We’ve never had a big-budget queer romantic comedy—and we may never have one.
That’s a tough pill for me to swallow, having grown up on Nora Ephron movies. But I think it’s time I give up on the prospect of a blockbuster gay Hollywood rom-com instead of hoping that one is just around the corner. The harsh reality is this: Just as Hollywood is slowly and selectively starting to improve its LGBTQ representation, the box office no longer has much room for rom-coms—let alone queer rom-coms. The 2018 film Love, Simon performed moderately well, and streaming networks are seeking out queer stories, but if we’re honest about the current landscape, it’s clear that same-sex love may never get the larger-than-life theatrical treatment that heterosexual romance did throughout the 1990s and well into the current century.
So this February, I find myself mourning the major studio gay rom-coms that never were. I feel a nostalgia for something that doesn’t exist: a whole decade’s worth of grand, sweeping movies about everyday LGBTQ architects and journalists and bakers looking for their soul mates. I’m encouraged to see more queer coming-of-age romances like Netflix’s Alex Strangelove, Freeform’s forthcoming The Thing About Harry, and the aforementioned Love, Simon, but I want what straight people had 20 years ago: a shelf full of films about people who have already grown up and are just looking for that one missing piece.
I want a queer rom-com in the style of 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, a film I almost memorized in my adolescence through repeated viewings. (The way Steve Zahn delivers the line, “Ah, the joy of rent control: six rooms, 450 a month” echoes in my brain on a constant loop.) As a youngster, I was oddly entranced by a cinematic world that was populated by fairly boring grown-ups: Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) was an executive in his 40s, and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) was a small-business owner in her late 30s. Their significant others worked in publishing and journalism, respectively. None of these people were very interesting. They had already figured out who they were and what they wanted to do for a living; they just wanted companionship, too. The stakes were low and relatable.
Sadly, though, the only LGBTQ representation in You’ve Got Mail was a quick joke about Joe’s father’s wife Gillian running off with Nanny Maureen. Where’s the movie about that? This sidelining of LGBTQ love is typical of the genre. All of the iconic rom-com moments of my youth were straight ones, whether it was You’ve Got Mail’s kiss in front of the 91st Street Garden, Sleepless in Seattle’s meeting at the top of the Empire State Building, or Notting Hill’s “I’m just a girl…” speech in a London bookshop. I got the message early on that storybook romance was for the heterosexuals.
After I came out as queer and transgender in my 20s, though, I quickly discovered the slim but entertaining library of independent LGBTQ rom-coms. But I’m a Cheerleader introduced me to my lifelong crush Natasha Lyonne. Latter Days was particularly up my alley because I left the Mormon Church around the same time it was released. And in 2013, after I met the woman who would become my wife in the elevator of the Kinsey Institute—a queer meet-cute if there ever was one!—we went to an outdoor screening of The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love held in a Bloomington, Indiana parking lot. I have a lot of affection for these films and for the many others that I don’t have the space to mention here. Everyone’s got a favorite, but in my opinion none have attained the necessary recognition—even within the LGBTQ community—to be designated a genuine classic.
As I dove deep into the back catalogue of gay rom-coms from the ’90s and early 2000s, I hoped to one day watch a queer spin on a wide-release rom-com in the vein of When Harry Met Sally—something with A-list talent, a witty script, and prohibitively expensive glamorous shooting locations. I wanted to watch two men running to meet each other in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge or two women holding each other on the Space Needle’s observation deck as the sun set over Puget Sound behind them. You’ve Got Mail’s budget was $65 million because filming bona fide movie stars in the Upper West Side while licensing Cranberries songs ain’t cheap. I was waiting for a queer rom-com with Ephron money–and I’m still waiting today.
I’ll admit we have a couple of promising projects on the horizon: Billy Eichner is writing and starring in a gay rom-com from Judd Apatow’s production company for Universal Pictures. A Kristen Stewart rom-com, Happiest Season, is also underway, with a murderers’ row of talent attached, including Dan Levy, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Mackenzie Davis, and director Clea DuVall of But I’m a Cheerleader fame. I’m especially excited because they won’t be coming-of-age films, presumably focusing on characters who have already overcome their quarter-life crises. But I don’t think this presages the queer rom-com renaissance for which some writers have hoped. If anything, I think we can expect major studios to dip a toe into this subgenre—and then decide the pool is too cold.
The Eichner and K-Stew projects are great starting points, but we would likely need oodles of A-list talent—both LGBTQ and otherwise—to invest in the queer rom-com for it to really stand a chance at wide release. We’d need huge out stars like Kate McKinnon and Neil Patrick Harris, as well as straight actors who know how to respectfully play queer characters while braving the backlash that would inevitably come from them “playing gay.” Perhaps a winning strategy would be to cast both a straight A-lister and an up-and-coming gay actor as co-leads: one to headline the marquee, the other to bring an air of queer authenticity to the proceedings. But an industry as inherently conservative in its choices as Hollywood probably won’t take big chances like these.
“I never look to Hollywood to lead the way on this,” Dr. Harry Benshoff, an LGBTQ film scholar and professor at University of North Texas who edited Routledge’s Queer Cinema, The Film Reader, said when I asked him about the future of the queer rom-com. “I’ve been saying this for 20 years: Ultimately, television always does a better job representing LGBT issues and people.”
GLAAD data supports this: The LGBTQ media advocacy organization’s latest report on representation in television found that a full 10% of regular characters on scripted primetime shows were LGBTQ. By contrast, even though we have more LGBTQ-inclusive films now than ever before, only 10 major studio movies in 2018 gave their LGBTQ characters more than 10 minutes of screen time. As Benshoff points out, Hollywood primarily seems interested in LGBTQ characters in the context of “prestige or important Oscar-winning films” like The Favourite or The Imitation Game, leaving it to streaming and TV to tell other kinds of queer stories. It’s the ’90s all over again, says Benshoff, with a big gulf between Hollywood and the smaller LGBTQ film scene.
It’s telling that some of the only queer rom-coms I’ve seen recently—like Alex Strangelove or The Thing About Harry—were released on Netflix and Freeform. Unless they’re chasing awards, it seems, big studios are still hesitant to bet on stories with any sort of same-sex romance.
“Sadly, there are still many people in America who get upset at seeing LGBT characters,” Karie Bible, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations, says. Citing the success of LGBTQ content on television, she adds, “It may take longer for these stories to have the same impact at the box office.”
Romantic comedies as a whole seem to be past their box office prime, with analysts still waiting to see whether Crazy Rich Asians proves to be an exception to that downward slope or a sign that more diverse rom-coms can keep outperforming. As a 2017 Business Insider story-cum-obituary detailed, the big-studio rom-com has fallen prey to a variety of economic and cultural factors, chief among them the runaway success of the tentpole superhero movie. Yes, as the piece pointed out, modern love looks much different than it did in the ’90s—and yes, we’ve seen some fantastic recent independent rom-coms like The Big Sick—but money still talks the loudest. And in an age when studios are chasing billion-dollar returns on superhero movies that only include blink-and-miss-it LGBTQ representation so as to be more palatable overseas, who wants to drop $75 million on a romantic comedy that might only earn back twice its budget?
That’s why we’re not seeing big studios rushing to make LGBTQ rom-coms of all types just because Love, Simon made a cool $66 million at the box office. Benshoff, who considers that movie “something of an anomaly,” jokingly calls its revenue “nothing in today’s Hollywood.” For reference, You’ve Got Mail—a movie whose most thrilling scene is a 41-year-old man instant messaging his crush about The Godfather—made $250 million 22 years ago. Today, it takes a Crazy Rich Asians–level of buzz to even approach that kind of figure. Maybe an LGBTQ rom-com could broach the $200 million mark—and perhaps Eichner’s project will!—but big studios these days aren’t fans of “maybes.”
I wish I were wrong. I want so badly to sit in front of a rom-com about a middle-aged gay man coping with loneliness, pouring all his energy into his career and coming home to an empty apartment at night, before he finds love where he least expects it. And I want it to be made with the kind of care, luster, and gusto that requires the big bucks. I want a rom-com about a 50-year-old queer woman leaving an unhappy same-sex marriage who has to get her groove back while adapting to the changing norms of modern dating culture—and I want it to star Gillian Anderson wearing outfits that are more expensive than the entire budgets of some independent movies.
I want the kind of small stories about generally unremarkable people searching for their extraordinary special someones that Hollywood couldn’t get enough of 20 years ago—except about queer people this time. But this is one love story that I fear might not have a happy ending.