When LGBT people ask for more movies featuring LGBT people, they’re invariably answered with a flat capitalist explanation: LGBT films don’t make money. This is invariably presented as an insurmountable truth. But is it?
Independent scholar Ellie Lockhart wasn’t so sure. Lockhart has a PhD in Communications studies but has recently been looking to move into a career in data science. She decided to put all of those skills together to see if she could determine whether, and which kinds, of LGBT films do well at the box office. Her ongoing project is to comb IMDB for box office data for LGBT films, compare them to films without LGBT representation, and see whether filmgoers will or will not go to these movies.
Lockhart’s broader goal is to highlight the importance of LGBT representation not just in niche indie drama, but in big-budget franchise films, which are the movies that dominate pop culture attention and discourse. “I’m not a My Dinner with Andre film buff, I’m a No Country for Old Men film buff,” Lockhart told me by email. “If I can prove the conventional gut wisdom wrong, maybe someone in the industry will see it and we’ll finally get some lesbian Westerns or something. I just really want a lesbian Western.”
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Observer: What counts as LGBT representation in your study?
Ellie Lockhart: This is a great question. I cannot actually know every movie that meets the criteria. I haven’t seen even a quarter of the films on this spreadsheet, largely because I don’t have an interest in the vast majority of them.
So I used a multi-part strategy of painstakingly reviewing every entry for a feature film on IMDB that had any recorded US box office return and also including films which I knew by overwhelming reputation definitely met the criteria. For instance, The Old Guard is famously a streaming-only release, it has a budget but no known profits, which means that I can’t include it in a lot of my figures but I can include it in counts of how often the criteria is actually met, whether or not that’s financially profitable.
I found just under 100 movies to include from 2010-now. That’s out of a dataset of 5,000. Even if we assumed I made coding errors and missed a couple of films, that’s 2% of films including any major queer character/character who expresses any sort of queerness.
And then, to further check my lack of knowledge, I tried to include every film that made US box office returns and also had the IMDB keywords “gay,” “lesbian,” “homosexual,” “transgender,” “transsexual,” “lgbt,” or “queer,” unless it appeared that “queer” was being used in its pre-contemporary sense. Obviously there were judgment calls.
Data: LGBT Film Revenue Information & Genres, Jan. 2010 – Aug. 2020, courtesy Ellie Lockhart
Why is representation important, in your view? And why specifically does representation in bigger-budget films or franchises matter?
Representation in general is important because as a culture we recognize stories define us, for good and for ill. People feel invisible when they don’t see themselves in stories.
To get directly into why representation in big-budget films matters: it’s partially because movies are a product people consume a limited amount of. And generally, it’s going to cost the same amount for me to go see Avengers: Endgame (which does not meet the project criteria despite one of the directors playing a gay man in a single scene) as it’s going to cost for me to go see, say, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which is a critically acclaimed story about a queer girl forced to undergo conversion therapy. If I had unlimited time and unlimited focus, I would probably see both, but in practice, both I and most people will see Endgame. Even though I’m queer! Even though I really want to see queer depictions on screen! It’s not enough to overcome the cultural pull of these kinds of big-budget stories.
Because of these tradeoffs, because queer people do want to be represented but that’s not the only thing driving our entertainment decisions, since those are also financial and time management decisions, a lot of us end up following the crowd, or our own tastes, and choosing things that for many but not all of us are still more entertaining than a lot of low-budget entertainment. But we would rather see people like us in the entertainment we do consume.
You’d rather see lesbians assassinating people than suffering discrimination.
I want to be clear on this: not all low-budget entertainment is unenjoyable. Some LGBT/queer people prefer the kinds of grounded entertainment that make up the bulk of actual titles meeting the project criteria. I remember as a kid my family got the Christian Science Monitor, and their film critic at the time in the late ‘90s absolutely adored every small gay film that came out, and hated anything science fiction, and I remember resenting him. I didn’t fully know I was queer at that point in my childhood, but I certainly felt solidarity with queer people, but it annoyed the hell out of me that this guy was ripping into every film I liked and elevating these films I would find intensely dull regardless of who the main characters were.
The more personal answer, the thing actually driving putting hours into this project and choosing it as the focus of my data science efforts, is that I am a film buff and I am queer. I like Westerns, I like gangster films. The fact that queer film has so long skewed toward stories about mundane personal tragedy like Dallas Buyer’s Club and before it Brokeback Mountain, but is so sparse in the kinds of things I grew up loving but wishing I saw more people like me in is frustrating. Infuriating even.
So, what did you find? Is there adequate representation of LGBT characters in large-budget films, in your view?
No. There is not adequate representation of LGBT characters in large-budget films, in my view or by any sense of “adequate” I can conjure. The gay population in terms of people in the United States who outright identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual is 7% or 8%, but “significantly” more than that have had some kind of sexual involvement with someone who is the same sex according to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. The number of people who identify as transgender is really, really in flux and speaking as someone from that community I think any study numbers are way off.
But even if we take the generally accepted research numbers which I believe put trans people at somewhere under 1% of the population, but not that far under, we’re underrepresented.
A film is included in the data set if, to the best of my knowledge 1) it returned any money in the United States box office OR was a major streaming release in the past several years that is classified by IMDB as a feature film; 2) it has a major character (protagonist, antagonist, deuteragonist, major supporting character) who is a) identified openly as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual or something else clearly along these lines or, b) engages in what I would professionally qualify as unambiguous queer behaviors including but not entirely limited to kissing, sex, discussing same sex attraction, discussing a desire for gender transition, crossdressing for personal reasons (as opposed to “to infiltrate something” like various screwball and/or Shakespeare comedies).
What about films where characters are more or less obviously intended to be LGBT, but it’s not stated outright?
That brings me to something I consider really important to the development of this measure: the representation must be explicit. I excluded Captain Marvel, for instance, despite what I think is a very obvious intention by the filmmakers to imply that its protagonist and her best friend have a gay relationship. This is because I think the whole deniability thing is not something I want to reward. It’s something I want to work past.
This also means I included some cases where the representation isn’t great, but again, this data set is not about making judgments about the value of the work. Deadpool tops the list in most of the measures in terms of being a successful movie with a queer major character. In the case of the first Deadpool (the more profitable one), this is Deadpool himself, and the representation is mostly flirting with men that is treated humorously and is arguably kind of mocking of male bisexuality. The thing is, it’s clear Deadpool is serious within the world of the story, he’s definitely bisexual, it’s confirmed in the text.
In any case, here’s the raw truth: I found just under 100 movies to include from 2010-now. That’s out of a dataset of 5,000. Even if we assumed I made coding errors and missed a couple of films, that’s 2% of films including any major queer character/character who expresses any sort of queerness. Compared to at minimum 5%+0.5% of the population and probably much more.
We’re very underrepresented, and we’re even more underrepresented in big-budget cinema. I found about 36 films that qualified as not grounded drama films that met the criteria. Without drilling down at all into the content of these films, these are the films that fit the movies watched by the majority of people—the actual popular films that have LGBT people in them.
That’s bad, and it certainly counteracts any claims about a “tipping point” or the “gay/trans agenda” being in everything.
People often claim LGBT characters are excluded because China would censor such films. Is that a good argument in your view?
The”international box office” is frequently used by studio execs as an excuse for why not to include LGBT representation. The Chinese and Russian markets in particular get singled out, often in a racist way with respect to China.. I believe I can say that my analysis proves this wrong.
Data: LGBT Film Revenue, International & Domestic, Jan. 2010 – Aug. 2015, courtesy Ellie Lockhart
I’ve created a table showing domestic vs. international box office for important LGBT releases. Clearly, at least for big-budget movies with LGBT major characters, regardless of genre, the international box office is a huge help. These films are not being punished abroad, and in some cases (like Cloud Atlas) are actually doing better internationally.
Do LGBT films make money overall?
So, the main question: do big-budget, genre (as opposed to grounded) LGBT films make money? Based on my analysis, many of them have! What’s clear is that audiences, in the US and abroad, are willing to go see them. Most of those super-high-grossing movies also cost a lot of money to make. Deadpool 2 in particular barely broke even, even excluding its marketing budget, whereas the first Deadpool was extraordinarily successful on a dollar-for-dollar amount. But audiences will fill seats.
What it boils down to is this: franchises make money right now. Queer movies that are part of a franchise can put butts in seats, and also produce a favorable profit ratio. Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey did really well in theaters especially internationally, and features an explicitly bisexual lead and a very explicitly lesbian major heroine.
Outside of franchises, LGBT non-grounded films don’t do quite as well. But thrillers or well-budgeted science fiction (Black Swan and The Shape of Water are exemplary here) returned extremely positive dollars-spent-dollars-earned figures, and seem to use the same dynamics non-queer films use (famous actress for the former, famous director/award nominee for the latter) to draw people to these slightly low-budget but still genre films.
It’s true that in many of these genre titles, characters’ queerness plays less of a role than it would in a comparable grounded drama. However, this is partly because of the nature of genre—if you’re fighting hordes of enemies, your sexual orientation is part of your personality and matters to viewers, but it’s not going to be quite as emphasized. In my opinion this is good, although I still frankly hope we can do better than Deadpool.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that .02% of recent films have explicit LGBT representation. The correct number, per Lockhart’s analysis, is 2%.