Bros and the Trials of the Queer Romcom
When Bros creator Billy Eichner made an impassioned plea for people to see his queer-centered romantic comedy, he shared concerns on Twitter that straight people “just didn’t show up.”
The subsequent “flop” discourse surrounding Bros appears to ignore the positive reviews from audiences who have seen the film – focusing more on the failure of a queer rom-com to have mainstream appeal and a corresponding bottom line at the box office.
Variety’s Zack Sharf and William Earl suggest that “the star power just wasn’t there” to support Bros’ success.
Reporting suggests Bros was expected to earn $8-10 million in its opening weekend in America but only achieved a disappointing $4.8 million. In three weeks, the queer romcom has barely earned $10 million, earning less than a million in its third weekend.
It matters that it’s queer
Being an out queer actor is rare in Hollywood. Despite recent advances, it can still mean limited opportunities. While straight, cisgender actors have won Oscars for their portrayals of gay and transgender characters, openly queer actors are rarely cast in Oscar-worthy queer roles.
In his analysis of the queer history of The Oscars, Evan Ross Katz notes that: “No out LGBTQ+ actor has ever won an Academy Award for depicting an LGBTQ+ character.”
Billy Porter is a rare example of an out gay man winning an Emmy for portraying a character that aligns with his identity, for his portrayal of Pray Tell in Pose.
Guy Branum, who plays Henry in Bros, provides a passionate defense of the film in a Twitter thread, pointing out that it features a central ensemble of out queer actors, who are often overlooked for bigger profile straight and cisgender celebrities.
Still, the Hollywood reliance on star power, particularly in romcoms, has not traditionally been a convention in the queer rom-com.
The romantic comedy
Genre theory emerged in the late-1960s and is used to categorize films into their type or kind. Genre is also used by producers to market films, enticing audiences through familiar conventions of their favorite type of film.
A key convention of marketing the romcom is in the pairing of a rising star with an established star – think Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in Knocked Up (2007) – which helps build hype for the film and the profile of the rising star.
Just like the romcom, the queer rom-com is a comedy where romance provides narrative drive – boy-meets-boy, girl-meets-girl, trans-girl-meets-boy, they-meets-them, etc. – but they also feature a self-reflexivity about queer cultural politics.
Queer rom-com complications (and comedy) can often be grounded in not-coming-out narratives putting our protagonist in awkward situations. Queer romcoms can also look to the politics and tensions within queer and trans communities for comic observations that resonate with queer audiences.
Queer romcoms have not relied as heavily on star power, nor had the wide distribution of their mainstream counterparts. Instead, the sub-genre has found a strong home with the dedicated audiences of queer film festivals, which exist, in part, to provide a place for queer people to see themselves reflected onscreen.
Adam & Steve (2005) premiered at the Cardiff Film Festival but never found a theatrical release. Boy Meets Girl (2014) premiered at the Boston LGBT Film Festival and was released to four theatres. Australia’s Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) (2020) premiered at the Mardi Gras Film Festival, went on to a number of queer film festivals, and had a limited theatrical release.
Billy Eichner (left) and Luke Macfarlane star in “Bros.” Photo: Universal Pictures
Is streaming the new home of the queer romcom?
With the rise of streaming, queer romcoms have begun to find more success with bigger audiences.
Happiest Season (2020) was banked for a theatrical release, starring Kristen Stewart across from Mackenzie Davis. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lesbian romcom opted for a streaming release, breaking Hulu streaming records. While hitting the star/rising star pairing, the comedy is born out of the revelation that Davis’ character is not out to her family. Awkward faux pas ensue as Stewart’s character tries – unconvincingly – to play the straight roommate.
Single All The Way (2021) is a first of its kind for Netflix with Michael Urie – known for his recurring role on Ugly Betty – and supporting actor royalty, including Jennifer Coolidge and Kathy Najimy. The Christmas romcom reached Number 6 in the Netflix Top 10 in its debut week.
Fire Island (2022), another Hulu success story, was the sixth most streamed movie across all platforms in its debut week. Joel Kim Booster’s queer retelling of Pride and Prejudice features numerous out queer actors. While stars include Saturday Night Live’s Bowen Yang, Fire Island is a step away from the big names that were at the center of Happiest Season.
Streaming services have shown a mainstream-level appetite for the queer romcom and less reliance on star power.
Hey Bros, does this mean…
While Eichner has shown strong success in his career, he is in the position of a rising star when it comes to the movies. He appears to be resisting the star/rising star convention of the romcom for the community-specific conventions of the queer romcom, once relegated to the niche audiences of film festivals.
Bros went for a box office release, meaning there is a higher bar, in terms of cost and effort, for audiences to get through the door. Some have tried to point to Bros as the death knell of the rom-com at the box office. However, Bros is using the conventions of the queer romcom to give out queer actors a bigger opportunity to help build their star power.
As some aspects of queer culture find mainstream prominence, there will inevitably be tension between what queer audiences and mainstream audiences expect. This isn’t the end of the queer rom-com at the box office, but a step to it finding its way in the evolving genre.