Perspectives: Lessons Learned from Recent Lesbian Movies

By Karen Frost

In cooking, we assume that the success of a dish rests on the quality of the ingredients. Based on its ingredients, the movie “Disobedience” should have been a recipe for success. Rachel Weisz, who both acted in and produced the movie, is a longtime Hollywood A List staple who won an Oscar for her role in “The Constant Gardener.” Fellow A List actress Rachel McAdams is ranked 113 on IMDb’s star meter and has eternal name recognition for women of a certain age based on her appearance in movies like “The Notebook” and “Mean Girls.” She has also been nominated for an Oscar. Chilean director Sebastián Lelio just won an Oscar for last year’s transgender movie “A Fantastic Woman.” The plot itself, too, screamed Oscar bait: in an Orthodox Jewish community in England, two women grapple with their life choices and their simmering attraction to each other within the judgmental and constrained confines of their culture. Marketing for “Disobedience” was extensive in the queer female community, with the actresses giving interviews to sites like “Curve,” “AfterEllen,” “Autostraddle,” and “The Advocate.” By the numbers, however, “Disobedience” seems to be underperforming: so far, it has made back only $4.27 million, much less than its budget of $6 million. What went wrong? 

At its most simple, Hollywood weighs a movie’s success using a very simplified formula of box office returns compared to budget. Using that simplified rubric, it’s true that “Disobedience” was a failure. Failing to break even makes a movie a box office bomb. That said, that’s not the whole picture for “Disobedience.” When the net gross for “Disobedience” is divided by the number of total theaters in which it was screened to derive the average income per theater, “Disobedience” actually did extremely well. Since it aired in only 247 theaters, it averaged $17,287.49 per theater. For context, “Battle of the Sexes” (2017) aired in 1,822 theaters, giving a paltry income of $6,936.62 per theater; “Carol” (2015) aired in 790 theaters for an average of $16,090.50; and “Atomic Blonde” (2017) was in 3,326 theaters, for an average of $15,540.55. Theoretically, if “Disobedience” had aired in as many theaters as “Atomic Blonde,” it could have made approximately $57.5 million if its average box office per theater held. $57.5 million would have been almost ten times its budget, a clear success. Thus by not opening in more theaters, “Disobedience” may have severely limited its box office potential and caused its own ruin. The ingredients weren’t the problem, the size of the kitchen was.

In the last decade and a half, when it comes to lesbian-themed movies, there has been an extreme stratification among film types. On one hand, there are movies like “Disobedience,” “Carol,” “Freeheld,” and “Battle of the Sexes,” all of which feature A List actresses and can be understood to be potential Oscar bait movies, and on the other hand there are the D List, indie movies like “Snapshots,” “Signature Move,” “Sensitivity Training,” and “Women Who Kill” that are made on a shoestring budget and tend to go directly to video on demand because they can’t find wider distribution in theaters. Unlike for heterosexual film, there appears to be little middle ground. Trying to look at this group holistically, four patterns seem to emerge:    

1) A List Lesbian Movies Are More Often Profitable Than Not

When it comes to awards season, Hollywood likes lesbian movies. In the last decade and a half, almost every other year an actress in a queer role has been nominated for a Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress Oscar. At the same time, there is a belief in some parts of Hollywood that lesbian-themed movies won’t be profitable, and unfortunately “Disobedience” could be used as a datapoint in that argument. However, “Disobedience” is more an exception than the norm. Consider the following counterpoints from recent queer movies with A List casts, which suggest that movies with a lesbian component are more likely than not to be successful: 

  • “Carol,” likely the closest counterpart to “Disobedience” based on genre, tripled its budget of $12 million to garner a $40 million global box office return. “Atomic Blonde” also tripled its $30 million budget for a global box office of $95.7 million. 
  • “Monster” (2003) did even better, garnering $60.3 million from its budget of $4.5 million, while “The Kids are All Right” (2010)—made with a mere $3.5 million—brought in $34.7 million. “Notes on a Scandal” (2006) and “The Hours” (2002) also did well, making $49.7 million from a $15 million budget and $108.8 million from a $25 million budget, respectively.
  • Only “Battle of the Sexes” (2017), “3 Generations” (2017), and “Freeheld” (2015) underperformed. Ringing in at $12.6 million, “Battle of the Sexes” made only half its budget of $25 million. “3 Generations,” made for $ 5 million, recouped only $531,046, while “Freeheld” made only $573,335 to recoup its $7 million budget. 

2) Movies With Queer Elements Perform as Well as Their Heterosexual Counterparts

There seems to be little difference between the box office performance of a movie with a queer element as one without one. The total box office for “Atomic Blonde,” for example, was triple its budget, while “Red Sparrow” (2018), also an action movie about a female spy, just barely doubled its budget of $70 million. “Carol” performed approximately as well as its competitor “Room,” both of which tripled their budgets. Queer indie “Signature Move” (2018) recouped $31,551 while airing in two theaters, but heterosexual fellow 2017 Midwest Independent Film Festival entry “Dave Made a Maze” made only $34,117 from 17 theaters. This suggests that queer themes in a film has a minimal effect on the film’s profitability, which is more likely to be based on the film’s genre, plot and budget. 

3) Queer Movies Must Have Broadly Interesting Plots to be Successful 

Why was “Freeheld” (2015), whose average income per theater was only $3,873.86, such a failure even though it starred Julianne Moore and Ellen Page? Middling reviews aside, it’s possible that viewers, both queer and straight, just weren’t intrigued by the subject of death benefits for same-sex couples. As is the case for any movie, to be successful, movies with queer themes need to interest as wide an audience as possible. Surprisingly, the top grossing LGBT movie is from 1996. “The Birdcage” made $185.2 million despite having flamboyantly gay characters, suggesting massive numbers of straight viewers were engaged by the plot and characters, regardless of US society’s rampant homophobia at the time. Seen with this understanding, the success of “Atomic Blonde” is not so surprising: it’s a story about a woman beating people up, rappelling down the side of a building, trying to figure out double crosses in Cold War Germany, and also, by the way, having sex with another woman.   

4) Queer Indies Lack Sufficient Distribution 

Dozens of independent films are made with queer female themes each year, but most are inaccessible to the average viewer, especially overseas viewers. As a result, only the A List lesbian movies are able to achieve good distribution. While streaming services like Amazon Prime may eventually ameliorate this problem to a very small degree, publicity will then become a problem for these indies. How can viewers find movies that might interest them if that information is not pushed out to them proactively?

Overall, it can be hard to extrapolate trends from the tiny pool of lesbian movies produced in the last four years because the sample size of A List movies is so small and data for indie films is very difficult to acquire. However, one hypothesis emerges that has a tantalizing premise: if movies with queer females perform as well as movies without them, then why shouldn’t they appear in more major motion pictures? Until Hollywood tries, we won’t know.