Why Hollywood Should Pursue the Lesbian Market

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Question: Is it a financially forward leaning strategy for studios and producers to purposely woo the LGBT market? Below, AfterEllen lays out a metrics-based argument for why movies and TV shows should purposely seek to attract lesbian and bisexual viewers.

Argument #1: Maximizes Viewers.

The entertainment industry should target lesbian and bisexual viewers specifically because they represent a more transnational audience segment than just heterosexuals, giving them disproportionate weight as a consumer group.

I’ve argued in another article that metrics can be used to quantitatively support the idea that TV shows should have lesbian couples. This is in no small part due to the transnational nature of lesbian and bisexual viewers. A distinguishing feature of the gay community is that its viewers are more likely to seek out content across borders than the straight community because of the relative absence of LGBT content in their home countries. The Brazilian web series “RED,” for example, has tracked views from a whopping 145 countries. Singer-songwriter Hayley Kiyoko’s “Girls Like Girls” VEVO music video (we’re fans!) has had 85 million views, a view count that puts her 9 million views above  Kesha’s empowerment anthem “Praying,” even though Kiyoko’s songs aren’t regularly played on the radio, probably reflecting the impact of international viewership.

Lesbian and bisexual women should be approximately 96.6 million potential viewers in China, 78.6 million in India, 19.4 million in the U.S., 15.4 million in Indonesia, 12.4 million in Brazil, 8.2 million in Russia, and 7.2 million in Mexico. Cumulatively, there’s potentially 456 million lesbian and bisexual female viewers, a number larger than the entire population of the U.S.

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Argument #2: Viewers are easily wooed.

The entertainment industry should woo lesbian and bisexual viewers because they turn out in droves for TV content specifically directed at them.

“The L Word” is one of the best case studies for a show catering to a lesbian and bisexual audience (the commodification of a sexual minority group). The show turned out to be Showtime’s most popular show when it debuted in the 2003-04 season, and because of its huge number of viewers, it was renewed for a second season the day after the pilot ran. It was renewed for a third season before the second season even began airing. In November 2006, a survey by Community Marketing’s Lesbian Consumer Index found that 39% of lesbians reported they watched Showtime, evidence that as we all suspected, almost half of all lesbians in the U.S. really were watching it, whether home alone or at viewing parties. The pilot garnered 936,000 viewers, a notable figure given that Showtime’s next most popular contemporary show, “Dexter,” which premiered in 2006, only started with 600,000-plus viewers. Also worth noting, it is estimated that Showtime’s “Queer as Folk,” which debuted in 2000, averaged 1.6 million viewers for its most popular episodes. The fact that much of the viewer base for “QAF” was heterosexual females indicates a show is likely to perform best when it has strong cross-over appeal to heterosexual audiences as well.

Argument #3: The Pink Dollar is worth chasing.

The LGBT community has a large purchasing power that can be tapped with tie-ins to branding.

LGBT spending power in US estimated to be worth $917 billion in 2015, according to the LGBT marketing firm Witeck Communications. Moreover, some 90% of gay and lesbian people report that they specifically support businesses which target “pink money,” while 70% would pay a premium for a product from a company that supports the gay community. Show love to the gay community, and they are more likely to return that love with dollars.

For example, it has been widely reported in business case studies that American Airlines saw ticket purchases by gays and lesbians  rise by $193.5 million between 1994 and 1999 because the company formed a marketing team devoted to attracting lesbian and gay customers. The entertainment industry can access some of the gay community’s “pink” dollars by commodifying its gay-centric entertainment. For example, on Showtime’s “The L Word” site, viewers could purchase products such as a “The L Word” board game, CDs and DVD box sets (haahahaha, weren’t the mid-2000s quaint?), clothes, mugs, a candle, and lipsticks in four shades named after “The L Word” characters.

Argument #4: LGBT characters are awards darlings.

The entertainment industry should have more LGBT characters not just for the viewers, but because awards juries love and reward LGBT characters.

If awards nominations are a metric of success, every movie should have LGBT main characters. Consider: in 2005, “Brokeback Mountain” was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. In 2010, “The Kids are All Right” was nominated, as was “Dallas Buyers Club” in 2013. In 2016, “Moonlight” finally won the category. Meanwhile, winners of the best actress category have included Hillary Swank for playing real life transman Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), Nicole Kidman for playing bisexual Virginia Woolf in “The Hours” (2002), and Charlize Theron for playing lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” (2003), with nominations for Judi Dench for “Notes on a Scandal” (2006), Annette Bening in “The Kids are All Right” (2010), Glenn Close for “Albert Nobbs” (2011), and Cate Blanchett for “Carol” (2015).

 

Additionally, nominations for best supporting actress have included Catherine Keener for “Being John Malkovich” (1999), Chloë Sevigny for “Boys Don’t Cry,” Janet McTeer for “Albert Nobbs,” and Rooney Mara for “Carol.” It is also worth noting Director David Lynch’s nomination for Best Director in 2001 for “Mulholland Drive.” In short, LGBT—particularly lesbian and bisexual characters—have been consistently racking up Oscar nominations since 1999. And the awards love is broader than just the Oscars. “Carol” had 239 total awards nominations. For context, the movie “Spotlight,” which came out the same year and was also an Oscar contender, only had 138 total nominations.

Overall, in 2018 there is no demonstrable downside to purposely marketing to lesbian and bisexual viewers, and many demonstrable upsides. As TV shows like “Wynonna Earp” and “Supergirl” have shown, this fan base provides a robust viewership that can help keep shows afloat or boost what otherwise might have been a middle of the pack show or movie to a higher tier. A TV show or movie doesn’t even have to have a lesbian or bisexual protagonist to attract viewers, so long as the character is nevertheless a main character. Hollywood loves to blame minorities for the failure of a project, but the truth is, when movies or TV shows fail, it is likely not due to too narrow marketing to the lesbian community, but rather because of other underlying issues such as poor production values or scripts.

According to IMDb, “The World Unseen,” which is a fantastic movie, only grossed $17,000—roughly the amount of money that falls out of Ellen DeGeneres’ pocket when she sneezes. On the face of it, Hollywood might point to this low box office as proof that a “lesbian movie” isn’t financially worth making. But then again, IMDb only shows “The World Unseen” as having been screened on 5 screens as part of that gross calculation. “The World Unseen” didn’t “fail” because no one wanted to see the subject matter. It failed because Hollywood didn’t care to give it any backing.

“Captain America: Civil War,” for comparison, aired on 4,226 screens on its opening weekend in the United States alone and it grossed $179.4 million. When a “lesbian movie” is given the same support by Hollywood, it performs just as well or better than its peers. In 2015, “Carol” grossed just over $40.27 million, a box office that more than tripled its estimated budget of $11.8 million. As previously mentioned, Blanchett was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role, and Mara for Best Supporting Actress. “Room,” on the other hand, which won Brie Larson the Best Actress Oscar that same year, grossed a mere $22 million, not even double its $13 million budget. Metrically, “Carol” outperformed “Room,” but no credit is given for it.

A final thought: Disney is petrified to add an LGBT character to its “Star Wars” universe. “Star Wars” can have female protagonists, people of color, and porgs, but somehow producers cling to the theory that a single gay person will cause the entire empire to come crashing down. All evidence points to the contrary. According to marketing principles, a consumer group must be identifiable, reachable, measurable, and profitable. The lesbian and bisexual community meets all four criteria. Hollywood needs to do better about recognizing minority consumer groups. End stop. And “Star Wars” needs a lesbian.

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