Universal’s “Bros,” the LGBTQ rom-com that was positioned to help lift a miserable September box office, has proven to be the latest big-screen disappointment with an underwhelming $4.8 million opening weekend.
What went wrong? After its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, critics heaped praise on the film — which has a 91% Rotten Tomatoes score — especially as the first rom-com released by a major studio with a principal cast consisting entirely of LGBTQ actors. The film, produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Nicholas Stoller from a screenplay he co-wrote with lead star Billy Eichner, also won over moviegoers who did show up, earning the film an A on CinemaScore and an 80% positive rating on Comscore/Screen Engine’s PostTrak.
But those opening weekend audience were largely driven by moviegoers in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — meaning that “Bros” is facing the sort of paradox that musicals like “In the Heights” and “West Side Story” got last year: Critics liked them, and the meager number of moviegoers that did buy a ticket liked them, but all of that isn’t translating into more widespread interest in the film.
One major challenge was that the film may have been seen as just too niche for mainstream audiences. Stoller and Eichner’s film, as its trailer shows, is unapologetically immersed in modern queer culture.
A gay rom-com was never going to get significant turnout from conservative states, particularly at a time when anti-LGBTQ attacks from far-right groups have been on the rise. But “Bros” hasn’t drawn significant turnout from more liberal areas of the country either, at least not to the point where it could meet pre-weekend projections of $8-$10 million.
Eichner, an unlikely big-screen leading man given his abrasive onscreen persona in TV shows like “Billy on the Street,” lamented that straight audiences did not show up for his movie. “That’s the world we live in, unfortunately,” he tweeted on Sunday. “Even with glowing reviews and great Rotten Tomatoes scores, an A CinemaScore etc., straight people, especially in certain parts of the country, just didn’t show up for ‘Bros.’ And that’s disappointing but it is what it is.”
Sexual orientation isn’t something that audience metrics poll for, so it’s impossible to say how much of the opening weekend of “Bros” was made up of straight moviegoers. Universal’s metrics did show that 60% of the audience was white and male, with 63% between the ages of 25-44.
As a result, “Bros” was unlikely to turn a profit on its theatrical run despite a modest $22 million production budget (excluding marketing costs).
Universal’s marketing of the film may be another problem. By explicitly marketing “Bros” as the first-ever LGBTQ comedy, an executive from a rival studio said Universal “pigeonholed” the movie among moviegoers, making audiences outside of its core demographic feel like it’s not a movie for them. “They should have sold it as, ‘Here’s a rom-com from Judd Apatow. It happens to be about two gay guys,'” the exec said. “It’s like ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ a comedy which just happened to have an all-Asian cast.”
Indeed, while so much of the coverage of “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018 was about how it was the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club,” a look at that film’s trailer shows what the exec is talking about.
While the film’s setting and the characters’ ethnicities certainly inform the entire story and is a major part of its marketing, the marketing highlighted other elements of the film to appeal to moviegoers from other demographics. The basic story of a couple’s relationship being tested by a tense first meeting with the in-laws is one that anyone could grasp, while the film’s colorful, luxurious depiction of Singapore demands to be seen on the big screen.
“Bros” has been lauded by critics for the sweet-hearted romance at the core of its story and showing the common threads of romance that can resonate with anyone regardless of whether they’re gay or straight. “It’s more concerned with making us laugh than pushing an agenda,” wrote Cinemalogue’s Todd Jorgenson.
But the film’s marketing tended to put that emotional core in the backseat in favor of drawing attention to its more bawdy, R-rated moments and queer-specific jokes. The viral marketing also sold it as a gay rom-com, with Eichner teaming up with Paul Rudd to “round up straight people” to watch the film, farming some laughs from the reactions of some younger straight men on the street when they were told that the film has gay sex in it.
Comedies, particularly romantic comedies, have been a tough sell over the past decade. According to Box Office Mojo, only four rom-coms have grossed more than $60 million in North America in the last 10 years: Will Packer and Tim Story’s “Think Like a Man” ($91 million), David O. Russell’s Oscar-winning “Silver Linings Playbook” ($132 million), Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck” ($110 million) and Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” ($174.5 million).
“Comedies, from a 30,000-foot view, have largely struggled at the box office in the last 10 years as they’ve been perceived now as more of a streaming offering,” Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian said. “Whether or not one agrees with that, it’s definitely become harder to convince a large number of moviegoers to go out and buy a ticket on a pure comedy. Those sorts of films need something really unique that draws the masses in.”
Earlier this year, Universal moved “Marry Me,” another romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, to a day-and-date release on Peacock — the film grossed just $22 million domestically in theaters.
In just three weeks, Universal will try again with another rom-com, “Ticket to Paradise,” starring Hollywood legends George Clooney and Julia Roberts. With such big marquee names, “Paradise” should easily get enough turnout from moviegoers over 40 to earn a better box office run than “Bros,” but it will face the same general lack of interest in the genre.
“Like horror movies, comedies should lend themselves to the theatrical experience because of the chance to laugh together in a theater full of people. But I think years of rom-coms with poor quality have killed the willingness of most moviegoers to give that kind of film a chance,” Dergarabedian said.
Despite the poor result, Eichner tweeted on Sunday that he’s proud of “Bros,” recounting how he snuck into a theater in Los Angeles and was heartened by the laughter he heard from the crowd.
When reached for comment, Universal also said it was proud to release the historic rom-com. “‘Bros’ is a remarkably satisfying romantic comedy from the ferocious comic mind of Billy Eichner and the peerless comedic brilliance of Judd Apatow and Nicholas Stoller,” Universal’s president of Domestic Distribution Jim Orr said. “Together they have crafted the funniest movie of the year as evidenced by the remarkable critical and audience scores and all of us at Universal are incredibly proud of ‘Bros’ and can’t wait for audiences to continue to enjoy the film.”