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Most people don’t want to see movies perform poorly at the box office. And I’d argue that most people, despite the “go woke, go broke” social media rhetoric from a vocal minority, see the value in consuming and identifying with stories about people who may not look like them or share their lifestyle. So, it’s disappointing when a film, like Bros, that features an underrepresented population doesn’t succeed.
Bros’ dismal opening of just $4.8 million — and a string of eyebrow-raising tweets from writer-star Billy Eichner — has sparked conversations about why the well-reviewed gay rom-com failed, and if audiences should feel obligated to make a trip to theaters to prove they want to see inclusivity.
Eichner, frustrated by the opening, turned heads when he tweeted Sunday, “straight people, especially in certain parts of the country just didn’t show up for Bros.” He followed that with, “Everyone who ISN’T a homophobic weirdo should go see Bros tonight.”
The tweets have not been well-received. Eichner’s tweets felt more like finger-wagging followed by moralistic confrontation than an invitation with a bit of warning, if you compare them to Viola Davis’ more polite request last month to see The Woman King: “If you don’t plop down money on opening weekend, you’re not going to see Black females leading a movie AGAIN.”
I’m empathetic to the situation. It sucks to be passionate about something and not see that passion met by a willing audience. Yet, I think it’s clear from the numbers that the box office didn’t simply come down to straight people not going, or homophobia.
Several critics suggested that people were turned off by a line in the trailer that said straight people “had a good run,” though I imagine that any straight person offended by that joke would never have seen the movie anyway. What Eichner is overlooking is that a significant population of the LGBTQ community didn’t show up, either. Whether it was because the film didn’t appeal to millennial and Gen Z audiences who drive the box office, or because it opened in October alongside Paramount’s well-reviewed horror movie, Smile, Bros didn’t make a compelling case for a movie that was a must-see in theaters, even if people do agree that there should be more LGBTQ+ rom-coms. But that’s comedy.
While Bros does not feature any major stars as box office draws, the film is produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Nicholas Stoller. The former set the standard for comedies in the 2000s with Anchorman (2004), The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Superbad (2007), Bridesmaids (2011), and the latter also directed comedy hits Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) and Neighbors (2014).
It’s easy to understand why Universal, and Eichner, best known for his roles on television, may have expected an opening similar to Apatow’s R-rated rom-com Trainwreck, starring Amy Schumer, another love ‘em or leave ‘em style comedian with a big personality and a reputation for television. That film opened to $30 million in 2015. But it’s not 2015 anymore, and comedy has been on a downward trend in terms of actually getting audiences to come to a theater to watch.
This was made abundantly clear when Lionsgate’s Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron-led rom-com Long Shot underperformed at the box office, alarming Hollywood studios and pundits about the future of theatrical comedy. If Rogen, a 21st century comedy icon, and Theron, a beloved Oscar winner, couldn’t sell a movie, what hope did anyone else have? Even then, Long Shot opened to $9.7 million, a figure Universal would’ve likely broken out champagne for, albeit the cheap kind, had Bros made as much.
It’s become increasingly clear, even more so during the pandemic, that comedies no longer often draw huge crowds. It’s a disappointing reality, but if people are going to go to the movies — and yes, still risk COVID — they want to go for spectacle, such as Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum’s recent hit adventure rom-com, The Lost City. If audiences are going to be enticed to a theater for comedy, they want Comedy+, and they can get that from most Marvel movies, quite a few horror movies, Scream, Nope, Barbarian and even blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick.
Even a film like Crazy Rich Asians (2018), which didn’t become a box office success solely through Asian audiences, provided an enticing element of spectacle in seeing Singapore’s wealth onscreen, and the musicality of director Jon M. Chu’s visuals. Most comedies and rom-coms, if they aren’t high-concept, present themselves as movies that feel like they can wait for streaming.
When Hulu released Clea DuVall’s lesbian Christmas rom-com, Happiest Season, starring Kristen Stewart, it dominated social media chatter Thanksgiving weekend in 2020. Apatow’s Pete Davidson comedy, The King of Staten Island, had a simultaneous release on streaming and theaters earlier that summer. And more recently, Davidson and Kaley Cuoco’s rom-com Meet Cute premiered on Peacock. Had Bros premiered simultaneously on Universal’s Peacock service, along with theaters, it surely would’ve garnered more viewers and thus more social media chatter.
It’s a difficult thing to break the notion that a theatrical-only release is the best measure of success. But it’s obvious that streaming has become a place where comedy can thrive and where people are more easily able to show their support for representation they do care about in genres they simply don’t feel a need to see in theaters.
And if the theatrical experience is that important to the film, I think the stars and filmmakers of Bros could learn a lesson from the Black community, who have bought out theaters for films like Get Out, Black Panther, Queen & Slim and The Woman King, inviting people to see the film for free and spread the good word.
As someone pointed out the other day in a Twitter conversation I was tagged in, moviegoing isn’t a charity, and audiences have no obligation to see movies to prove their values. But I think moviegoing, and ensuring the support of movies that champion inclusivity, could benefit from a more charitable means of access to word of mouth. Be it through streaming or buying out showtimes, studios and creators have an opportunity to build a community around the films whose success they want to ensure.
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