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

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire August 14, 2013 at 1:07PM

It is indeed rare for a film to feature lead gay or lesbian characters -- as "I'm So Excited" does -- to cross the $1 million mark, at least these days.
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"I'm So Excited"
"I'm So Excited"

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:

"The Birdcage"
"The Birdcage"
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.


"Brokeback Mountain"
"Brokeback Mountain"

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.

Weekend
"Weekend"

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.

This article is related to: Que(e)ries, Box Office, I'm So Excited , Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right, Farewell, My Queen, LGBT