Part of an ad for Brokeback Mountain, run in The New York Times Jan. 6.
Part of an ad for Brokeback Mountain, run in The New York Times Jan. 6.
Today, Brokeback Mountain stands as the presumptive frontrunner for the best-picture Oscar. It's wreathed in rave reviews, the winner of dozens of festival and critics' prizes, and a substantial box-office hit. Can it really be less than two months ago that Ang Lee's languid "gay cowboy movie" was expected by many in Hollywood to create a few media ripples, do "modest" business, and then sink like a stone?
The film's ascendance is remarkable only because of its subject matter. Sleepers — films that seem to arrive out of nowhere to do big business — happen all the time in the movie industry, but gay sleepers don't. There has really been only one: The Crying Game, Neil Jordan's mordant 1992 drama, which opened unheralded and became a sensation because of a startling mid-story twist that the producers begged everyone to keep secret. Though that's standard procedure with mysteries, in this case it worked a minor miracle, as reviewers, advertising — even patrons urging friends to buy tickets — kept mum about the fact that the leading lady is revealed late in the film to be a man, which effectively camouflaged the gay subject matter that might have made the film a tough sell.
Brokeback's producers knew they had a far tougher mountain to climb. A straightforward love story about two Wyoming ranchers, the film had a number of strikes against it and almost no obvious selling points. Westerns haven't been consistently popular since the 1950s; romances appeal mostly to women (and women have not in the past shown much interest in watching men kiss other men); and gay films are specialized fare, so rarely booked by suburban multiplexes that they're still more or less in the celluloid closet. Those facts, coupled with the rash of anti-gay-marriage initiatives being floated around the country, suggested that the film's path to box-office success was as strewn with obstacles as a minefield. Simply returning the money it cost to make — about $14 million — would be an accomplishment.
Still, director Lee was cautiously optimistic in interviews that the love story might engage audiences that gave it a chance, and actors Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger began talking up the script (and their girlfriends), once the film won Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion (the best-picture award) in September. No one expected to be actively embarrassed by the film's performance, but even Focus Features, the company that released the picture, was surprised by the phenomenon it soon became.
The company had planned a slow rollout, to test the waters in an uncertain market. Previous films with gay protagonists had mostly been coming-out stories or AIDS sagas, and, Philadelphia aside, had almost always been made on a shoestring by independent filmmakers. Brokeback Mountain's modest budget was large by that standard; and it had an A-list director and a pair of up-and-coming Hollywood hunks playing the leads.
So on Dec. 9, in the slow period between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Focus opened the picture on just five screens in three cities with large gay populations — New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Somber newspaper ads (no TV) and theater posters mentioned the Venice festival prize, and featured quotes from critics who'd weighed in on the film when it had played the Toronto Film Festival two months earlier. The ads, which featured the two Stetson-wearing stars looking in opposite directions, seemed to have been cast from the same mold as the original ad campaign for Titanic. Awareness of the film in the gay community was so high that no particular effort was made to court the gay press, which had been talking about the film for months anyway (and would later complain of being slighted). It was, in almost every way, a cautious, low-profile, carefully protected opening.
The first weekend's grosses were astonishing: More than $109,000 per theater — the highest per-screen average ever recorded for a non-animated picture. The plan had been to open by Christmas in a few other major cities, but with the picture doing so much business, the pace was accelerated. The second weekend brought an additional 64 screens in major markets, including southern and Midwestern cities. New ads grouped review quotes by regions — the Coasts, the South, the Midwest — with the clear message that the film's success was not solely a Blue State phenomenon. Again, ticket sales boomed.
By now Brokeback was jockeying with mainstream Christmas releases, and while its limited runs kept it from crashing the box-office top 10, it was besting nearly all of its competition on a per-screen basis. The original plan, according to interviews with Focus Features executives, was for the picture to be in 300 theaters by the end of January, but by the Christmas weekend, the run had already expanded to 217 screens, and the film had begun to pick up critics' awards in major cities. Ads now ran with an outline of the United States surrounding lists of awards from cities all over the nation, and the legend,
"One movie is connecting with the heart of America."
Because theater operators book their best houses weeks in advance for the holidays, the run couldn't expand during Christmas week, but the weekend after New Year's, Focus more than doubled the number of engagements to 483 screens.
It would have been 484, but a suburban Salt Lake City multiplex owned by Larry Miller, who also owns the Utah Jazz basketball team, pulled the picture at the last moment, garnering headlines worldwide and creating enormous lines at the other two runs in the state. The publicity only helped the film gain more attention nationally, and as other Christmas films faded after the holidays, Brokeback finally cracked the box-office top 10. It had done so without spending a dime on television advertising.
By this time, theater operators around the country had realized that the picture was encountering little or no resistance from audiences, and began clamoring for a share of the business. Reviews ranged from favorable to ecstatic in almost every market, and anecdotal evidence suggested that after an initial burst of gay attendance in each new location, the audience essentially conformed to the largely female demographic of any other romantic drama. In early January, the picture garnered more Golden Globe nominations than any other film, which again increased its visibility, and on Jan. 17, the day after winning the Golden Globe for best drama, Brokeback Mountain spent a few days midweek in the No. 1 spot nationally.
Executives at Focus Features no longer needed to worry about moving too fast and getting out in front of acceptance for the film. The weekend before the Academy Award nominations were announced, the company expanded the run to 1,654 theaters, putting it on a par with other wide releases for the first time.
On Jan. 31, Brokeback Mountain received eight Oscar nominations — for best picture, director, actor, supporting actor, supporting actress, adapted screenplay, cinematography and original score. It had been in release for 53 days, and had taken in $51 million in the U.S. That placed it at the No. 7 spot among gay films on a list kept by boxofficemojo.com, and at No. 8 on that same site's list of westerns.
More significantly, for the Focus Features executives who had so carefully prepared the way for their unconventional love story, Brokeback Mountain had cracked the top 20 among recent romantic dramas — a much stronger category that includes such blockbusters as An Officer and a Gentleman and Titanic. As the nominations were announced, Brokeback stood at No. 18 on that list, having passed Sense and Sensibility and Romeo and Juliet.
With an Oscar boost, the little "gay cowboy movie" stands a good chance of passing The English Patient, which will land it in the romantic drama top 10. No one, needless to say, is talking any more about "modest" business.