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Film and TV

Outfest: Are Hollywood Studios Behind the Times with Gay Actors?

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Mon, Jul 19, 2010 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge Hollywood PR guru Howard Bragman
  • Hollywood PR guru Howard Bragman
At an Outfest panel in Los Angeles on Saturday, Hollywood's outdated logic that Americans won't accept openly gay, male actors playing straight, leading roles was once again revealed, with panelists saying the entertainment industry still believes moviegoers will be turned off by such a situation.

Remarkably, Hollywood's beliefs, according to film director Don Roos, are based on "fear and imagination" rather than any hard facts, such as in-depth market research.

Although Saturday's panelists, all of whom work in show business, gave examples of gay actors not landing roles due to their sexual orientation, no one wondered aloud if such treatment was in violation of California's laws banning anti-gay job discrimination.

The discussion over show business' apparent refusal to cast openly gay, male actors in straight, leading roles took place at an Outfest panel called "Coming Out in Hollywood" at the Directors Guild of America building on Sunset Boulevard.

The panelists included public relations guru Howard Bragman, who L.A. Weekly featured in a 2009 cover story called "The Secret Lives of Queer Leading Men," actress Meredith Baxter, director Don Roos, and actors Doug Spearman and Jonathan Slavin. Outfest is one of the premiere gay and lesbian film festivals in the United States.

During their discussion, the panelists talked about how studio executives, casting directors, and other major players in the film industry still believe that Americans won't accept openly gay, male actors in straight, leading roles, which, in their minds, would be box office poison. As a result, those actors don't land starring roles.

During a Q & A period, the Weekly asked Roos and Bragman if Hollywood honchos have ever done in-depth market research on the issue. Roos and Bragman said no, with the director adding that the industry's beliefs are only based on "fear and imagination."

Yet in "The Secret Lives of Queer Leading Men," Bob Witeck, CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications, a major public-relations and marketing firm based in Washington D.C. that has conducted in-depth research on Americans' attitudes toward gays and lesbians, said, "The world has changed, and Hollywood needs to catch up."

Pointing to recent surveys, Witeck said, "The data show there should be more boldness in Hollywood to hire gay actors in leading roles. Even among conservatives who are polled, the public's attitudes have changed. They are ready to accept gays and lesbians."

Still, panelist Doug Spearman said that movies and TV shows are made for a relatively narrow, youthful market, and movie studio and television executives don't want to take any chances to alienate that audience and therefore lose money.

It's the kind of logic that aggravates many critics of Hollywood's stance on openly gay, male actors, noting that moviegoers under the age of thirty are clearly unfazed by someone's sexual orientation.

Witeck said that a Harris Interactive and Witeck-Combs survey found that 82 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 -- the audience Hollywood targets -- think gays and lesbians should be legally allowed to marry or enter into domestic partnerships.

The marketing expert said this is one of many strong indicators of acceptance among young Americans.

Hollywood's fears, critics say, are outdated, wrong, and make no sense. The industry, however, still conducts business as if it's 1977, even though California has since passed laws that ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Gay, male actors, in the meantime, often sacrifice their emotional health by remaining in the closet in the hope of becoming leading men in action films and romantic comedies.

"It kills your soul," a young, gay actor in L.A., who requested anonymity, told the Weekly last year. "It's an insane job [to stay in the closet]. I see the destruction of my close friends. It keeps them closed-hearted. But they get so wrapped up in their success, and they think it'll make everything better. Then they get [that success], and they become very angry."

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

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