Has Universal Pictures Changed Its Marketing Strategy for LGBTQ+ Movies?

by Matthew Creith

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday February 18, 2023
Originally published on February 2, 2023

Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge and Kristen Cui in "Knock at the Cabin."
Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge and Kristen Cui in "Knock at the Cabin."  (Source:IMDb)

It's a tale of two movies. One is a romantic comedy that stretches the imagination of what it's like to be a gay man in 21st-century dating. The other is a psychological horror film about the apocalypse that stars two gay leads. One was a notable box office bomb of 2022, while the other is expected to dethrone "Avatar: The Way of Water" at the top of the box office in its first theatrical release weekend.

"Bros" and "Knock at the Cabin" couldn't be more opposite if they tried. Yet both star handsome gay actors at the top of their game as they shed societal expectations to bring real stories to the big screen. Both films have talented directors at the helm, with "Bros" directed by Nicholas Stoller of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" fame and "Knock at the Cabin" is the latest entry in the horror genre from writer and director M. Night Shyamalan.

As "Knock at the Cabin" hits theaters this weekend, has Universal Pictures learned its lesson regarding the marketing strategies surrounding LGBTQ+ movies?

"Bros" is co-written by and stars comedian Billy Eichner as Bobby Lieber, a quasi-version of himself: loud, opinionated, and unlucky in love. Bobby meets the hot boy next door, Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), and the two navigate modern relationships in an ever-present New York City gay environment. The film was well-received by critics and those that attended the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. However, it bombed at the box office, with a gross of $14.8 million against a budget of $22 million.

"Bros" was touted by Eichner and Universal Pictures as the first romantic comedy by a major studio to have a principal cast made up of LGBTQ+ actors. They weren't wrong in their assumption that the movie would be groundbreaking, as it had the full backing of producer Judd Apatow and social media campaigns from actors Chris Evans and Sarah Paulson vying for audiences' attention. Universal Pictures put a lot of money into their marketing of "Bros," with Eichner reviving his iconic series "Billy on the Street" alongside Paul Rudd to promote the movie.

Ultimately, it simply felt like being force-fed "cultural vegetables," as The Wrap called Universal's marketing of "Bros" in a post-box office analysis.

When "Bros" was released last September, patrons chose to stay home and watch "Hocus Pocus 2" instead. For those who did make their way to the movie theater, they bought a ticket for the horror flick "Smile" rather than "Bros." "Smile" was released the same weekend, did not have many household named actors starring in it, and eventually grossed over $216 million at the box office. What's worse is that LGBTQ+ audiences really didn't show up for "Bros," either.

Combatting their issues with marketing an unsuccessful LGBTQ+ romantic comedy with one of the horror genre, Universal Pictures must have had to devise a different strategy for the release of "Knock at the Cabin." Starring Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge as a couple vacationing in a secluded cabin with their daughter. The movie takes a dramatic turn when the family is held hostage by a group of strangers looking to avoid an impending apocalypse.

A lot is going for "Knock at the Cabin" regarding name recognition, with Dave Bautista, "Harry Potter's" Rupert Grint, and M. Night Shyamalan attached. But Shyamalan is a polarizing director with a filmography that can be hit or miss for many reasons, chief among them his style of throwing a twist into the climax of his stories. Still, Box Office Pro projects that the home invasion movie will take in anywhere between $18 million to $27 million in its opening weekend, with a long-range domestic box office total of over $81 million. The "Knock at the Cabin" budget is $20 million, around the same as "Bros."

For its part, it doesn't appear that Universal Pictures is mentioning the fact that "Knock at the Cabin" is an LGBTQ+ film. For all intents and purposes, it very much is one. The two men at the center of the story are in a relationship together, and they are played by out gay actors who have starred in a number of projects where they have portrayed gay leads before. The film's underlying themes speak to the personal ramifications of trust in one's significant other and how their choices affect the family unit as a whole. It's a profoundly stirring premise with layers upon layers, and at the heart of it is a family who is not blood-related, but they are a family nonetheless.

This time, Universal isn't looking to force its audience to eat the cultural vegetables of societal pressure. Instead, they are rolling out trailers for a thriller that so happens to feature two gay leads. With the box office success of "M3GAN," another horror movie that appealed to the gay masses for its use of campy undertones, Universal might be piggybacking on horror movies being a success during the early months of the year.

It's a refreshing marketing strategy after the "Bros" campaign last year, while self-aggrandizing in its approach, was meant to convey an essential moment in gay culture. Except it didn't end up living up to its own expectations, and time will tell how victorious "Knock at the Cabin" will be as it introduces an LGBTQ+ horror film into the mainstream.