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Column: The movie ‘Bros’ flopped but succeeded just by being a gay rom-com

Luke Macfarlane and Billy Eichner walk along a beach with their arms around each other
“Bros,” with Luke Macfarlane, left, and Billy Eichner, is a rom-com, not a blockbuster.
(Universal Pictures)
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As you may have heard, “Bros,” the first gay rom-com from a major studio to feature an out queer cast, bombed on its opening weekend. At just $4.8 million in sales, it came in fourth. This despite the robust marketing campaign and the Judd Apatow seal of approval. Given the fanfare going into opening weekend, there’s no other way to describe it other than a flop.

It happens.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” was also a box-office flop, so a rough start isn’t the end of the world. With good word of mouth and streaming audiences, “Bros,” budgeted at $22 million, could still make a profit. I hope it does, because in a risk-averse industry such as filmmaking, major studios are likely to shy away from similar ventures if it doesn’t.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

Now look, I’m not saying “Bros” is my favorite heading into the Oscars. In fact, even the running joke of a shirtless Luke Macfarlane couldn’t save some scenes. Just because a movie is about gay men doesn’t mean it’s for every gay man. Now that Billy Eichner, the co-writer and star, has told one gay story, my hope is other major studios will realize what streaming services have already proven: There’s a hunger for more.

“Bros” was already facing an uphill battle because rom-coms in general have had a particularly hard go at the box office over the past quarter-century. During the Clinton administration, studios were releasing more than a dozen such films a year. Over the last decade that average has dwindled to four. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time, is just the 147th-highest grossing domestic film of all time. On their opening weekends alone, four Marvel movies surpassed the total gross of “Greek Wedding.” What can I say: Theatergoers want to see more action in the streets and less in the sheets.

And in the case of “Bros” you have the added distinction that it will be two guys in the sheets. Not exactly shocking in a Ryan Murphy world. But still, considering that there are laws that limit saying “gay” in schools, it’s safe to say not everyone was thrilled about the premise of “Bros.”

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There are a number of other reasons “Bros” has not done well, such as the lack of star power, which is why Apatow’s name was heavily touted even though he didn’t write or direct. Eichner, who plays the film’s protagonist, is known mostly as a polarizing comedian. There also wasn’t a lot of diversity in the promotion, which was odd given how intentional filmmakers were in casting across the LGBTQ spectrum.

But I do believe there was also a measure of truth in what Eichner said after news of the disappointing numbers. Prejudice did play a role in who felt comfortable enough to see it in theaters and who didn’t. And film executives were kidding themselves if they didn’t think a film about queer love could face some financial backlash in a world where queer books are banned and hate groups show up to drag shows armed. The very existence of queer cinema is an affront to many.

That doesn’t mean it should not be made, especially by major studios. While it is historic to have a film like “Bros” backed by a major studio, it is also embarrassing that it has taken this long, given the film industry owes a great deal to generations of talented artists who were forced to stay in the closet for so many decades.

The week before the Hulu summer hit “Fire Island” started streaming, I asked the film’s director, Andrew Ahn, if it was difficult for him to find the right balance between making films from his lived experience as a gay Korean American man and making films more likely to appeal to a large straight white audience.

“It’s really important for me as a filmmaker to not define success in terms of box office or how many eyeballs are seeing it because that feels really capitalistic,” Ahn said. “I ultimately care most about who are the people watching, who are the people finding this and is it meaningful to them.”

His debut film, “Spa Night,” snagged an award at Sundance in 2016. It was a coming-of-age story about a closeted Korean teen. “Fire Island” is a rom-com with an out queer and Asian American cast.

“I’m going to do my best as a filmmaker to not worry about whiteness,” Ahn said, “because as soon as I do I’ve fallen into a system that is going to disadvantage me.”

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The answer spoke beautifully about one of the purposes of art — to be a reflection. It’s a notion that one of the “Fire Island” stars, Conrad Ricamora, has touched on as well.

“Growing up, I was constantly watching people like me in TV and film being emasculated and being the butt of the joke,” he told the L.A. Times this summer. “To get to be part of reversing that trend feels really great.”

Eichner’s “Bros” soared in hilarious ways and felt a little tone deaf in others. And that needs to be OK too. History loves a trailblazer who makes it big, but starting a new trail is also a kind of success. “Bros” opened the door and stumbled a little. That’s the cue to open the door wider, not close it back again.

@LZGranderson

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