Billy Eichner’s “Bros” will be making history upon its release as the first R-rated gay rom-com ever made by a major studio, but that historical record certainly won’t include the Middle East.
The Universal movie, which hits the U.S. box office on Sept. 30, is set to roll out across most international markets in October and November, but is pre-emptively skipping any kind of release in Middle East markets due to cultural and commercial reasons, sources close to the studio tell Variety.
It’s still unclear exactly what markets in the region will be affected, but it’s likely to include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Kuwait — all of which are notorious for censoring movies over even the slightest hint of LGBTQ themes or content.
And, as anyone who has seen “Bros” will tell you, the film — to its credit — is anything but subtle in depicting gay romance and sexuality, which has traditionally been censored or toned down by Hollywood.
Eichner stars in “Bros” as Bobby, a brainy podcaster and museum head, who remains committed to remaining single in a complicated, modern dating world. That is, until he runs into Luke Macfarlane’s Aaron, a buff lawyer who’s the complete opposite of Bobby — but changes everything for him.
Like any rom-com, the two have their own meet-cute (this time at a gay dance club) that turns into a whirlwind romance, which includes a number of explicit sex scenes. Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Neighbors”) directs the film, which also features Bowen Yang, Jim Rash, Dot-Marie Jones, Harvey Fierstein and several celebrity cameos.
The film received a lively reception at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, where both Eichner and Macfarlane spoke to the wider significance of “Bros” and what the movie will come to represent for the LGBTQ community.
Hollywood has had a difficult track record opening movies with LGBTQ characters or content in the Middle East. Most recently, Disney’s “Lightyear” missed out on a release in Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Kuwait, among other Middle East territories, due to the inclusion of a same-sex kiss in the “Toy Story” spinoff.
The scene involved a new lesbian space ranger character named Alisha and her partner starting a family together and greeting each other with a kiss on the lips. It had been originally cut from the film by Disney, but was later reinstated when Pixar animators spoke out against Disney in an open letter obtained by Variety, saying that Disney had demanded cuts, censoring “overtly gay affection.”
Sources told Variety at the time that “Lightyear,” which was released Stateside on June 17, was never submitted to censors in Saudi, knowing that it would not pass. However, the film had been initially approved for release in the U.A.E., where censorship restrictions have been loosening up. However, in a significant setback, the license to play the film in the U.A.E. was suddenly revoked following calls on social media accusing Disney and “Lightyear” of insulting Muslims and Islam.
As for “Bros,” aside from its specific cultural connotations, the best titles for comparison are other rom-coms such as “The Lost City” and “Ticket to Paradise,” the latter of which just opened internationally with “minimal presence” in Middle East cinemas, notes Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro, who points out that “The Lost City” earned less than 2% of its global box office from Middle Eastern territories. (The Paramount release grossed $190 million worldwide.)
Robbins suggests that the exclusion of Middle East markets won’t make much of a dent in “Bros'” box office changes overseas. “These and a number of pre-pandemic examples underscore the relatively low impact most markets in that part of the world have on a film of this scale,” he says.
“Comedies in general tend to lean more heavily on a domestic share of revenue, and in fact, it’s highly likely the studio [Universal] factored in the expectation of not releasing this film in certain markets when budgeting for production and distribution,” he adds.