This spring, prior to the departure from her talk show, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Ellen DeGeneres about her life, the end of her talk show, and that groundbreaking moment when she came out on her sitcom Ellen almost 25 years ago. She took a bullet for our community because being queer at that time was a detriment. Her sitcom was not only canceled but so was Ellen from Hollywood. However, Ellen’s sacrifice paved the way for others to have success.
Did Billy Eichner similarly take a hit for the LGBTQ+ community this past weekend with the disappointing release of his rom-com Bros, which included an all-queer cast, was the first major studio (Universal) backed gay rom-com and the first co-written and starring a gay man? The film performed poorly at the box office, and, of course, Eichner wasn’t happy about it, tacitly blaming homophobia in the South and middle America as a reason the film didn’t perform well.
Did Eichner and critics overshoot by trying to woo a straight audience to a gay film? Was homophobia responsible? Will we look back on Bros as smashing the glass ceiling for queer rom-com-themed commercial, theatrical successes? And finally, did Eichner try and buck a trend of rom-coms, without megastars, going directly to streaming to find their audiences?
Working in PR for the last 35 years, when launching a product, service, app, book, or film, the very first question I ask is, “Who is your target audience?” When the answer comes with a single demographic, I breathe a sigh of relief; however, if someone says, “And, it’s also for…” that’s when a noticeable grimace crosses my face.
Nothing is for everybody. There’s always a niche audience, and that’s who you target first. The rest happens organically, most often through positive (or negative) word of mouth from the initial demographic. And when a launch or debut goes wrong, it can sometimes be traced back to over-expectations of trying to corral multiple audiences.
Understandably, the person or persons who created the project are overly enthusiastic about the end result. They develop an almost impenetrable bubble, inside of which they drink Kool-Aid out of a firehose. It happens more times than you can imagine. It’s all-consuming. It’s their baby. Their life. And when failure wins over success — the odds always favor failure — the responsibility for that failure can weigh heavily.
“I feel a responsibility for it to do well,” Eichner told Variety in an August cover story about him and the film. “I’ve worked so hard on it, I care so much about it, and I want it to do well for the sake of the LGBTQ stories getting greenlit. So there’s a burden I feel, much as I want to sit here and just talk about how funny the movie is.”
Bros is a great film. There is no doubt about that. The critics loved it, and the kudos it’s getting from people who saw it (it’s been overwhelming my social channels) validates the brilliance of the film. Personally, I love Billy Eichner, and everyone in the cast, so my opinion is heavily biased, but I also think trying to convince a straight audience, in addition to selling it as an LGBTQ+ film, might provide a reason why Bros slipped.
First, this is a precarious time in the film industry, particularly for films debuting in theaters, and this is due primarily to viewing habits shifting during the pandemic. Also, October is a time during which horror films flourish because of the buildup to Halloween.
That’s one reason why the horror film Smile topped the box office list this past weekend. As Deadline asked, “How does a B- CinemaScore movie like Smile over-index on Saturday night, when a starry film like Don’t Worry Darling, with the same grade, did not in its opening? One is a horror movie with a clearly defined demographic of 18-34 (68 percent turnout).” In addition to the demographic, you can add timing and genre.
And, as the film's release date became closer, I started to read more and more about how this film was for more than one demographic, a gay film for straight audiences. Part of this was Eichner and the studio trying to position it outside of its niche audience.
“This kind of gay-relationship comedy had always been given niche treatment,” Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group told Variety in the Eichner story. “Wrapping it up in a major studio package felt like a big idea to us.”
Was it an idea that was ahead of its time? Will future gay rom-coms, supported by big studios, fare better now that Eichner has cracked the ceiling? Or is the failure of Bros to draw big crowds in theaters more a symptom of an industry that is rapidly changing?
For some clarity, I reached out to Stephen R. Greenwald, a film industry executive, financier, consultant, and lawyer, who served at one time as the CEO of DeLaurentis Entertainment where he released over 20 films, including commercial successes Blue Velvet and Crimes of the Heart. Greenwald is also the author of This Business of Film series of books, currently in its third edition, which serve as, among other things, textbooks for colleges and universities.
My first question to him was about trying to appeal to straight audiences, and if that was a mistake?
“It doesn’t matter because for any film you can’t tell people they have to see it. You have to create an atmosphere where people feel like they can’t miss it,” Greenwald began. “And generally, in this day and age, this type of approach, and successful theater releases only work for films with superheroes or CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) such as Marvel’s ... Doctor Strange in the Mulitverse of Madness, or global brands and superstars like Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick.
Further, Greenwald said, “You have the George Clooney and Julia Roberts rom-com coming out soon, and that might do well because of those two superstars. Films with action, superheroes, and big stars are the types of films audiences want to see in theaters because the experiences are enhanced on the large screens.”
Greenwald added that all other film genres, like dramas and comedies, have been struggling for box office receipts for a variety of reasons.
“First of all, streaming is soaring in popularity, having just overtaken broadcast and cable in viewership. And during the pandemic, many theaters were forced to close, and at the same time audiences became more reliant on streaming and realized they could watch dramas or comedies in their own home and didn’t have to pay $10 or more to see it on a screen. The whole industry model has really shifted because the audience is shifting.”
Speaking of the audience, did Greenwald think that homophobia in middle and southern America affected Bros ticket sales?
“Unfortunately, that doesn’t surprise me at all. There are certain parts of the country where a gay rom-com won’t draw an audience. That’s just a sad fact, and it probably shouldn’t have come as a big surprise to the studio since geographic audience expectations are factored in. If you are on the West or East coast you can forget that parts of the country either have no desire to see a film like Bros, or — and this happens — they’re embarrassed to go into the theater where a gay-themed film is showing, or and this is a sad truth, there’s an element of bigotry that still exists.”
What about my theory that Eichner is taking a hit that eases the path for future gay rom-com theater releases? “Sure, that’s one way to look at it. I give a lot of credit to the studio for investing in it. The film costs $22 million, now that’s not chump change but it’s far from a $100 million investment that includes very expensive visuals and huge stars. In another way, what happened to Bros can just be another example of what doesn’t work with some films and theater distribution.”
Greenwald pointed out that the days of theatrical releases for comedy or rom-com budget films might be numbered.
“The economics of the business are changing, and at the end of the day it’s all about the money. As I wrote about in the next issue of my book, what you’re going to see eventually happening is that some non-action films go straight to streaming, while others might get simultaneous streaming and limited theatrical runs, for a week or two, to create some buzz for it on streaming.”
“In the case of Bros, what might have been a better strategy, would be to briefly release it in the markets it did well in, like New York, L.A., and Chicago, while at the same time making it available on Netflix. But sooner or later, Bros will go the streaming route, and my hunch is that it will do quite well there because the audience is already there and presumably waiting for it to drop there.”
John Casey is editor at large at The Advocate.
Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Equal Pride.