Whither the Gay Blockbuster?

The next stage will depend on the willingness of queer publics to be both accepting and demanding, for the biggest impediment to the creation of culture is not the imagination of the creator but the receptivity of an audience. Once, a public hungry for change did its part to bring the [New Queer Cinema] to life. In the decades since, queer audiences have too often retreated into a comfort zone of familiar faces and cozy narratives. The 2010-2012 seasons give me hope that change is afoot, and the harsh economic conditions of our times, the extremity of politics, and the disparity of wealth have created an audience eager to be challenged, and to change. I think it's time for queer publics to broaden their vision once again, not shut it down for legal status, gender definition, or genre formula. The creativity of queer communities ensures that anything happening right now is "just a stage" and that, far from returning to earlier iterations as the phrase used to suggest, instead will continually lead to new beginnings across ever-erased, ever-reconstructed boundaries.

—B. Ruby Rich, New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut, pp. 281-282
At IndieWire, Peter Knegt asks a provocative question: "Why Don't LGBT Movies Make Money at the Box Office Anymore?" He evaluates five possible answers to the question: "1. There's just not as much of a need for these films anymore; 2. There are less LGBT films being made, so there will clearly be less of them grossing $1 million; 3. There are less marketable LGBT films being made; 4. All the good LGBT representation is on TV; 5. The market has simply changed" and decides that #5 is the most likely and significant. There's some good discussion in the comments (even from people who don't recognize the magnificence of Weekend).

My feelings about the whole question are conflicted, and mostly revolve around the premises, which are:

  1. Once upon a time, movies with lead characters who were gay or lesbian were successful at the box office, and that is no longer true.
  2. It would be a good thing if more movies with lead characters who are LGBT were popular with mass audiences. 

For evidence to support these premises, Knegt offers these charts:
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
Taken at face value, this is good evidence for premise #1. But it's decontextualized evidence — film distribution changed radically from 1990 to today, and the relationship of domestic box office revenue to a film's profitability has changed significantly.

Premise #2 is an opinion that deserves more scrutiny. What would it take for a film with a gay lead character to bring in, say, $50 million at the U.S. box office? What sort of film would that be? It would probably need to be an action film, horror movie, or comedy (or, preferably, an action-horror-comedy) with at least one relatively well-known actor, it would need to be primarily concerned with white men, it would not have any room for any sort of complex exploration of identity, and it would need to avoid anything more explicit than two men or two women kissing briefly. There's nothing to say it could not be a good, or at least entertaining, movie. But should such films be the ones we really hope and pray for?

What's striking to me is how boring the 1990s list is. Three of them are movies I either basically dislike or utterly loathe (The Birdcage, Philadelphia [loathe], To Wong Foo), and the other two are a movie I'm mostly indifferent to (Talented Mr. Ripley) and one I thought was a pleasant and amusing bit of fluff (In & Out) when it came out, but I haven't watched it since then. Those are my own reactions, and not generalizable, but would anyone make a case that even one of those five movies is especially distinguished for more than, at best, historical interest?

The 1990s were a great time for queer filmmaking — some of my favorites come from that era, which was, after all, the era of the New Queer Cinema. But my favorites are decidedly and determinedly not-mainstream films like Edward II, The Watermelon WomanThe Doom Generation, and Happy Together. The closest thing to a mainstream gay film from the 1990s that I really love is My Own Private Idaho, which, despite starring Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, made only $6 million in the U.S. and wasn't even among the top 100 when it was released.

Popularity is not, of course, any measure of aesthethic/artistic value, as the highest-grossing films of the 1990s demonstrate.

For me, queer content isn't itself an enticement to see a movie (or read a book), and that's especially true if the movie is popular, because it makes me suspicious of how that content would have to be presented in order to be of interest to tens of millions of people all across America. On the other hand, there is perhaps some social value to having representations of not-entirely-heterosexual people go mainstream. Maybe there will be less prejudice, violence, ignorance, and general hatred. Maybe. It's also nice for people to see representations of characters at least vaguely similar to themselves, because it's common for young queer people especially to feel marginalized, misunderstood, and alone.

There was a time when I was, myself, starved for representations of any alternatives to the heterosexual lifestyle, but that was back when I was 17 or 18, a time when I vividly remember, for instance, watching Prick Up Your Ears on cable at 1am with the sound turned so low I could barely hear it for fear that it would wake my parents and my father would discover me watching a movie about those people.

Nowadays, I own the DVD and can watch it at full volume whenever I want. When I go spend money at the movie theatre, it's not because I desperately want, for instance, to see men kiss. I'm all for men kissing, and certainly wish more films included men kissing each other and women kissing each other and genderqueer folks kissing each other and on and on ... but the only reason I spend money to go to the movie theatre is either because I expect a film to be so good that I can't possibly wait for it to hit home media (rare), or because I expect it's full of stuff that's best experienced on a big screen and via an excellent sound system (Pacific Rim I love you!). I'd really much rather watch movies alone or with a couple of friends rather than go to the theatre, because inevitably I end up in front of the people who want to talk through the whole movie and behind the people who want to use Twitter and Facebook on their phone instead of looking at the giant screen in front of them.

So for those reasons I don't personally care that fewer films with not-entirely-hetero content are bringing in boffo bucks at the box office. Also, unless we're getting really idealistic and denying the deep structural racism and sexism of Hollywood, a popular gay film is almost certainly going to be a movie about white people, probably middle-class, probably cisgender, probably male (though the relative success of The Kids Are All Right shows that white lesbians are okay if they've got some money, are white, and drink wine), probably following very typical Hollywood narratives and aesthetics.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But it's not anything I get particularly excited about. Instead, I'd rather celebrate the success of films like Pariah. Sure, it didn't quite hit the $1 million mark at the box office, but it did pretty well for a movie reportedly made for less than $500,000, and it gave a glimpse into lives and realities not generally explored by Hollywood.

Some of the films on the lists from this millennium are certainly worthwhile and did some good work in the world — I think Brokeback Mountain and Milk especially helped bring some of the emotions and history of gay life and experience to a broader audience than had ever encountered them before, and Milk especially was important in helping to keep up interest in a hugely important figure in queer history.

The five movies on the 2010-present list, while varying quite a bit in quality, are the most diverse, which is a good sign. We've maybe gotten past the point when every major gay movie has to be about the difficulties of coming out, the psychological and physical violence done to queers, and the one or two other preferred narratives. But, for me at least, none of those films represents really exciting, energetic, innovative filmmaking. Which of course is not a surprise — it's rare for something really popular (at the time of its release) to be really innovative, because that's just not how popularity works. Popularity thrives on familiarity.

I'm conflicted because I don't really have anything against the idea of gay films being popular — I'm not one of those people who, say, only likes a band until they sell more than 1,000 copies of a record, and then declares them to be a worthless sell-out — but I really don't think it's what people should be working toward or hoping for, and I'm wary of the compromises required. I'm with B. Ruby Rich in desiring "new beginnings across ever-erased, ever-reconstructed boundaries." Especially given the changes in distribution systems over the last 5-10 years, I think it's foolish for us to put much energy into pining for multiplexers. Do we really need the cinematic equivalent of Gay Inc.?