When buzz started building earlier this year for Bros, the first LGBTQ romantic comedy released theatrically by a Hollywood studio, it’s safe to assume that no one involved with the film anticipated the debate that would engulf social media and the industry in the wake of its release.
In a perfect world, the dialogue might have remained focused on the sterling reviews, with filmmaker Nicholas Stoller’s comedy currently holding an 89 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, or the A CinemaScore, or the movie featuring only LGTBQ performers in the main roles. Indeed, there didn’t appear to be anything particularly controversial about the premise of Bros, which tells the story of podcaster Bobby, played by Billy Eichner (who co-wrote the script) as a lone wolf convinced he’ll never find the right match until he falls for beefy Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), who himself may not be ready to be fully vulnerable.
Instead, the conversation has focused not only on its inability to find an opening-weekend audience — it opened in fifth place at the domestic box office with $4.8 million — but also on Eichner’s remarks about the film, both in explaining prior to release why he felt it was different from previous queer streaming projects (leading to a response from Fire Island star and writer Joel Kim Booster), and his tweet afterward assessing that straight viewers “just didn’t show up.”
In his first interview since the Sept. 30 release, Stoller tells The Hollywood Reporter that he and the rest of the team remain proud of the film, as does Universal Pictures, and that it’s unclear why moviegoers didn’t support the project in its opening weekend, given the promising testing scores. “It’s very confusing and a bummer,” Stoller says about the opening. As for Eichner’s tweets, Stoller says data confirms the assertion: “Gay men are the only people who saw the movie. It’s not like he said something that was a lie or incorrect.”
Guy Branum, a co-producer on the film who co-stars as Bobby’s close pal Henry, has also been part of the Twitter dialogue after sharing a thoughtful thread about why he was hoping it would be better supported by the audience, in addition to responding to numerous individuals who have shared their own opinions. The film’s marketing has also been fiercely debated, including discussion over whether it may have alienated certain viewers or given enough of a sense of how comedy-forward and upbeat it is. Branum tells THR that he had suggestions that weren’t ultimately utilized.
“I pitched ideas for posters that were not used. I pitched ideas for taglines that were not used. I was very vocal about what I thought they needed to be doing for community outreach,” says Branum, who adds that Stoller, producer Judd Apatow and others involved in the creative process appreciated his pitches. “I don’t entirely understand the way that giant corporations make decisions. I’m sure that they thought they were making the best choices to get this film to the most people.”
During separate phone calls with THR, Stoller and Branum shared their thoughts on why more people didn’t buy a ticket on opening weekend, whether comedy still works in theaters, why the sense that big-name stars are needed to sell rom-coms doesn’t necessarily make sense and what’s next for similar projects.
If I would have guessed which September release would get the most Twitter chatter, I would have assumed Don’t Worry Darling. But I think you gave it a run.
NICK STOLLER We did it! (Laughs.)
GUY BRANUM But Don’t Worry Darling’s chatter turned into box office. Truly, we should have been spitting on each other.
What’s your take on all the debate that’s surrounding the movie and its release?
STOLLER I can’t say that I’m happy with how the movie performed. (Laughs.) It is very strange just because the movie is so much fun. And as someone who makes comedies for movie theaters — or did until, I guess, this weekend — I love seeing comedies in movie theaters, and people do. It’s almost like people don’t know what’s good for them. I’ve screened the film a lot of times now, and it always screens really well. As I was joking with a friend of mine, it’s an entertainment delivery system. There’s a lot of things going on as to why it might not have done as well as we all hoped. But I really like it. (Laughs.) I don’t know what to say! It’s just super confusing.
Some of the narrative seems to have been shaped around Billy Eichner first saying to Variety that this project is different from “disposable” LGBTQ projects that went directly to streaming, and then his recent tweet encouraging anyone who isn’t a “homophobic weirdo” to support the film. What are your thoughts on his remarks?
STOLLER For the Variety thing, I think he just literally misspoke. And everyone is very excited to rile everyone up, or whatever.
BRANUM The way Billy phrased that about streaming movies was not articulate, and it led people to think that he was shading Fire Island, which was ridiculous and not his intention. And it led to a lot of people who wanted to be supportive of Fire Island and say, “It’s the good gay movie; Bros is the bad gay movie.” But I think that this failure should illustrate the thing that Billy was trying to say. The fact that this was a gay comedy that went out to 3,000 theaters — in Birmingham, Alabama, and like Gary, Indiana, and everywhere in America — it created the possibility for a different kind of success and a different kind of failure. And we experienced that failure.
STOLLER [As for his recent tweet], he said the truth. We got the data back. Gay men are the only people who saw the movie. It’s not like he said something that was a lie or incorrect. I think the industry has trained people to not go to the theaters for comedy. But I also think people saw it and thought, “That story’s not my story. Why would I go see that?” And they will slowly discover it because that’s what’s happened with most of the movies I’ve directed, with the exception of Neighbors, is people discover it as it gets out in the world. I think a lot of people are still afraid to go to theaters and a lot of people will get it on streaming.
What Billy said was not incorrect based on the data we got — it was a Neighbors-style hit among gay men. (Laughs.) But we thought it would have bigger reach than that, based purely on the testing. It tested highest among women. It did not test highest among gay men. It tested high among everyone, first of all. I don’t know. (Laughs.) It’s very confusing and a bummer. And putting aside this movie, it’s a bummer just for telling stories. It will be one of those things where people discover it on PVOD and streaming. But it’s so fun to watch this kind of movie in a movie theater.
Guy, what made you post the Twitter thread that you did about responses to Billy’s post?
BRANUM It was really disappointing when Bros didn’t do well in its initial weekend, and it was even more jarring when the series of articles started to come out just declaring the movie to be a bomb. Not many comedies have done well since after the pandemic, and this was a movie that was opening without any major stars, and we didn’t meet expectations. It was so strange because we had made a product that we knew was good, and that critics and audiences were reacting to so well, but everyone was so ready to tell this story of the movie’s failure. And then when Billy reacted to that kind of flippantly, the pile-on got even worse. And I just thought that we had people who’d really lost sight of a bunch of different things, but one of them was the risk that he and Universal took in trying to make this movie and that so many people were just saying, “Well, it was dumb to do that.” I really just wanted to point out that a lot of care, time and effort went into building a cast of people who were all queer, all really talented, but aren’t people who have had the opportunities that straight cis performers have had in Hollywood. And that in doing so, Billy took a really sweet opportunity and made it a greater risk to try to spread the opportunity around.
There was that very strange op-ed that came out in The L.A. Times saying, “Let gay art fail” — that, essentially, we as a community don’t owe anything to gay art. That’s a really strange way of looking at things because if we don’t owe anything to gay art, gay art doesn’t owe anything to us. So much of my career has been working for stuff where I was sharing my voice with straight cis performers because that’s what it took to pay the rent. Letting gay art fail is letting gay artists fail. And I’m not saying we should support art just because it’s gay, but when we have something that’s really good — this movie has a CinemaScore of A, is 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — I don’t really understand the beauty or the importance or nobility in letting it fail. If we are just letting queer art fail, we can’t be expecting better representation. We will continue to be represented in the ways that the straight cis people in charge want to represent us.
STOLLER It’s also part of our clickbait culture that he just said something that was true, and then everyone got mad at him. (Laughs.) I’ve made a lot of movies at this point, and I’ve had disappointments. But what’s weird is, before this, the big disappointment for me — and it’s a movie that’s aged really well — is Five-Year Engagement. But that movie is a melancholy movie. This is such an entertaining movie from start to finish. It tested like a movie that is very entertaining because it is very entertaining.
BRANUM I really do think that this marketing campaign should have done a better job to communicate to the queer community what this movie was and its respect for them. There wasn’t a marketing model for a film of this scale that is a comedy — not a drama, not something serious, not something about gay trauma — going out on this scale to 3,000 theaters. They didn’t know how to do a marketing plan for that. They didn’t know how to communicate it. We shouldn’t be surprised that it messed up.
A lot of people say, “Well, what about Brokeback Mountain?” Or, “What about The Birdcage?” “What about Call Me by Your Name?” The thing is, for so many of those films, they involve straight actors playing gay, had straight writers, straight directors. Most of those things were released in a very limited fashion. Also, one of the things that this movie’s marketing did really poorly was constantly remind everyone that it was important and historic, and that was silly and ridiculous. This is a fun, funny movie, and it really should have been for other people to note if it is historic or not. What we have now is a situation where the only thing that feels historic is our failure.
There’s been so much discussion about the marketing. Do you think it didn’t depict the film in the right way?
STOLLER No, I think they did a great job, and they put so much muscle behind it, and they put all that muscle behind it because the movie’s really fun and entertaining. You can’t help but Monday-morning quarterback. And I was like, “What trailer would have made it make more money?” Nothing. Obviously, this is a very small sample size, but this doesn’t happen to me often: People called me and were like, “I just saw your trailer before Elvis. Everyone in the theater was laughing.” They cut hysterical trailers that showed the tone of the movie, that showed it was really funny. They put it everywhere. I don’t know. It’s very confusing. I have no answers. I was hoping you would. (Laughs.)
BRANUM I pitched ideas for posters that were not used. I pitched ideas for taglines that were not used. I was very vocal about what I thought they needed to be doing for community outreach. Nick and Billy and the producer Josh Church and Judd were very receptive. My ideas weren’t used. I don’t know where that happens, but the people I dealt with were excited about having people who think about the queer community thinking about how to communicate this one to people. I was fighting really hard to get a dance remix of the song from the end of the movie out before the movie came out, so that we would be in clubs and bars, so that the queer community would understand that this was our movie, and they were part of it. I don’t entirely understand the way that giant corporations make decisions. I’m sure that they thought they were making the best choices to get this film to the most people.
It seems that some people felt antagonized by the line at the end of the first trailer about how straight people “had a good run.”
BRANUM I was surprised by the number of comments in my Instagram and Twitter where straight people were very offended by that. There was no way this was going to be a movie that was treating straight people with kid gloves. Straight people have truly never treated queer people or trans people with kid gloves. Making a couple of jokes is only fair turnabout. It is rough, but we’re learning.
How do we get people to go back to seeing comedies in theaters?
STOLLER I don’t know. I’m always optimistic. I’ve also watched this movie with a lot of different audiences, all of whom responded very positively, who clap and go “aww” and do all this stuff that has not happened in a lot of the movies I’ve screened. Given all the pandemic stuff and everything else, I would grade this one on a curve, even though it’s technically my smallest opening. It sucks. It sucks it didn’t open better, but I’m so proud of it.
When you look at the remaining theatrical releases, the main comedy to stand out is Ticket to Paradise, with Julia Roberts and George Clooney, which follows Marry Me with Jennifer Lopez and The Lost City with Sandra Bullock. Does it seem like the only faces we want to see are the ones we’ve seen for the last 30 years, or that rom-coms need proven A-listers to succeed?
BRANUM The problem with that is that proven A-list stars are more often than not white. They are by and large heterosexual cis people. We have to figure out what the path is because the frustrations with Bros came from all sides. On the one hand, it was like, “None of those people are movie stars. Billy Eichner is not a movie star. Why would I go watch that movie?” And then a lot of people who were frustrated that it was two white gay guys at the center of a movie — I do not think that we will have the same kind of uproar that there are two whites as people at the center of Ticket to Paradise because we all know and love Julia Roberts and George Cooney and are excited to go see a movie about them. But I’m not willing to accept a world where only the white cis straight people who were famous in 1997 get to be able to have a big, funny comedy that people can enjoy in the theater.
STOLLER Honestly, with comedy, it’s always fresh talent that makes big, massive hits, at least since I’ve started doing it. Like Superbad, Michael Cera was on Arrested Development — he wasn’t famous. Jonah Hill wasn’t famous before that, and that was a gigantic hit. Or 40-Year-Old Virgin — I’m going back a ways — but Steve Carell had just been on The Office for a minute; it wasn’t a massive hit. It’s fresh voices that make these movies work so well because it’s something you’ve never seen before. And the cast was so good. They’re so funny. I also do think people — and this is based purely on subject matter, not based on anything — had a feeling that it was good for them and not actually funny and entertaining. (Laughs.)
That it might feel like homework?
STOLLER Yeah, it might feel like homework. But it’s just about two people who are kind of fucked up, falling in love. It’s been totally weird, this whole experience. But also, box office is one part of the lifetime of a movie, and most of the movie’s life exists after opening weekend — 95 percent of it does.
BRANUM That’s the hard part, is when you look back at the situations where Seth Rogen in The 40-Year-Old Virgin paved the way for Knocked Up and his career; Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, it opened up the world for her. If you look at Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip and how much of a superstar that made her. If this movie had made money, I think it would have given a lot of opportunities to those supporting performers in the movie. And I hope that enough people in L.A. see it, that they do realize just how talented people like Becca Blackwell or Ms. Lawrence or Allison Reese are.
Is it weird when you see stories that say “bomb” and words like that? Does it feel like we’re throwing these words out there too soon?
STOLLER Weird, in that it sucks. But it did not do well at the box office, so to say anything else would be disingenuous. I’m probably best known for Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and that movie certainly did fine at the box office, but it wasn’t like a massive Knocked Up-style hit or Superbad-style hit. And then years later it became a thing. While I certainly haven’t slept well the past couple days, I can’t help but take the long view, given my experience with Sarah Marshall, which is now considered by a lot of people to be this kind of classic. Everyone can have their takes, but it doesn’t really matter. When I think about the movie, it’s a very cheesy thing to say, but I started to think it’s so nice to imagine Bobby and Aaron meeting and fighting and falling in love and falling out of love and then coming back together, over and over and over again forever. That’s such a beautiful thought, and I think that’s how it will live. Temporarily, I would not describe this as fun. (Laughs.)
BRANUM Making LGBTQ+ stuff is hard for a number of reasons, but one of the things that’s hard is, you’ve been rejected by the industry and marketplace so much. You start to wonder whether you’re the idiot. You start to wonder whether you don’t know what you’re doing. The day after the first box office numbers came back, The New York Times said you had a highly reviewed product, it had a lot of support from the studio — the only possible answer was complete rejection by the marketplace. And when you read that as a gay comedy person, it’s like, “Jesus Christ, should I be doing this? Should I just spend my career writing sassy shows for sassy ladies? Should I not try to make queer content?” And one of the best things about having straight cis people involved in this is that they do not have the same kind of emotional attachment and fear around the acceptance of these things that we do. It is not a referendum on Nick’s identity, and he is able to say from a distance, “We made a good movie. It will stand the test of time. Don’t be freaked out by this.”
Does this make you less interested in being in the theatrical game?
STOLLER I mean, I love it. It certainly makes me a little more nervous, but I can’t help but keep trying to fight a good fight. I think it will just get harder now because this one didn’t work in theaters. It would be interesting to see what happens. I also root for every movie that works in a theater. So I was excited that Smile did well! I wish we had also done well. (Laughs.) It’s also so fun to laugh with a lot of people in the theater. It’s like a party and to not have that as a thing anymore is weird.
BRANUM There have been those movies like Bridesmaids or Crazy Rich Asians that pushed open the boundaries of what Hollywood thinks is possible. It’s so exciting to live in a time when the stories that development executives and studios and independent film production houses are willing to look at has been so expanded. We really hoped we would be able to deliver something that would provide that kind of expansion. Yes, it will be great if a lot of people watch this on streaming. I hope so. But if we had been able to show that this movie could make money at theaters, it would have moved the needle. To do that, we really would have had to convince straight people that watching a comedy about gay people, written by gay people, performed by gay people and trans people, is something they wanted to do. And we didn’t figure that out.
It might be too soon, but are there takeaways or lessons to learn?
STOLLER That’s the confusing thing, is I have no lesson to draw from this. (Laughs.) I always try to learn from stuff, and the only lesson I can draw from this is that I’m so proud of the movie and to just try to make stuff that I believe in because ultimately that’s what you’re left with. You’re not left with your box office. You’re left with, “Oh, I had this amazing experience. I worked with people like Guy Branum and Billy, and this whole cast that was so great.” I learned so much about the LGBTQ world.
Did you hear from the studio?
STOLLER They’re just confused and proud. They’re disappointed, but they’re proud of the movie. With this movie, all three tests sparked fascinating conversations and people clapped. Usually, your first test is bad, even if the movie ends up good. It’s why the studio spent a lot of money. They didn’t spend it because they thought the movie would be good for the world. They spent it because it’s a really entertaining movie.
Interview edited for length and clarity.