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Brokeback opens doors for other gay features

Brokeback opens doors for other gay features

Brokeback Mountain might not have earned the Best Picture Academy Award, but with three Oscars to its name, including Ang Lee's win as best director, the gay-cowboy romance may have more impact on Hollywood than any other of this year's nominees. Having already earned $127 million worldwide, the Focus Features release is expected to pave the way for more gay-themed films, and in its wake other projects about gay characters are suddenly looking more viable--even projects that have long languished in development.

"Brokeback tells people who are risk-phobic that you can get good actors to appear in your film and you can make money," said novelist Peter Lefcourt, who is attempting to revive one such gay project. "If they're convinced of that, they'll finance the movie."

Patricia Neil Warren's 1974 novel The Front Runner, about a track coach's affair with a team member, is one of the longest-gestating gay-themed projects in Hollywood. Although the novel has sold more than 10 million copies, the film version has had a tortured history ever since Paul Newman optioned it for a year in 1975. Since then, a series of producers held the rights, which returned to Warren three years ago.

"People in the industry look at gay-themed films as low budget, but the problem with The Front Runner is, it's set at the Olympic Games," said Warren, who's been offered budgets of $2 million or less for the project. "That would reduce the story to one little college track meet and the love scene," she said, while looking for a Brokeback-size $13-$15 million budget. But now she has been getting the most interest she's seen in more than 32 years, she said. "As the box office figures [for Brokeback] grow, we get more calls," she said.

Two other projects in the development stage for about 15 years are the biopic of slain San Francisco mayor Harvey Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street, and an adaptation of Lefcourt's 1992 novel The Dreyfus Affair: A Love Story, a satirical look at two baseball players who fall for each other. Mayor has been shepherded by out producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who at one point had gotten director Oliver Stone to commit and set it up at Warner Bros., with Robin Williams attached to star. "Then Oliver got attacked by gay groups over his portrayal of gay characters in JFK and said, 'I just can't go into another project and go through that again,' " Zadan said.

Williams soon left too, and the project bounced from such directors as Gus Van Sant to a host of screenwriters. "We were never really able to crack the script, and we finally realized it was more important not to make the movie if it wasn't right," Meron said. Bryan Singer came onto the project last year. According to Zadan, Singer's now interviewing "very high-level" screenwriters and should have one on board within a month. Although Singer joined the project before Brokeback came to life, "You feel there's a new energy around movies of this ilk."

Lefcourt had a similarly rocky road with his best-seller. Two producers at the Walt Disney Co. picked it up almost immediately after its publication. It was dropped, then picked up again at Disney, where, Lefcourt suspects, its chances were hurt because Disney owned the California Angels "and the story turns Major League baseball into a villain." Reps from Jodie Foster and Barbra Streisand's production companies expressed interest before director Betty Thomas got 20th Century Fox to option it. But Fox eventually let it go, and Thomas took the project to New Line Cinema, where, according to Lefcourt, Ben Affleck was set to star before deciding to make Pearl Harbor instead.

The project remained quiet until a few months ago, when producer Andrew Lang picked up the option, with Lefcourt now writing a new script. "From conversations we've had, there's no apprehension from studios or agencies," Lang said. "The success of Brokeback has opened a lot of doors. People are realizing gay themes aren't as much of an issue as they once thought."

On the horizon, Meron and Zadan also are producing out baseball player Billy Bean's autobiography Going All the Way with Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning writer of American Beauty. The project was set up at Showtime but dropped as the pay network focused more on series development. The producers are now in active negotiations with another cable network, talking with stars and directors, and anticipate filming this year.

More mainstream projects with gay and lesbian themes are coming soon, from the spring's Miramax Films cross-dressing comedy Kinky Boots to Universal Pictures' Adam Sandler-Kevin James comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, about a pair of straight firefighters who pose as domestic partners to get health benefits, which is set for production in August.

With Brokeback at the heart of this year's awards race--the movie's infamous pup tent even served as a setup for the opening joke of Sunday's Oscar broadcast--Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation spokesman Damon Romine said of the movie's impact, "We're visible in a way we've never been before. Even if you haven't seen Brokeback, the conversation has begun. It's gotten people to debate, and at the end of the day, it's changing hearts and minds." (Gregg Goldstein, Reuters)

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