Lesbian Movies Fare Just as Well as Straight Movies, but Hollywood Still Isn’t on Board

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Hollywood Likes to Repeat the Same Tiresome Mantras

There are a few mantras that Hollywood seems to trot out at regular intervals to appease calls for greater minority representation on screen, including: one, that diversity doesn’t sell, and two, that gay and lesbian content won’t sell overseas and that therefore studios can’t afford to include it in their anticipated blockbusters. The first lie can easily be disproven. Consider the following massively successful movies that didn’t focus on white, male protagonists:

  • “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015) is the highest grossing domestic movie ever. Cumulatively, it has made just over $2 billion worldwide. Its lead cast members include two women, a black man, and a Latino.
  • “Black Panther” (2018) has made $1.3 billion dollars and counting so far. By the numbers, it is now the number one ranking comic book adaptation and the third highest grossing movie ever. Its domestic gross surpassed the total theatrical grosses of white male headlined “Iron Man” ($318 million), “Thor” ($181 million), and the first Captain America ($177 million) movie combined.
  • “Get Out” (2017) raked in $255 million worldwide, meaning it made more than 50 times its budget of $5 million. Similarly, “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) made $378 million from its initial $15 million budget, and “Black Swan” (2010) made $329 million from its initial $13 million.

How Do Movies with Gay Themes Actually Perform Overseas?

As to whether lesbian movies can sell overseas, while it is true that countries like Russia and China are more likely to ban a movie containing gay themes, that’s not always the case. Nor are countries that have repressive attitudes towards homosexuality necessarily off-limits as markets. For example:

  • “Atomic Blonde” (2017) tripled its $30 million budget for a global box office of $95.7 million. 46% of its revenue came from foreign sales, including almost $3.5 million from Russia and Central Asia, $1.8 million from Brazil, and more than half a million dollars each from Ukraine, Romania, Poland, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, all countries not exactly known for their welcoming approach to homosexuality.
  • Just over half of the box office for “Brokeback Mountain” (2005, budget $14 million, $178 million gross revenue) came from overseas, including $3 million from Brazil and $1.5 million from Taiwan. For “The Hours” (2002), a whopping 61.7% of its $108.8 million revenue was foreign.
  • “XXX: The Return of Xander Cage” (2017) was an international hit, with more than half of its $346.1 million revenue coming from China alone despite the fact that Ruby Rose’s character Adele Wolff was openly lesbian. In fact, 87% of the movie’s revenue came from overseas.

How Do Lesbian Movies Fare at the Box Office?

What about Hollywood’s claim that lesbian movies don’t fare well at the box office? That’s pretty much a lie, too. Lesbian movies perform just as well as their straight counterparts when compared to the same genre and budget. Here are a few examples:

  • In 2015, period drama “Carol” tripled its budget of $12 million to rake in $40 million (68.4% of its revenue was foreign). For comparison, other Oscar bait movies that year included “Brooklyn” ($62 million box office, $11 million budget), “Room” ($35.4 million revenue, $13 million budget), and “Joy” ($101 million revenue, $60 million budget). By percent returns, “Carol” outperformed “Joy,” while drawing even with “Room.”
  • Sometimes movies with same-sex subplots even outperform heterosexual counterparts. The total box office for “Atomic Blonde” was triple its budget, whereas “Red Sparrow” (2018), also an action movie about a female spy, just barely doubled its budget of $70 million.
  • The comedy “Rough Night” (2017), with both a lesbian and a bisexual main character, almost doubled its $20 million budget, bringing in $37 million, but slightly underperformed compared to “How to be Single” (2016), which almost tripled its $38 million budget ($112.3 million). Then again, “Rough Night” outperformed “Snatched” (2017), which made only $60.8 million compared to its $42 million budget, suggesting that “Rough Night” performed roughly par for the course for female-led comedies.

  • Of course, when movies with lesbian themes do fail, they can fail just as badly as straight movies. Ringing in at $12.6 million, the sports movie “Battle of the Sexes” (2017) made only half its budget of $25 million. Then again, dramatic thriller “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”, which came out the same year, posted almost identically poor numbers. In fact, the only lesbian movie released recently that significantly underperformed when compared to its peers is “Freeheld” (2015), which made only $573,335 to recoup its $7 million budget.

So What’s Hollywood’s Problem with Lesbians?

The lesson here is, to a greater or lesser extent, one of willful misrepresentation (or at least intentional ignorance) on the part of Hollywood. It’s possible for major studios to say that lesbian films don’t bring in big money because basically apart from “Atomic Blonde,” no studio has ever invested tens of millions of dollars into a movie with a major lesbian character. Instead of a lesbian “Wonder Woman” (2017), for example, we see instead low-budget indies like “Princess Cyd” (2017), “Becks” (2017), or “A Woman, a Part” (2017). Hollywood then seems to use their small box office returns to justify its lack of inclusion in bigger motion pictures. But it’s unfair to compare those movies, which had shoestring budgets, to “Wonder Woman”‘s $149 million budget.

Similarly, Hollywood cuts even tiny references to lesbianism in characters in major pictures because of the alleged transglobal consequences, without acknowledging that there isn’t necessarily proof of this claim. Recently, news broke that “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” cut a scene that referenced a character’s lesbianism under the justification that the dialogue was not relevant to the story. Really? The movie is two hours and eight minutes long and they couldn’t keep a few extra minutes that would add more diversity and inclusion to the film? The argument is weak and the Internet is not fooled. (BTW: Valkyrie’s blink and you miss it bisexual scene was cut from “Thor: Ragnarok” under the justification that it distracted from some “vital exposition.” Was that “vital exposition” Jeff Goldblum playing the electronic keyboard?)

Overall, Hollywood has shown that it is more than willing to put A-List actresses in lesbian roles on a frequent basis when those roles are Oscar bait (“Carol,” “The Kids are All Right” (2010), “Notes on a Scandal” (2006), “Monster” (2003), “The Hours” (2002), etc.), but Hollywood is extremely reluctant to broaden those roles to any genres but drama and, rarely, comedy. When it comes to action blockbusters, making the likes of Captain Marvel lesbian or bisexual is still a no go, but as “Atomic Blonde” has shown, the success of a movie seems more likely to be predicated on genre, plot and the budget behind it than characters’ sexuality. So Hollywood, let’s test this theory. Show Harley Quinn or Poison Ivy’s non-heterosexuality in the forthcoming Harley Quinn movie. Then let’s talk. If not, your justifications for continued lack of representation are weaksauce.

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