outrageous snippiness and lowbrow (but funny) humor if you want it. The slick middlebrow of "LGBT" films just can't compare against the fast and crude.

In my opinion, indy film in its current form is dying out. It will reappear using various forms of Internet delivery (like Netflix or the next thing like it) but the idea of going to a little alternative art theater… of which not many have survived, and seeing "a gay movie" is dead as a doornail. And most of what's shown at LGBT film festivals… honestly, just isn't that good or compelling.

bob hawk

It will be interesting to see how Ira Sachs' LOVE IS STRANGE fares at the theatrical box office. It seems (I may be wrong) that John Lithgow and Alfred Molina have appeared on as many mainstream talk shows as the stars in high profile "straight" indie films. Throw in the presence of Marisa Tomei and some expected very positive reviews and it could to some degree cross over. But indie films in general (with the very occasional rare exception, such as BOYHOOD) never get beyond six figures, let alone seven. I wonder, however, what the statistics are for some of the better LGBT films of the last five years in all the ancillary markets — i.e. times viewed on VOD, Netflix, DVD, etc. Viewing habits ARE changing, and some of the best writing of LGBT characters IS on TV — where out actors seem to be thriving more successfully, and where a number of LGBT writers, directors and producers are getting their bread and butter. I still would rather see anything on a big screen, but I no longer think that the theatrical gross of a film can measure its success — or its future potential to affect and change lives. Besides the aforementioned queer films coming out later this year, it will also be interesting to see if the attachment of names like Robin Williams (to Dito Montiel's BOULEVARD) and Patrick Stewart (to Stephen Belber's MATCH) will make any difference. Same goes true for a horror genre film such as JAMIE MARKS IS DEAD, with TV "names" attached (Cameron Monaghan of SHAMELESS, Morgan Saylor of HOMELAND, and Noah Silver of THE BORGIAS). IMHO, one of the best films this year (gay or straight) – which screened at Frameline, Outfest and NewFest – is a Brazilian/German co-production, FUTURO BEACH that is of top quality in all departments: writing, direction, acting, cinematography. With subtitles and no "names" (albeit one of the leads is a big action star in Brazil), what can one hope for it but all the possible breaks to give it a decent run. Last year there was a film of similar stature, OUT IN THE DARK, a powerful film from Israel about an intensely risky relationship between two men, an Israeli and a Palestinian. It’s total gross in six U.S. theaters was just under $27,000. One can only hope that its shelf life around the world will be an enduring one, reaching many more people in many different ways. Whether speaking with individual filmmakers, lecturing in a class or being on a panel, one of my constant questions for pondering is “How do you measure success?” I certainly do not think that box office figures are an accurate measure anymore – if they ever were.

Matthew Rettenmund

People sniffing that it's about quality are delusional. Quite a few of the top grossers of the '90s and '00s were crappy movies. And that's all personal taste anyway.

It's because gay people are watching their movies, like everyone else, at home. The audience was topping out at $2 million in the theaters back in the day, and that's been adjusted downward, I would bet in synch with all other non-must-see-in-theaters type films.

People used to openly admit to me they were downloading BOY CULTURE when it was out. They didn't see it as theft. One kid uploaded it to a file-sharing site and when questioned said, "Don't you want people to see your movie?"

That's more why than quality. Because THE BIRDCAGE was not good.

Steven

And the few that do get made almost always have straight actors in the leading roles as the gay characters. Hollywood doesn't know how to sell a film with a proud gay actor in the lead. Gay actors are openly denied roles because they are gay. Maybe if the films were cast with authentic gays, they get more support from the gay community. HBO's "Looking" would not have made it if the cast weren't authentic.

SF Bob

Well it's not my fault! I saw all the recent top grossers!
Didn't love them all but…

howard

I tend to go with the responders below who say that the films are not very good as of late. So, the audience isn't going to a gay film just because it's gay anymore, it also has to be good. Most indie films in the U.S. aren't very good, and the gay films are just as bad. The best gay stories are on TV. But the best stories, gay or straight, or on TV.

Ridley

1. The films are not very good as of late.
2. LGBT only make up approximately 2.3% of the population (According to the CDC). Only 20% of the population consider themselves, "liberal." Even depending upon those statistics from a marketing perspective, you can't simply rely upon those demos turning out for these types of niche films.

Frank D

I agree on a lot of the points for the drop off in box office. But, sometimes it's as simple as: that list from 2010 – on? A lot of those films are just not that very good; some ("I'm So Excited") downright awful – a real disappointment from Almodovar.

"Blue Is The Warmest Color" – the best of that group IMHO is a victim of "foreign language B.O. effect" AND "3+ hours running time" more than LGBT content. "The Kids Are All Right" did fairly well for its budget and scored a few Oscar noms, but reflecting back on it – it doesn't seem to hold up as something I'd watch again.

anonymous

"And as a rule, aren't people staying away from movie theaters more in general?"

Yes, and its difficult to get any movie made that is not a franchise or a broad comedy.

Bob

Parental neglect causes homosexuality (mygenes.co.nz). Rock Hudson gay and his father left when he was 6.

Ghostdog

Who gives a crap about someone's sexual preference. The reality is that the perceived recalcitrance has worn off and thus become passé so the next phase will be to turn them into cuddly stuffed animals to sell to those who have never heard of such a thing…. Tell ya what, worry about making good f'ing movies which apparently few are able to do anymore on any topic

Ertan Al-Saudi

Go see them. IN THEATERS, you say. That's the problem right there. I seldom go to a movie theater to see anything. In the 80s and 90s, it was different for me. There was no internet (until the latter half of the nineties, for most people). You had to read up on all the movies coming – paying close attention to gay publications like the Advocate. And it felt sort of fun to drive to whatever venue would be playing the lgbt movie you wanted to see. Sometimes at a university or museum or a typical art house type theater. I always felt good about supporting lgbt filmmakers. Maybe people just aren't that desperate to see lgbt characters on the screen anymore – because homophobia isn't as intense as it was then. And as a rule, aren't people staying away from movie theaters more in general? The ticket price is high and overall it's too expensive for what you get, including just buying a soda. So people just get out of the habit of going out to see a movie – including gay ones.

anonymous

I think the answer is 2,3 and 5. Studios aren't making as many movies with gay characters, they aren't getting as much money for marketing and budgets as they used to and a lot of gay movies are depressing/arty. Then there's the reality that the genres that have traditionally featured these characters (dramas and comedies) are in decline at the box office.

Michael

I'd be interested in a comparison to the movie world in general. Aren't the big titles of Hollywood nowadays basically sequels, comic book super hero, action movies or thrillers, etc. So superficial rather than genuine human "drama" which is where most LGBT characters would be found? Comedy would probably be the next category and here I wouldn't underestimate the problem of trying to avoid any sort of scandal. (You wouldn't be able to make the birdcage nowadays, right? Which btw. is originally a French film, not sure if that's another argument or not). So point 3) above may have some explanatory value after all..

So, I'm just asking is this supposed to be a crisis for LGBT or for classic movies in general? I don't know really

@milesmaker

It's important to consider what type of LGBT stories can be considered marketable these days in the wake of marriage equality and increasing LGBT rights. Coming out stories and experiential discovery of one's sexual identity feel too familiar now. It's time to see characters who just 'happen to be' LGBT instead of more narratives that lead with sexual orientation as the primary plot point. Same goes for people of color in films–it's time to see ethnicity as incidental vs. the focal element of the story.

lea

Some queer POC aren't willing to pay to see white cixmen and their white problems. I won't see a movie where a POC doesn't have a good role. There is zero representation of POC in LBGT movement and movie, so why should I waste my money?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *