When the Elton John biopic Rocketman opened at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019, expectations were sky-high. Just months earlier, Bohemian Rhapsody, another rock-music biopic, this one centered on Queen’s Freddie Mercury, had pulled off a surprise box-office coup, raking in $911 million worldwide. Paramount Pictures had taken a big gamble with Rocketman, spending $41 million on the production and entrusting the lead role to an actor who wasn’t quite a household name (Taron Egerton), but the success of Bohemian — for which Rami Malek had won a Best Actor Oscar in March — augured good things.
There was one notable difference between the films when it came to telling their subjects’ stories, however: While Bohemian glossed over the topic of Mercury’s queerness, Rocketman met John’s love life head-on, becoming the first major studio film to depict gay male sex onscreen. And sadly, that historic moment of progress may have hurt the film’s chances at the kind of global domination Bohemian enjoyed.
Rocketman never received a release in China, where homosexuality is not legally recognized and gay-themed films are routinely barred from distribution. (By comparison, Bohemian’s scant references to Mercury’s sexuality were simply cut for its China release.) The film was also denied release in the Middle East. After a triumphant bow in Cannes, complete with John and Egerton dueting on the beach, Rocketman‘s worldwide haul totaled just $195 million. The underwhelming performance seemingly did not go unnoticed: This September, Bros, Universal’s gay rom-com starring Billy Eichner, will mark the first major studio release to show gay male sex onscreen in more than three years.
While Hollywood outwardly signals blanket support for LGBTQ+ rights, its track record often tells a different story. By some measures, the entertainment industry even appears to be moving backward. In the spring, Disney drew widespread criticism for opting not to release a statement condemning Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay bill, and for donating funds to politicians who supported the legislation, which bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The streaming giant Netflix recently came under fire for releasing comedy specials from both Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais which featured jokes targeting the transgender community. And on the big screen, gay characters continue to be largely relegated to the sidelines — and edited out of movies altogether when they are deemed too high a financial risk.
Most of these decisions come down to a thirst for the almighty international dollar. Just last week, it was reported that Disney demanded Pixar cut an innocuous kiss hello between two lesbian characters — a married couple — from Lightyear, its Toy Story spinoff. It was only after Pixar employees protested via an open letter that the parent company walked back its request… resulting in Lightyear being banned from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia. (The film had a disappointing opening, taking in just $86 million — $20 million below projections.) Earlier this year, Chinese audiences were deprived of the six seconds of dialogue in Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore that implied a past romantic relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. The studio defended the move by explaining that “circumstances … necessitate making nuanced cuts in order to respond sensitively to a variety of in-market factors.”
“China was the second-biggest movie market in the world until Covid hit, and then the North American box office dropped significantly and China raced to the front of the line,” explains Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “The strength of China’s box office has manifested in Hollywood movies being altered [and] marketing campaigns being changed for that marketplace.”
China may even have a chilling effect at the green-light stage, given that the major studios — Paramount, Disney, Universal, Warner Bros., and Columbia Pictures — release a film with a gay protagonist with about the same frequency as leap years.
Iron Man 3 co-producer Chris Fenton is the author of Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business, and has been an outspoken critic of Hollywood kowtowing to China’s censors. He cites 1993’s Philadelphia and 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, smaller domestic films which centered on characters dying of AIDS and helped to shift public opinion on the illness in the U.S., as examples of the industry’s ability to effect social change. Now, he argues, Hollywood should exert that influence worldwide by making a tentpole with gay characters and themes so interwoven into the plotline that those elements would be impossible to snip without losing the film altogether.
“I would love to see Hollywood use its soft power to foster LGBTQ acceptance on a global scale,” Fenton says. “And if Hollywood really wants to change the narrative, they need to do it in a global franchise. But is Hollywood willing to do that, knowing that it takes China out of the equation?”
This would be no mere gay kiss dropped into a movie and easily edited out, as was done in Disney’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Beauty and the Beast, but a story built around a queer character too integral to cut. Spider Man: No Way Home perhaps provides a valuable blueprint when it comes to censorable material: The film used the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop in its entire third act. When China demanded its removal, it was practically impossible for Sony to acquiesce, putting the onus on China to either take the film as is or leave it out of theaters. (China ultimately accepted the film.)
Increased reliance on the international market could explain why onscreen representation is regressing instead of making gains. Consider Paramount’s trailblazing 1997 comedy In & Out, which featured a kiss between two gay characters played by Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck. The film made its entire $64 million domestically — a gamble the studio could happily make at the time, since “there simply wasn’t the emphasis on international,” Dergarabedian notes.
Over the ensuing years, as big studios began chasing foreign box office and thus pushing gay stories to the fringes, the indie film world has picked up the slack. And occasionally, some of those smaller-budget films break through, such as Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which made $178 million and $65 million, respectively, and both won several Oscars. But even the indie space presents hurdles. In 2018, the lesbian teen drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, nabbed the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, a feat that typically sparks an all-night bidding war among distributors. Instead, it took two months before the tiny indie outfit FilmRise stepped up to acquire rights. Privately, distributors had expressed skepticism about the commercial prospects of a lesbian coming-of-age film.
While censorship (and self-censorship) may be most problematic in the film business, TV is far from immune. Gay-themed content on the small screen also is routinely subjected to a nip/tuck before debuting in some foreign markets. When Chinese entertainment platforms like Tencent began airing the first season of Friends in February, a lesbian storyline had been scrubbed. And Netflix found itself on the hot seat last fall when it ignored an outcry from the LGBTQ community and an employee walkout over Chappelle’s The Closer, which included such lines as: “Gender is a fact. Every human being in this room, every human being on earth, had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on earth. This is a fact.” A February GLAAD report titled “Where We Are on TV 2021–2022” ranked Netflix No. 1 among streaming services in terms of regular and recurring LGBTQ character inclusion in its offerings, yet blasted the company for the harm it did “by doubling down on giving anti-LGBTQ content the reach and legitimacy of their platform and brand.” As if to prove GLAAD’s point, Netflix appeared to reference the Chappelle controversy when it sent out a staff memo on May 12 that stated, in part: “If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.”
The streaming giant faced similar criticism when Ricky Gervais’ comedy special SuperNature launched on May 24, given that it, too, included several trans jokes. Sources say it was originally scheduled to launch around the same time as Chappelle’s The Closer debut but was moved to put distance between the two specials. A Netflix spokesperson says release dates are fluid and declined to respond to the specifics of any move. The same week that SuperNature premiered, Bill Maher said on HBO’s Real Time that some LGBTQ+ kids are just being “trendy,” drawing a Twitter endorsement from Georgia pro-Trump, conspiracy-theory-spouting congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Perhaps the most controversial gay-unfriendly move in Hollywood recently has come via Disney’s handling of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education — a.k.a. “Don’t Say Gay” — bill, which was signed into law on March 28. At first, Disney, which has deep ties in Florida and enjoys lucrative tax breaks there, declined to take a public position. Then, facing a public relations maelstrom, CEO Bob Chapek said the company was “reassessing our approach to advocacy — including political giving in Florida and beyond.” That was followed by Disney signing the Human Rights Campaign’s statement opposing similar types of legislation nationwide and pledging $5 million to LGBTQ+ organizations including HRC… which promptly said it wouldn’t take Disney’s donation at this time.
Filmmaker and Disney heiress Abigail Disney — a social activist who has in recent years become a vocal critic of the company’s pay disparities and hypocritical values — says the debacle was symbolic of a larger push-pull in Hollywood when it comes to the clash of social-versus-economic interests.
“Hollywood is more driven by its fear of what might undermine the bottom line than by its purported championing of marginalized people,” says the granddaughter of company founder Roy Disney. “It’s two competing loyalties. But when push comes to shove, the loyalty to the bottom line is always going to push out anything else. And it’s such a shame. It’s not that they’re not gay-friendly. It’s that they’re bottom line-friendly more than they’re gay-friendly.”