Friday, November 11, 2005

Gay Writers/Directors Talk Hollywood

(Link) Sure, we've got "our own" cable channels now in Here! tv and Logo, but making movies about ourselves is still a hard sell. Why? How Americans define "movie star" has a lot to do with it. Hint: that definition includes words like "white" and "heterosexual."

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LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:
By James F. Mills

Gays in movies and TV shows may be more visible than ever thanks to the new gay cable channels here! and Logo, but getting a gay-themed movie made is still a tough sell in Hollywood.

So say five gay writer/directors who participated in a panel discussion held during Outfest, Los Angeles’s annual gay and lesbian film festival.

“I never feel as gay as I do when I’m going around peddling scripts,” commented Don Roos who wrote and directed 1998’s The Opposite of Sex and 2005’s Happy Endings, both ensemble dramas which featured gay characters prominently.

Roos and other panelists report that getting studios executives to greenlight screenplays with gay characters is often a struggle.

Studios generally seem willing to accept supporting characters that are gay, but will haggle over the issue when one of the lead characters is gay.

While Hollywood is a fairly liberal town, the panelists believe that the studios’ reluctance to finance gay-themed movies comes because niche market films, which gay films would fall into, have limited appeal.

“Americans don’t want to see things different from their experiences. They don’t want to see black movies, Hispanic movies or gay movies,” noted Lee Rose, writer/director of 2000’s The Truth About Jane and 2003’s An Unexpected Love, both made-for-TV lesbian coming out dramas. “You’ve got to appeal to the majority of moviegoers if the film is going to be a hit. And that majority is white and heterosexual.”

No longer a special event

Exacerbating the problem is that gay-themed films are not making much money at the box office anymore.

“The gay audience can’t be counted on to support gay movies in theaters anymore,” remarked Bill Condon, writer/director of 1998’s Gods and Monsters and 2004’s Kinsey. Condon is also the screenwriter of Chicago and the upcoming Dreamgirls.

Gay films used to be so rare that people made a point of going out to support them. Because they were a 'special event', they were virtually guaranteed of making $3 million at the box office, the 'Gay Three' as several panelists called it. But in the past 2 to 3 years, there’s been such a glut of gay films, that specialness has disappeared and people no longer go to the theaters to see such films. Consequently, gay films now generally only make a few hundred thousand dollars. Thus, the studios are reluctant to finance such films since there’s little return on the investment.

DVD and video sales, plus cable sales do add profit to the film. However, with the films making so little at the box office, the DVD distributors and the cable channels only pay the bottom rate for the rights to the films.

Fewer gay charters on TV?

Even though Logo and here! represent a step forward, panelists expressed concern about the future of gay characters on network TV shows. They mentioned that the number of African-American characters on television shows went down after the BET (Black Entertainment Television cable channel) debuted in the late 1980s. According to panelists, network executives said, “They’ve got their own channel now. We don’t have to put [black characters] on our shows.”

But Logo and here! do offer hope. Those channels will burn through the programming they have licensed within a year’s time and will likely have to start producing more original programming.

Conservative nation

While filmmakers may fight a tough battle to get gay films made, Rose doesn’t think the true problem lies in Hollywood, “The problem is not the industry. It’s in our nation. We live in Christian and conservative nation.”

Along those lines, Richard Day, noted that the conservative values seems to have taken sex in general out of most movies. “American films have been desexualized so much. They might have a kiss in there, but there is little else. Gay films don’t add homosexuality, they just add sexuality.”

Day is the writer and director of Straight Jacket, a 2004 film about a 1950s gay movie star [think Rock Hudson] forced to marry a woman to hide is homosexuality, and 2003’s Girls Will Be Girls a comedy featuring men in drag in the lead roles.

As an example of how skittish Americans still are about seeing a gay character as a romantic character Day cited a incident that happened during the filming of Straight Jacket. When preparing to shoot a male-male kiss, the assistant director asked Day if he wanted to clear the set. “Clear the set for a kiss? He would never have asked that question if it was a male-female kiss,” Day remarked.

Will gay actors come out publicly

As inevitably happens, the discussion turned to the question of when will gay actors start publicly admitting they are gay. While many character actors and supporting actors such as Nathan Lane and Rupert Everett have come out publicly, no lead actor has ever done so.

“The first major gay actor [one who can carry a movie] who comes out, his career will be over. But it should clear the way for those that follow him,” remarked Day.

While all believed that the day when lead actors do come out publicly will eventually happen, none of the panelists expect that to happen anytime soon.

Definition of a movie star

Several panelists noted, that the definition of a true 'movie star' is that the audience watching wants to be the character the actor is portraying on screen, PLUS wants to have the actor’s life off-screen. Thus, there must be a strong identification with both the character and the actor. That is why lead actors must choose their roles very thoughtfully, being sure to maintain the image they’ve been carefully building on screen.

If the actor were to publicly announce that he is gay, the majority of the audience would no longer want to have his off-screen life. Therefore, you’ve eliminated half of the movie star equation for the majority of viewers. That actor probably would no longer be considered leading man material, but likely could continue to work as a character actor or a supporting actor.

Although gay rumors circulate about certain leading men in Hollywood, the fact they haven’t publicly admitted they are gay allows the public to maintain a “sliver of deniability” as Day phrased it. “As long as they haven’t come out publicly, it doesn’t matter how many rumors are flying about them. They public can still believe they’re straight.”

As an example of his point, Day compared the experience of pop singers Ricky Martin and George Michael. Many rumors circulate about Martin, but he has never publicly admitted to being gay. Meanwhile, George Michael was arrested for soliciting sex with a male undercover police officer in a public restroom in Beverly Hills in 1998 and soon came out as gay publicly. Today, George Michael’s career is essentially over, but Ricky Martin’s career seems much stronger.