Milk Marketing Walks Political Tightrope

Poor Focus Features.

The film company hit gay gold a few years back with Brokeback Mountain, a love story about gay cowboys. Well, the company will tonight premiere its latest lavender adventure, Milk, a biopic about slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk. While laymen may assume Focus would want to build the hype, they’re eschewing a big hoopla over the homo-tinged feature.

So, what gives? Well, one source says it’s part of a plot to win over more mainstream audiences. Said the source, “The best way to help this film win over a mainstream audience is to avoid partisanship, and the best way to avoid partisanship is to let people find out about the film from the film itself.” Alright, that’s understandable – sleeper hits by definition come out of left field. Still, there seems to be more to this story, like the fact that Focus must present this gay movie as more of a movie than gay – especially in these times of political upheaval:

Focus plans on selling “Milk” in part as a story of hope and change (Harvey Milk won equal-rights battles against great odds) that happens to be gay, just as it sold “Brokeback” as a love story that happened to be gay.

The ploy was logical with “Brokeback.” It’s less so here.

Like “Brokeback,” “Milk” features a gay romance. But unlike “Brokeback,” “Milk” is made by gay filmmakers, features the polarizing Penn and puts itself squarely in a political context. Milk’s fight against California’s anti-gay-rights Proposition 6 — a drama the movie deals with in great detail — spookily parallels the current California fight over the anti-gay-rights Proposition 8.

Embracing the political message would, first off, do right by the movie. Studios’ knee-jerk reaction to political films is to say they don’t want them politicized. But why not? “Milk” is about politics.

More to Focus’ concerns, it could help with awards. A win for John McCain or Prop 8 may drive voters to cast a ballot for Penn (a lock for an Oscar nom) or best picture. (This on top of voter sympathy because they didn’t support “Brokeback.”) Awards love will further put it in pundits’ crosshairs, which will further draw awards voters.

Sure, the political climate could influence the Academy’s decision, but those Hollywood types are total suckers for two things: slain leaders and tragic gays. If you ask us, Penn’s got this nailed.