It’s not a good time to be Roland Emmerich. Following controversy and threats of a boycott over the decision to focus on the plight of a fictional blond white protagonist as the hero of Stonewall, his retelling of the historic Christopher Street riots of 1969, the film opened in theaters over the weekend to blistering reviews and disastrous box office receipts, landing at 29th place among the weekend’s top-earners. According to Box Office Mojo, the period drama took in a mere $112,414 from 129 theaters for a feeble $871 per-screen average. While this news had to be depressing for the filmmaker, who partially self-financed the movie, it couldn’t have been wholly unexpected. On September 26, the movie review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes showed that Stonewall had a 7% rating (it’s since increased to a whopping 10%), yet it has an audience score of an almost unbelievable 95%, which is a remarkable disparity between professional critics and film audiences.
Emmerich, who is to be commended, of course, for his work to raise money and awareness for homeless LGBT youth, raised hackles even more early last week for a BuzzFeed interview in which he defended his use of Jeremy Irvine as the lead character, saying that he needed a “straight-acting” protagonist so this gay rights story would hold appeal for heterosexual filmgoers. Huffington Post’s Michelangelo Signorile, a longtime and always outspoken queer rights activist, posted a note on his Facebook page that revealed Emmerich had canceled an interview with him and other journalists after the early pans of the film were published.
What, then, is one to make of the imbalance between the opinions of critics and moviegoers, as reflected on the Rotten Tomatoes tally? Are audiences so starved for LGBT-themed films that they helped jack the rating in advance or is it possible that people who saw the film over the weekend actually enjoyed it? Don’t jump to that latter conclusion too quickly, for a quick scan of the audience opinion shows that of the 41 users who actually posted reviews more than half rated the film with one star or less. Could users be manipulating the score on the site? Queerty emailed the Rotten Tomatoes publicist about this possibility but has yet to receive a reply.
As a personal aside, I spoke with a friend last week who told me that although he was aware of the scathing reviews and was not a fan of Emmerich’s other films, he planned to see Stonewall over the weekend as a way to counter-protest what he saw as trans activists trying to rewrite the events that actually took place during the 1969 riots. I’m still too aghast at his idea to follow up with him for a response.
Fortunately, though, the critical and commercial failure of Stonewall isn’t likely to ring a death knell for other LGBT-themed films. Later this year we’ll see the release of two other fact-based major movies: Freeheld, which stars Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, and The Danish Girl, with Eddie Redmayne, which has been touted as a possible awards contender. Next year Alan Poul will direct a feature adaptation of Andrew Holleran’s classic novel Dancer from the Dance. In the meantime, there’s a multitude of television series that range from sitcoms such as Modern Family to dramas like Empire to satisfy the need for queer storylines.