If all goes according to plan, 2010 will be remembered as the year gay and lesbian audiences enjoyed three well-directed, well-acted and well-marketed gay films: The Kids Are All Right (dir. Lisa Cholodenko, 2010), I Love You, Phillip Morris (dirs. Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, 2010-US) and Howl (dirs. Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, 2010).
These three films share a few important characteristics and differ in many others. What they all point to is an interesting possibility: with a handful of movies, Hollywood proved in the 2000s it knows how to make and market quality gay films.
First, by “Hollywood” I don’t necessarily mean big studio productions. Instead, I’m talking about films with enough marketing and high enough budgets to attract major stars, win Oscars and achieve a degree of mass awareness. I distinguish this from the 1990s indie gay film, or new queer cinema, which was profitable and successful but in different ways.
The nineties showed gay audiences were hungry enough to watch challenging and boundary-breaking films — the familiar list of Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, Rose Troche, Cheryl Dunye, Sally Potter, etc. What the aughties have shown is Hollywood has devised a formula for expanding that interest to wider audiences while turning a profit.
The Films, the Formula and the Market
I’m really only talking about a small group of films here, but their collective cultural weight is significant: Monster, Brokeback Mountain, Transamerica, Notes on a Scandal, Milk, A Single Man, The Kids Are All Right and I Love You, Phillip Morris. One could include a host of other films, but the case becomes less clear, including Boy’s Don’t Cry (1999, technically doesn’t count), Mysterious Skin (less mainstream), Capote (not really gay-focused), The Hours (marketed more as a woman’s film), Kinsey (thematically complicated), and Before Night Falls (again, about other things too).
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about a blockbuster market for gay and lesbian films, here. But I am talking about a sustainable market, with multiple models for profitability.
Cumulatively, the eight films listed above have grossed $415 million globally. That’s a significant amount, but to put it in perspective, it’s about two-thirds of Inception‘s global gross so far and about as much as Tyler Perry has made across all eight of his films. Much of the sum comes from Brokeback Mountain‘s $178 million global haul and is aided by Milk‘s $54 million and Notes on a Scandal‘s $60 million.
A market is mature when investors have clear ways for making money back, even if most will still be unsuccessful (i.e., most Hollywood films fail, but enough are successful to make the enterprise worth it).
What’s the formula? All of these films needed at least one big star, preferably two or more; a virtuoso performance heralded by critics; a compelling, often historical and/or true life narrative; and, nearly all of them are dramas.
So why am I writing this now? For me, the release of The Kids are All Right and I Love You, Phillip Morris represents an important turning point in this history. All of the 2000s’ major gay films were dramas, mostly about historical/legal gay oppression in the vein of Philadelphia (not an insult). Kids and Phillip Morris are about gay people, living in the contemporary world, doing normal gay things: having sex, buying apartments, having children, etc., and they are comedies. Rather than sad homosexuals for the mainstream, they are about gays who demand to be seen on their own terms — as opposed to the other noted gay comedies The Birdcage and To Wong Foo, which are primarily concerned with how gays can help straight people (not an insult).
Both films probably won’t be blockbusters on the Milk or Notes level — as yet, no gay film in the last ten years has touched Brokeback. But based on the success of other modest gay films, their filmmakers budgeted appropriately, and it looks like Kids (making $18 million so far off a $4 million budget) and Phillip Morris (budgeted at around $15 million and, not yet released in the US, already banking $17 million overseas) will turn healthy profits. That’s something to be proud of. Even as the market for art house and independent cinema falters, these films are showing how well-managed and made films can do okay. Not great, but pretty good.
Kids and Phillip Morris, in my opinion, are brilliant examples of how to make a film that neither insults or condescends to niche audiences nor placates the mainstream.
The Kids Are All Right
It’s hard to not to sing the praises of The Kids Are All Right. A critical darling, only a handful of critics, like the New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane, have found it without merit.
Why is it so good? For one, there is the writing, sharp and erudite, perhaps a bit too “written” for some, but I happen to like such things (it’s why I like Woody Allen). The acting is top-notch — you can’t go wrong with Bening, Moore and Ruffalo — and plot is creatively structured.
For me, though, the critical love of The Kids Are All Right is missing two key components. First: gay audiences rarely ever get a family comedy worthy of praise, attention and repeated viewings. In this context alone, Kids is near Oscar-worthy (yes I know it won’t win).
More importantly, Kids is one of the rare films in theaters, independent or Hollywood, which puts women at the center of the narrative. You’d be shocked to learn how many films fail the Bechdel test, a low-bar test to see how films portray women. The test is blissfully and ruthlessly simple: does the movie a) have two women, b) who speak to each other and c) about something other than a man. Most films that pass, do so barely — you’d be surprised how wide the gap between Bechdel’s low bar and the passing rate. Kids passes with flying colors.
The end of the film — SPOILER ALERT! — has the two mothers essentially dismissing Mark Ruffalo’s character as a necessary member of their homo-nuclear family. As I’ve noted before, independent cinema is plagued with its relentless focus on men who are having existential crises. Kids renders Ruffalo’s crisis insignificant, deciding instead to reclaim the lesbian family. How refreshing.
I Love You, Phillip Morris
I Love You, Phillip Morris has so far garnered equally glowing reviews, not as glowing as Kids, but respectable. Critics will probably read Phillip Morris as a breezy and easily digestible bonbon (I would say “Oscar bait” except it was supposed to be released a while ago and was at one time supposed to be a summer film a la Kids, though now it’s set for release December 3rd).
But once again, context is important. Far from being critically tolerated, Phillip Morris deserves critical praise. Why? In contrast to the two main gay male movies of the past decade, Brokeback and Milk, Phillip Morris is at once unabashedly gay (even camp) and funny. Says Queerty:
Finally, a gay romantic comedy that’s fresh, original, and darkly funny without ever coming off nasty, mean spirited, or one-dimensional. Its being based on a true story just makes the love and con-games all the sweeter.
Finally indeed. While “based on a true story” is an aughties gay film trope, Phillip Morris, which tells the story of con artist Steven Jay Russell and his love affair with jail mate Phillip Morris, is not an easily recognizable tale on the scale of Milk. It feels fresh and contemporary even as it is historical.
Gay audiences are starved for well-funded (in terms of acting and production quality) and well-marketed romantic comedies. The list is regrettably short. (On my list: The Wedding Banquet, Shortbus, Broken Hearts Club – what am I missing?). In context, Phillip Morris is a triumph. It doesn’t ignore the reality of inequality and discrimination while having enough of a story and plot to carry us gracefully and gleefully through a moving romance. We are given characters with which we can identify, with their romantic flights of fancy and need to please each other. Once again, how refreshing.
As always, everything’s not coming up roses. Missing from this small list of hits are a handful of films, which, for various reasons, couldn’t find an audience.
There are, of course, those well-made films that never hit with moviegoers, a movie like Running With Scissors being the most obvious in my mind; and then there the plethora of films too queer for America, a list, including the likes of Shortbus and Savage Grace, too long for this post.
Marketing to minority gay audiences still offers no promise of huge profits. Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom is the most successful for black gay audiences, at $500,000 in grosses it’s largely considered to be a financial success, if not a roaring hit. Saving Face, about Chinese-American lesbians, should have had some broader appeal, and, at $1million+ in grosses, wasn’t a total loss, but deserved more. (Admittedly I’m only counting theatrical grosses, not DVD and TV deals).
A film like Dirty Laundry, marketed as a black family film led by a gay character, should have at least come within throwing distance to Tyler Perry’s films — which now average around $40 or $50 million. But the delightful film was given a criminally short two-week run and never got to spread its wings (BoxOfficeMojo has its gross at $20,000).
Still, most of these films were not competing with the ones above. They weren’t trying to helm close to the formula: big stars, big historical narratives. Instead, they attempted to discuss contemporary issues in interesting and off-kilter ways, using solid less mainstream talent or promising unknowns.
All in all, while there will always be flaws in the market, gay audiences should take solace in these few, quality, even classic, films over the last decade. Even more so for all the foreign and indie films we got — among my favorites, Love Songs, Eyes Wide Open, Walk on Water, Quincenera, The Dying Gaul, Kissing Jessica Stein, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Bad Education, But I’m a Cheerleader. For the next ten years, the challenge will be whether we can expand those narratives and build on successes. Stars will always sell movies — even as their power waxes and wanes — but we should push for more contemporary stories dealing with political issues, more diversity in casting and richer narratives. I hasten to adopt a “progress narrative.” Gay cinema of the aughts wasn’t “better” than that of the nineties. It was different and bigger, making significant contributions while showing us how far we need to go.