Hollywood is having an “exclusively gay moment”—a phrase inadvertently coined by director Bill Condon this winter and overblown by media attention. Recent films like Beauty and the Beast and Power Rangers have “broken ground” or “made history”—according to these headlines, anyway—as major Hollywood releases featuring openly queer characters. Unfortunately, their “coming out” scenes have mostly been lost in translation.
“I watched Alien: Covenant and there’s a gay couple in it, and I had no idea,” Spa Night director Andrew Ahn tells Vanity Fair, laughing. “And I look for gay shit all the time. I can’t believe I missed it.”
GLAAD’s fifth annual Hollywood report card confirms that the gay community is still dramatically underrepresented in mainstream movies: just 23 of the 125 films released by studios in 2016 featured LGBTQ characters, and 10 of the 23 gave them less than a minute of screen time. The indie realm has become our primary source for more diversity on screen. It’s what made it possible for Moonlight—a film about a queer person of color—to win the best picture at the Oscars. Yet that space comes with its own complications, as Moonlight director Barry Jenkins has discussed at length.
For someone like Love Is Strange director Ira Sachs, who’s been in the business for more than 25 years, it can feel “next to impossible” to make LGBTQ films. “I’m encouraged by anyone who manages to make a film with LGBTQ content that furthers the visibility,” he says of movies like Moonlight and this year’s Call Me by Your Name, which is already generating awards buzz. “I need the visibility as much as anyone who’s starting or beginning, and as much as the audience. It’s a reminder that it’s not impossible, that I’m wrong to some extent.”
Jamie Babbit, who put herself on the map in 1999 with But I’m a Cheerleader, thought the industry would change when Brokeback Mountain came out in 2005—but she too still runs into the same roadblocks that persisted in the 90s. “It’s sad that the Hollywood corporate machine, which is very much queer as far GLBT working in the industry . . . are still intimidated by the bottom line and worried that people don’t want to watch queer stories when that lesson has been, I thought, learned time and time again.”
LGBT movies are still too often pigeonholed as “niche” entertainment. Justin Kelly had a “heinous realization” to that effect during the first financing meetings for his 2015 film I Am Michael, starring James Franco as a gay man who becomes an anti-gay Christian pastor. Companies would say, “We just did a gay film last year and it didn’t do well.” He recalls thinking, “Would someone say we did a straight film last year and it didn’t do well?”
Eliza Hittman, approaching the genre as a heterosexual filmmaker, was caught off guard by the reaction to her 2017 Sundance selection Beach Rats. She explored “adolescent female obsessions” with her feature debut, It Felt Like Love—but when she took a more masculine approach to the same concept, it was dismissed by casting directors as the one “with all the gay sex.”
“It was a little concerning that that was what people were reacting to,” she says, “because I thought the film had a lot more depth than that. But I think people are a lot more protective of young talent, and I think that there are still stigmas around what kind of roles people should and shouldn’t play.” British actor Harris Dickinson, who stars in Beach Rats, had to ask his representation to back down when they “pushed back very hard against the nudity and the content” of the story. Hittman understands their response to some extent—it’s “their job [to] protect their clients”—but she also believes “there’s still a lot of taboos around male nudity and male sexuality that exist in the film.”
As a trans-Native American woman, Sydney Freeland was told that her 2014 feature Drunktown’s Finest was a “niche of a niche.” She loosely based the concept on her own experience living on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, but many financiers claimed: “there isn’t a market for this, people don’t want to see this, people aren’t interested in this, and so on and so forth.” Ahn, one of the most lauded breakouts of 2016’s Sundance Film Festival, faced similar remarks, which sent him to Kickstarter for his directorial debut about a closeted man in a small Korean-American community. “We couldn’t even get the money to go through preproduction,” he says.
And though TV generally has a reputation for being riskier and more creator-friendly than film, Babbit—who helmed episodes of The L Word and Looking, among a lengthy list of shows—believes television is also going backward. “I love Transparent and that’s a great show with queer characters, for sure, but there should be 10 of them now,” she says.
Babbit has tried to get three different queer-oriented series off the ground over the past five years. “I’m getting the top meetings with the head of Showtime, the head of Netflix, the head of HBO,” she says. But a green light remains elusive. The closest she came was with an adaptation of Ingrid Jungermann’s web series F to 7th, a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style lesbian comedy that “talks about the queer culture from the inside and makes fun of it.” Showtime ordered a script, but she says the project never moved forward. The general response, she says, was, “Oh, if it’s a lesbian show, is there gonna be a lot of hot sex? It’s such a niche.”
Moonlight grossed $65 million worldwide on a $1.5 million production budget, but the consensus still seems to be that financiers don’t see an audience for these films beyond the LGBTQ community. When they don’t see an audience, they don’t see a profit. When asked to describe the most difficult stage of film development, Sachs doesn’t need to mull his answer. “Capital,” he says. “Very simply, capitalism makes the creation of work for marginalized communities difficult.”
And capital is why Hollywood, despite the presence of LGBTQ executives, still largely considers the visibility of these characters to be a risk. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example. Out of its $1.25 billion gross, $85.8 million came from China, $37.5 million came from South Korea, and $14.6 million came from Russia—territories with censorship laws that can target LGBTQ content. “The tragedy is that in this moment where we think we’re making progress, which we have domestically, there is an erasure in countries like, let’s start with Russia,” Sachs explains. “I used to go to the gay festivals there, and the last time I sent my films there the festivals had bomb scares two or three times—and that’s one stage.”
Kelly calls it “a bit insane” when he’s told before even shooting a queer-leaning film that “it will for sure not sell in these 40 markets,” but he’s also not convinced homophobia is the sole deterrent. He also cites the “tragic state of the indie film world”—and he’s right, to some extent. The market has changed since the early 2000s when studios began pushing these stories to specialty divisions like Focus Features and Fox Searchlight—and giving them smaller budgets. “I’m trying to be realistic instead of just complaining that it’s harder to get gay films made,” Kelly says, “even though it is, and even though it annoys me every day.”
Adding to the headache of financing and distribution is marketing. “There is a way for people to find [LGBTQ films] who have the appetite to find it, but you’re not gonna get the marketing push that all the studio movies get because it’s such big business now,” Babbit says. Films like Moonlight, The Imitation Game, and Carol did get a wide promotion, but they were also awards season contenders. For smaller releases, “yes, you can get distribution on Netflix or Amazon or Sundance Selects, IFC, whatever—but you’re not gonna get any marketing behind it,” Babbit explains.
And that’s assuming a film is actually screened in theaters—because as Ahn learned with Spa Night, “once you get a distributor, it’s not like you’re guaranteed to play theaters. The theaters themselves have to choose what they want to screen, and I had no idea that’s how it worked.”
The home turf war continues with the MPAA. Love Is Strange reignited questions of homophobia when the film, starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, was branded with an R-rating for strong language. “That film couldn't be more appropriate for a young audience,” Sachs says. The R-rating for 2014’s Pride, the story of gay activists teaming up with striking miners in 1984 Wales, incited a similar controversy, and Harvey Weinstein very publicly contested the rating (and won) for this year’s 3 Generations, about a trans teenager.
“I’d find friends of mine with 15-year-old kids not taking them to the movie [because] they assumed the content would somehow be disruptive to their children because of the R-rating,” Sachs recalls of his experience, “which was just kind of tragic on some level.” The director objects to the way the rating board operates: “Literally, the members of the MPAA had to be married people to represent a kind of family value,” he says, referring to a point made in Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary about the MPAA, This Film Is Not Yet Rated. “This is disgusting.”
It’s still possible to find support for queer stories in the industry. Ahn, for one, points to Marcus Hu, an openly gay executive at Strand Releasing who advocated for his film. But if not for Sachs’s “alternate universe” of individuals he could rely upon outside the traditional filmmaking sphere, he would not have been able to make Love Is Strange. In fact, all of these directors found hope by building their own worlds and finding their own audiences. Ahn, Freeland, and Hittman were supported through fellowship programs like the Sundance Labs and Cinereach, while Kelly forged his own path with the blessing of Gus Van Sant, with whom he worked on 2008’s Milk. He’s teaming up with James Franco once more for a biopic of J.T. LeRoy.
As a member of Queer Art, non-profit supporting LGBTQ voices in film, visual arts, performance, and literature, Sachs is trying to create this sort of universe on a systematic level. “I think what is important—and is still possible—is that artists take risks, and those risks are both personal and financial. And to be brave enough to take risks is what has created a history of queer cinema,” he says.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the mainstream that’s going to do the work,” Ahn notes of LGBTQ representation. “I think it’s more a grassroots-y thing, and it just has to keep building and building.” When it comes to seeing real change in mainstream Hollywood, he predicts, “I think there has to be a couple more Moonlights.”