From the Office of the President & CEO, Sarah Kate Ellis
In 2013, GLAAD created the Studio Responsibility Index (SRI) to track lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) inclusion in major studio films and to drive acceptance and meaningful LGBTQ inclusion. To date, we’ve seen and felt the great impact our TV research has had and its continued impact, driving creators and industry executives to do more and better. After several years of issuing this study, progress presented itself with the release of outstanding movies like Love, Simon, Blockers, and Rocketman hitting big screens in recent years, and we remain hopeful with the announcements of upcoming queer-inclusive movies originally set for theatrical distribution in 2020 and beyond. But no one could have predicted the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic, and the ways it would uniquely disrupt and halt the theatrical distribution business these past sixteen months.
Our last SRI projected at least ten films scheduled for a 2020 theatrical release which were confirmed to include LGBTQ characters, storylines, and themes. Of those ten, and because of forced theater closure, only three films were theatrically distributed in 2020 in the U.S. – The New Mutants (Walt Disney Studios), Birds of Prey (Warner Bros.), and The Broken Hearts Gallery (Sony Pictures). Then the distribution strategy got creative. Other films were sold to and distributed by streaming services – Happiest Season on Hulu, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie coming this summer to Amazon Prime, were delayed to 2021 or later (Chaos Walking, In the Heights, Eternals, Jungle Cruise), or were released in 2020 through video on demand (The Craft: Legacy) rather than theatrically. Given the publicly confirmed details about inclusive LGBTQ characters, it is clear that 2020 was set to be a game changing year for a variety of queer stories at the box office. And then, COVID closures, delays, and increased expenses happened to the world and to the industry.
Due to the unpredictability and the uncontrollable changes and adjustments in the film industry, for this year’s study, GLAAD has chosen to suspend individual grades for the studio distributors rather than applying what has been our standard grading scale. But make no mistake – this is in no way a pass or permission slip for Hollywood to relax or regress. Though the path forward continues to evolve, we remain vigilant and focused on our work to preserve and to persevere advancing new, groundbreaking LGBTQ stories in the coming years with our studio partners.
The film industry as a whole – and theatrical distribution in particular – is experiencing unprecedented change as the pandemic forced a new paradigm for cinema releases. We are seeing experiments with the shrinking of exclusive theatrical release windows and studios are testing different release models and patterns.
We know for sure the immense power of the theatrical experience. Data proves that audiences crave the return to theaters for that communal experience after more than a year of isolation. Nielsen reports that 63 percent of Americans say they are “very or somewhat” eager to go to a movie theater as soon as possible within three months of COVID restrictions being lifted. May polling from movie ticket company Fandango found that 96% of 4,000 users surveyed plan to see “multiple movies” in theaters this summer with 87% listing “going to the movies” as the top slot in their summer plans. And, an April poll from Morning Consult/The Hollywood Reporter found that over 50 percent of respondents would likely purchase a film ticket within a month of their resident state meeting and complying with federal health guidelines to open theaters. In some instances, we even see the biggest TV hits of 2021, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its TV series expansions, are also being driven by stories began or continuing in their theatrical counterparts.
However, we must also recognize the reality of evolving consumer desires. A February Morning Consult/The Hollywood Reporter poll found a staggering 90 percent of respondents who subscribe to HBO Max said they would be more likely to purchase a subscription to a streaming service if it included newly released films the same day they are in theaters for no extra cost, and 64 percent of people who were not HBO Max subscribers said the same.
As national and international theatrical markets continue to revive and as we experience shifts towards a world with COVID-19 vaccinations rolling out across the globe, no one can be certain just how the theatrical model may change and how those changes may impact the industry long-term. What is certain is film and TV content remain America’s widest cultural export – reflecting our culture while also shaping culture through nuanced and inclusive storytelling – and that entertainment must deliver stories which reflect the audience watching, including LGBTQ people.
This is a great time of transformation for Hollywood – challenged to redefine business lines and practices during a global pandemic, driven by an increased demand from consumers hungry for new content, and rocked by the rightful reckoning and pressure for these studios to create more meaningful substantive change in representing and investing in marginalized communities. This transformation represents a great opportunity to swiftly accelerate acceptance of LGBTQ stories, break new ground, and invest in queer and trans talent and stories in an unprecedented way. Hollywood and the business of storytelling must be more nimble, more creative, more open than ever before.
This year’s SRI makes it clear, there remains significant work to be done in mainstream film releases to ensure that tomorrow’s releases include us all – no matter the means of distribution nor platform.
In our previous edition of the SRI, GLAAD challenged the industry to ensure that within the next two years, half of all LGBTQ characters tracked are to be people of color after several years of decreases. While we saw a significant growth this year (up to 40 percent or eight of 20 LGBTQ characters from 34 percent), even in this year’s smaller number of releases, the studios have not yet met GLAAD’s challenge or returned to their high of 57 percent LGBTQ people of color from our 2017 study. Last year, GLAAD also began to track LGBTQ characters who have a disability. This year shows an unacceptable and complete absence – a drop from the single character counted in the previous study.
More disappointing, there is a complete absence of stories of LGBTQ characters living with HIV, a group which still faces incredibly high levels of stigma and discrimination. Today, approximately 1.2 million Americans live with HIV. And their stories must be told, heard and seen. GLAAD and Gilead Sciences’ The State of HIV Stigma survey found nearly 9 in 10 Americans believe “there is still stigma around HIV,” and 88% agree that “people are quick to judge those with HIV.” We’ve seen how culture can change when stories have a face, most notably with Billy Porter recently sharing his experience of living with HIV and receiving incredible waves of support. At the time of publication, the only upcoming film publicly announced from the eight studio distributors tracked which includes a character living with HIV is an adaptation of the Rock Hudson biography All That Heaven Allows at Universal Pictures with out director Greg Berlanti attached – though there has not been any recent news on the project. While we hope to see this project advance, it is clear that there are so many more stories to tell and so many more films needing to get made and seen.
In the past year, GLAAD challenged the TV industry to introduce new regular and recurring LGBTQ characters living with HIV in order to combat stigma. Now we are similarly challenging Hollywood studios. GLAAD is calling on the distributors tracked in this report to urgently prioritize active development and theatrical release in coming years of stories featuring LGBTQ characters living with HIV.
Our challenge – today and every day – is to continue driving, working, and collaborating with creators, executives, and studios to ensure the entertainment on our screens reflects the world in which we live and the audiences who consume it. An audience who is changing, fast.
A Gallup poll released in February 2021 showed that at least 15.9 percent of Gen Z Americans (born 1997 to 2002) self-identify as part of the LGBTQ community – that is 1 in 6 adult members of Gen Z, people aged 19 to 24 in 2021. Not only does this quick growth in LGBTQ people who are feeling more empowered to live authentically represent a significant consumer and audience base who must be considered, they also represent a new generation of employees and creatives who will be entering all industries. If studios and production companies wish to remain relevant and perceived as best-in-class prospective employers, they need to be prepared for this group.
GLAAD is here to be a resource and partner that innovates and collaborates with creatives to create culture change and impactful stories every day. Our GLAAD Media Institute serves as a valued resource to content creators, network and studio executives, brands and advertisers – through our advocacy and media training, actionable research, consultation services, elevating LGBTQ stories in media, and setting the authentic narrative for our community. Together, we’ll advance and continue to move the needle forward for LGBTQ representation and inclusion in film.
Thank you for supporting our work and for your commitment to achieving 100 percent acceptance. Let’s get to work – there’s lots to get done.
Sarah Kate Ellis
President & CEO, GLAAD