LGBT Cinema suffers at the box office

Independent voices, on the margins of Hollywood, vulnerable in the face of online theft

The subject of LGBT visibility in cinema has been in the headlines of late.  A recent piece by Peter Knegt on examined why LGBT movies no longer seem to make money at the box office:

It’s already clear that the 2010s will be remembered as a benchmark decade for the legal rights of queer folks in the United States, but for some reason financial success — even on a very minor level — is a rarity when it comes to queer folks in the movies.

On the heels of that piece, last week  GLAAD (Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) released its first “Studio Responsibility Index” measuring the number of LGBT characters and story lines found in mainstream Hollywood movies.  The study found a Hollywood where LGBT representations were few and far between:

Of the 101 releases from the major studios in 2012, 14 of them included characters identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. The vast majority of these characters were no more than cameos or minor roles. None of the films tracked contained transgender characters.

In his piece, Knegt considered five possible explanations for the diminishing success of LGBT stories at the box office including:

  1. 1. There’s just not as much of a need for these films anymore.
  2. 2. There are less LGBT films being made, so there will clearly be less of them grossing $1 million.
  3. 3. There are less marketable LGBT films being made.
  4. 4. All the good LGBT representation is on TV.
  5. 5. The market has simply changed.

Knegt dismisses the first two citing anecdotal evidence to the contrary but, as the GLAAD study highlights, he finds some truth in #3, noting “Studios simply aren’t touching films with lead LGBT characters anymore.”   This trend is particularly curious given that, as noted in #4, there’s no such reticence on TV (or Netflix). Of the disparity between TV and Hollywood Knegt writes: “If anything, the success of so many television shows with LGBT characters should suggest there’s just as much potential in film.

As part of the GLAAD study’s release, they introduced what they call the “Vito Russo test” (named after GLAAD co-founder and LGBT historian) which outlined the following criteria:

The Vito Russo Test criteria:

  1. 1. The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender (LGBT).
  2. 2. That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. the character is made up of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters from one another).
  3. 3. The LGBT character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.  Meaning they are not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline; the character should matter.

Knegt saves his most passionate response for reason #5, suggesting that part of the fault lies with LGBT audiences who don’t bother to go to the theater and support the films that are released.

…So why do smaller LGBT films these days struggle to hit $500,000? Yes, in part because a lot of them seem to be making more of their money on VOD or digital platforms than in theaters (“Weekend” being a prime example). But that isn’t enough of a reason for me, and it shouldn’t be for you either. It’s lazy. There have been 117 films released in North America to gross over $1 million so far in 2013. Just the aforementioned “I’m So Excited” featured a LGBT character, and it’s not even in the top 100 grossers. That’s less than 1%. People are still going to see movies, and it’s up to the much more than 1% of the population that are not straight to take up opportunities to go see themselves represented on the big screen when they can.

He makes a good case for the need for LGBT audiences to support LGBT films at theaters, but there’s another less obvious factor that is missing from this discussion–the negative impact online piracy has had on LGBT filmmaking.

It’s no surprise that LGBT films are pirated.  These days, what movie isn’t? However, any serious discussion about the insidious erosion of LGBT cinema’s financial viability should include a look at the role of online piracy.

With Hollywood making fewer LGBT-centric films that pass the Vito Russo “test” the onus is once again on independent directors to create cinema that reflects the myriad experiences of LGBT lives.  Unlike studio-backed films, these productions are usually funded via grass-roots sources like crowd-sourcing, grants, and the old standby–personal debt.  Unlike studio-backed films, these titles usually don’t get a theatrical release and so are totally dependent on back-end revenue (VOD, DVD, TV) to recoup production costs and pay off debts.   Parasitic pirates, who themselves profit from piracy, erode this much-needed revenue stream.

When our film “And Then Came Lola” was released, within 24 hours illegal copies appeared on cyber-lockers and torrent sites across the globe.  Within days dozens of illegal download links morphed into thousands, then tens of thousands.

Most distressing was that many of the illegal downloads appeared on websites that specifically catered to LGBT movie audience.  Early on I began to compile a list of sites that specialized in pirate downloads of LGBT movies.

Screen Shot 2013-08-25 at 4.41.28 PM

This meager list represents only a tiny fraction of these pirate sites offering downloads to LGBT movies.  Some of these sites are offline now because they were hosted (for free) on Google’s Blogger platform and subject to DMCA takedown notices.  (Note that Google does not immediately disable such sites.  In my experience it takes repeated reports of infringing activities over months before such sites are actually removed).

Rather than just send DMCA notices, often times I’d also post in the blog’s comment sections (translated into the blog’s featured language) and (nicely) point out their hypocrisy. Lesbians routinely complain about the lack of representation in cinema, yet when lesbian-themed films are released, these same folk have no qualms downloading them for free and thus undermining the (lesbian) filmmakers ability to produce future films.  When I comment I always included links where readers could find legit copies to (subtitled versions) of our film.  My comments were sometimes met with hostile responses such as “F-you” but in other instances they led to a more thoughtful exchange like this:

An exchange I had on blog featuring downloads to lesbian films.

An exchange I had on blog featuring downloads to lesbian films.

This lesbian movie site’s response raises some valid points, particularly when it comes to the fact that lack of access LGBT films can play a role in incentivizing piracy.  There many places in the world where LGBT content isn’t readily available or (like the Middle East) and filmmakers need think outside the box in order to find ways to make their films accessible in places where LGBT people are forced to live in the shadows.

LGBT audiences need to stop eating their own and put their money where their mouth is

However, these days most of these movie blogs cater to audiences in countries where the films are widely available at low cost (with subtitles) on a multitude legitimate streaming sites or via DVD (via sites like Amazon).   As Knegt observed in his Indie Wire piece, LGBT audiences need to put their money where their mouth is and support the films they want to see whether it be in the theater or online.

Of course, amid an ever evolving distribution environment, it’s important for LGBT indie filmmakers to be aware of market realities and do their best to position their film in such way to maximize availability and minimize piracy.  How can one best do that?  Well, when filmmaker’s ask for my advice, I suggest the following:

  1. 1. Worldwide Release Window: In negotiating distribution deals make sure that your distributors offer worldwide day and date release.  In other words, release your film to audience worldwide simultaneously.  There are major distributors of LGBT content who provide for worldwide streaming options like Wolfe on Demand and Busk Films.  Also note that distributors like Wolfe offer an affiliate program that you should promote.  It allows fans to create an account and earn a 10% commission on rentals/sales when they share your film online.  It’s a win-win (legit file-sharing) but in order to maximize its potential to mitigate piracy’s impact it’s essential to promote it.
  2. 2. Subtitles: offer your film with subtitles in the major languages (the more, the better).
  3. 3. Multiple VOD Platforms: Make sure your film is available on multiple platforms.  This is not always easy and in some cases makes working through a distributor worthwhile as they have relationships with aggregators to get your film on sites like iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, etc.
  4. 4. Pre-Release Promotions: Make sure you have prepared audiences ahead of time for your film’s release and make it clear via your website and social media where the film will be available and in what languages.  Provide direct links and translate your promotional efforts into multiple languages.  As noted above, if your distribution platforms offer user the option to become an affiliate and earn commission, sharing links or embeds to your film, make sure they know about it.
  5. 5. Prepare for Piracy and be aggressive out the door: Familiarize yourself with the DMCA takedown process and have a boilerplate DMCA template ready to send when you find your film pirated online.  You can find some good info/resources here. Also be sure to create a YouTube Content Management Account so that you can keep tabs on illegal copies and remove while monetizing mashups of your films (short fan-created videos) that can effectively promote your film.   Be relentless in your anti-piracy efforts and send DMCA notices early and often to sites where you find illegal copies of your film.  Checking Twitter, search engines, and sites like can help you uncover illegal downloads.   If you are aggressive early, those who are anxious to watch your film are more likely to seek out a legit source if pirate copies are few and far between.  Clearly it may not be something you have the resources to do long term, but it can make a difference.  Also if you are working with a distributor, make sure they have a (worldwide) anti-piracy action plan in place.

The ebb and flow of Hollywood marketability aside, were it not for the passion of indie filmmakers, cinematic representations of LGBT life stories would likely be limited to the malicious stereotypes found in crappy 1980s fare like Cruising  (Al Pacino hunts a gay serial killer then becomes one)  and Windows (Talia Shire’s character is stalked by an evil lesbian).  Until recently, the only films that countered these caricatures were generally made by LGBT filmmakers, the same filmmakers whose voices are buried beneath the din of the piracy debate. Audiences may not fully appreciate what’s lost until it’s gone.