While gay cowboys make B.O. history, other homophilic fare also surfaces

In a year that saw arguably the most numerous and varied mainstreamed movies ever with lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered characters, the feature film nominees for this year’s GLAAD Media Awards — separated into wide and limited release — also run the gamut of box office success.

At the top, of course, is “Brokeback Mountain,” which surpassed “Philadelphia” as the highest-grossing gay-themed drama in domestic box office, with more than $82 million.

“The Family Stone” and “Capote” comfortably made back their budgets, while “Rent” and “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” disappointed with below-expected takes.

All five films received wide releases and financing backed by major studio muscle; starred established actors; and, for “Brokeback” and “Capote,” enjoyed considerable awards season heat.

In fact, many scribes spilled ink over the burgeoning financial future for mainstreamed gay-themed cinema in the afterglow of their successes.

But the five GLAAD nominees for limited release film –“Beautiful Boxer,” “Mysterious Skin,” “Saving Face,” “Transamerica” and “Walk on Water” — tell a different, more difficult and ambiguous story.

All independently financed, with edgier subject matter and mostly unknown casts, they made anywhere from around $8 million to less than $200,000 in domestic B.O.

And although 2005 may have overflowed with gay content in theaters, in many ways the struggle to get these kinds of films made is still as demanding as ever.

“I don’t see that there’s any huge surge in people rushing out to finance these queer-themed movies,” says Gregg Araki, the writer-editor-producer-director of “Mysterious Skin,” an adaptation of Scott Heim’s novel about child abuse and gay hustling. “There’s a very limited amount of resources out there and an exponentially increasing number of projects. Anything that is perceived of as difficult or challenging or dark or controversial — those films are frequently difficult to finance.”

It took first-time writer and director Alice Wu five years to find financing for “Saving Face,” about an Asian-American lesbian and her mother, who gets pregnant out-of-wedlock.

“While I was trying to get the film financed,” she says, “I had people pretty much say, ‘You’re never going to get that made. It’s Asian-American, it’s gay, you’re just going to have to make it white or straight.’ “

Fortunately for her, at a screenplay-award contest, she managed to catch the eye of one of the judges, Teddy Zee, Will Smith’s business partner. They both produced the film, and Sony Classics quickly snapped it up at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

“The moment it actually went to Toronto and got sold,” Wu recalls, “everyone was like ‘Oh, this is a no brainer! Of course this film would get distribution. It has this fresh view.’ Suddenly all the adjectives went positive: It’s not ‘unusual’ or ‘niche.’ It’s ‘fresh.’ “

Duncan Tucker, who made his writing and directing debut with his genial road pic “Transamerica,” went the max-credit-cards-and-borrow-from-family route to finance his film after a long struggle to get anyone in Hollywood interested in his script.

“We knocked on every single door — it was just a total wash,” he says. “I had no idea how difficult a mountain it was to climb, not only to make a movie but to sell a movie in which the main character happens to be a trans(gendered) woman.

“I always thought that would be such a cool advantage to a movie, because, wow, curiosity factor. It’s interesting and original. But most marketers, most distribution companies and most sales agents thought it was an anchor around the movie’s neck.”

Even after the film got into the 2005 Berlin Film Festival, Tucker says he couldn’t drag buyers to see it. “They were like, ‘We’re here to work. We’re not going to come see your tranny movie,’ ” he recalls. The doors finally opened after a Variety review said the film had box office potential, and ultimately the Weinstein Co. made the film one of its first acquisitions.

“Transamerica” grossed almost $10 million, Tucker paid back his credit cards, and star Felicity Huffman (who took on the film before she went into production on “Desperate Housewives”) was nominated for an Oscar.

And yet Tucker says that on Oscar night, “I had movie stars come up to me at the Vanity Fair party and say, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen your movie yet. I hear it’s very dark.’ They didn’t hear anything. I think they just thought ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ “

In addition, releasing a gay-themed film into an increasingly crowded marketplace is, if anything, a more challenging endeavor now than 15 years ago.

“You used to be able to put a movie in a theater and let it grow and build an audience over a period of weeks,” says Mark Reinhart, exec VP of distribution and acquisitions at Here! Films, which distributed “Beautiful Boxer,” a Thai biopic of a boxer who fought to pay for a sex-change operation to become a woman. “Now if you don’t perform in the first week of the release, you’re gone.”

Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Pictures, concurs, comparing the difficulties releasing Israeli film “Walk on Water,” about a Mossad agent and his gay grandson, with the success of “Longtime Companion,” the 1990 Goldwyn film that dealt with the AIDS crisis.

“We were very, very successful (with “Companion”) in great part because we had the landscape that would allow the picture to resonate with an audience and give it enough time to breathe,” Gottlieb says. “We did end up staying in the same theaters 15, 16, 18 weeks. It’s virtually impossible to do that today.”

Although Reinhart admits he was disappointed by the B.O. of “Boxer,” he stresses that both the film’s DVD sales and on-demand pay TV service on Here! have done quite well. Last fall, in fact, the company attempted a day-and-date release of gay icon Margaret Cho’s latest standup film “Notorious,” to brisk DVD sales, albeit poor box office.

If there is a silver lining in the trials that face indie gay films, it’s that actors are willing to play gay, in sharp contrast to the multiyear struggle to find the male leads for “Brokeback Mountain.”

Tucker says newcomer Kevin Zegers actively campaigned for the male lead in “Transamerica,” a hustler who thinks nothing of a truck-stop quickie to grab some easy cash.

Araki, too, says lead Joseph Gordon-Levitt (also playing a troubled gay hustler) was “fearless and uncompromising in terms of his dedication to that character. If anything, I think everyone’s going to want to play these kinds of gay characters right now.”

But, after a year of such varied gay cinema, are financiers rushing out to make more films like them?

“I don’t know if distributors are necessarily looking at these films and saying, ‘That’s fantastic,’ ” says Wu, whose next project, like Araki and Tucker’s, is not gay-themed. “I hope the reverse thing happens, where (gay) people become inspired by the fact that my film could get made, then they set off to try to do it.”

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