Go for more 'Broke'? Maybe

Times Staff Writer

After the runaway success of "Wedding Crashers" and "40 Year-Old Virgin," Hollywood scrambled to make R-rated comedies. Now that "Brokeback Mountain" is drawing acclaim and audiences, some in Hollywood are pushing to get new gay- and lesbian-themed projects off the drawing board and into production.

Screenwriters and producers across Hollywood have been dusting off old scripts and brainstorming about new ones ever since the Ang Lee film about a love affair between two cowboys began collecting critics awards and nominations, including seven Golden Globe nominations, four Screen Actors Guild nominations and one Directors Guild of America nomination.

A survey of the six major studios plus DreamWorks, New Line Cinema and Miramax Films reveals that their development slates are virtually devoid of such projects. And although there are no shortages of gay characters in films today, studios say that what little they have on their development or release slates does not fall into the category of "Brokeback Mountain," with its portrayal of romantic gay love.

Nonetheless, this dearth of gay-themed projects hasn't dimmed hopes that "Brokeback Mountain" will usher in a sea change in the attitudes of audiences, which will cause studios to make more gay-themed films that aren't consigned to art house venues.

At Warner Bros., producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron express confidence that their long-languishing project "The Mayor of Castro Street," which now has Bryan Singer ("Superman Returns") attached to direct, will get made in the coming year. The project is based on Randy Shilts' 1982 book about the assassination of Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay city supervisor in San Francisco.

Zadan and Meron, who were executive producers on 2002's Academy Award-winning film "Chicago," say they have spent 15 years developing "The Mayor of Castro Street" and now believe "Brokeback Mountain" has given the project new life.

"We believe, for the first time, this project is viable," Zadan said. "We are getting nothing but enthusiasm from Warner Bros. They are excited by it. Bryan is excited by it. Big actors all over town are wanting to make this movie. Our timing couldn't be better.... Then 'Brokeback Mountain' comes out of the blue, and that only fuels the enthusiasm."

A studio spokeswoman who declined to be identified stressed that, just like any other project in development at Warner Bros., a decision to greenlight the project would be based on the script and other key elements, like casting.

Since its release a few weeks ago, "Brokeback Mountain," starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, has grossed $22.5 million, and Hollywood is watching to see if it becomes a hit with mainstream "crossover" audiences as it continues its steady expansion into theaters nationwide.

Even if it does, some industry insiders say, "Brokeback" won't necessarily result in a flood of similarly themed movies.

Alan Gasmer, a literary agent at the William Morris Agency, said he isn't aware yet of a groundswell for gay-themed scripts at the studios.

"I have not seen or heard from any [studio] executive who says that is what they are looking for," said Gasmer.

"I don't think people are going to look at 'Brokeback Mountain,' with its modest business, and say, 'If we want to get rich, let's make movies about gay cowboys,' " said entertainment attorney Stan Coleman. "But what it does say is you need not be prohibited from making those movies, if they are made for a price and marketed in good taste."

Off the shelf

To be sure, there have been studio movies over the years featuring gay characters, from "Philadelphia" to "The Birdcage," but "Brokeback Mountain" has taken the genre further with its high-end production values and the frank way the men express love for each other.

The film is prompting renewed interest in projects that have kicked around Hollywood for years.

One is Peter Lefcourt's 1992 novel "The Dreyfus Affair," about two gay baseball players, the World Series and how organized baseball deals with the public relations fallout from their relationship.

Lefcourt said the book, in its 15th printing as a paperback, was twice optioned by Disney, then went to 20th Century Fox in 1997 for director Betty Thomas, then to New Line Cinema. Lefcourt said he had gotten the film rights back.

"We actually got close to [casting] Ben Affleck" at New Line, Lefcourt said, but Affleck did the big-budget "Pearl Harbor" for director Michael Bay instead. Lefcourt said he had heard that actor Don Cheadle had been interested in the project.

"We had a budget and were ready to go," Lefcourt said, then quipped: "I guess [Affleck] decided he'd rather kiss Kate Beckinsale in 'Pearl Harbor' than Don Cheadle in Burbank."

Lefcourt said that he believed studio bean counters were not so much homophobic as they were "risk-phobic" when it came to greenlighting gay-themed films. But he added that "Brokeback Mountain" has now "paved the way for these types of movies to be made."

Although TV and cable do not shy away from gay and lesbian themes and relationships, Hollywood has always had an uneasy time with movies that directly tackle homosexual relationships.

A generation ago, Patricia Nell Warren's breakthrough 1974 gay-themed novel "The Front Runner," about a homosexual relationship between a track coach and runner set against the backdrop of the Olympic Games, generated similar buzz in Hollywood. Paul Newman acquired the film rights and was interested in playing the coach, Warren said, but when the script didn't come together, Newman bowed out. The project then kicked around the industry for years. In the mid-1990s, Warren reacquired the film rights; she said there has been renewed interest in turning the book into a movie since "Brokeback Mountain." The novel has sold 10 million books and is in its 36th paperback printing.

"There are still a lot of people who would like to see this movie made," Warren said. "We get e-mails and letters all the time. One of the issues is economics. There are a lot of people in the industry

"I think people are just watching the box office of 'Brokeback Mountain' very closely," she said.

The 1998 gay-themed film "Gods and Monsters" received critical acclaim but grossed only $6.4 million in North America. "I think that is one of the things that scared people off," Warren said. " 'Gods and Monsters' won [the Academy Award for] best adapted screenplay and never took off. The critical acclaim can be wonderful. But the key thing is going to be the income."

"Hollywood is driven by the greenback.... They always look at the risk factor," said producer and screenwriter Lance Dow, who is developing a movie script called "Immortal" about a gay comic book superhero. Dow believes "Brokeback Mountain" also paves the way for other straight box office stars to take gay roles and not fear career suicide.

"The walls are being torn away," Dow said. "Just like it was with the stars of old. There was a time when if you were a movie star you couldn't move to television. Now, it doesn't make any difference."

Have no fear

Dow has written a script, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," about a decorated U.S. Army Ranger put on trial when the military discovers he is gay. The producers, who include Jerry Offsay, the former president of entertainment at Showtime Networks, say they have a "key actor" on board and are waiting for a second star as well as a director.

Before "Brokeback Mountain," said Lee Levinson, who is also a producer on the project, it would have been much harder to interest a straight actor in taking a gay role.

"I think ['Brokeback Mountain'] helped us tremendously," he said. "It's going to help us in the sense that we are going to reach out to a heterosexual star for the gay role."

Gary Goldstein, who chairs the Writers Guild's gay and lesbian writers committee, said interest in gay-themed scripts has ebbed and flowed over the years.

"As somebody who has been writing these kind of scripts over the years, I've definitely seen the roller-coaster effect," he said. "I've written big studio screenplays with gay characters in a straight environment and even in those films, there is resistance to them. There is always the fear when you make a $40-million, $50-million or $70-million star-driven comedy, 'Can we get stars to play these parts and will the public accept it?' "

"Until now, audiences have been afraid to go to gay-themed films, and the studios have been afraid to get behind them," said K. Pearson Brown, who writes a syndicated column called LezTalk and is a radio commentator on gay film and has written a screenplay called "Who You Know" that she said was inspired by her own professional and personal relationships with Hollywood's power lesbians.

"['Brokeback Mountain'] has broken that barrier," she said. "I'm hoping this means future mainstream lesbian-themed movies will focus on the human stories and the romance and not be relegated to pornography."

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