Even before Gregg Goldstein's June 16 piece in the Hollywood Reporter (or THR for the cool kidz), asking "why are so many indie gay films doing worse than ever at the box office and among critics?" I had been thinking about writing a follow-up about my July 5, 2007 entry "LGBT Film Festivals in crisis?
Why so gay?
As the entire (theatrical) indie-distribution sky appears to be falling, Goldstein writes about the particularly poor performance by LGBT Films: "Strand Releasing's 22 films in theaters last year (most with GLBT themes) grossed just $462,000. Killer Films has shifted its focus from queer-themed features to true crime dramas and other films, with tepid critical and financial success. Rotten Tomatoes says that gay- and lesbian-themed films averaged a 51.5% rating in 2006 and 2007 (well below its under-60% "rotten" threshold), while projects like the 2005 Toronto fest's best Canadian feature winner, "C.R.A.Z.Y.," can't secure U.S. theatrical distribution."
Everyone is banking on the Milk biopic to break this cycle.
With the theatrical situation in crisis, LGBT Film Festivals provide an obvious outlet for distributors and LGBT Filmmakers looking to find an audience. However, the crisis in theatrical has led distributors to depend upon the fests to foot the bill for screenings. Often, in lieu of an opening, or a run, a distributor will extort an exorbitant and excessive financial guarantee from an LGBT Film Festival. (Individual filmmakers are not above this practice either.)
It was almost a year ago, to the day that I wrote "LGBT Film Festivals in crisis?" in which I drew comparisons between LGBT Film Festival Programming and the increasing challenges of programming quality international films on fest circuit because of unreasonable guarantees demanded by reps and distribs, and pointing out why the LGBT distributors were effectively crippling the fests by asking for unreasonable guarantees:
Where once LGBT film festivals provided queer filmmakers and LGBT audiences a much needed venue, now networks like Here! and Logo provide 24/7/365 outlet for LGBT content. Films that might have once been the exclusive fare of LGBT festivals now have the opportunity to run in theatre (if even for a week--and even as a loss leader.) The "mainstreaming" of LGBT content also has an impact on our bottom line, as LGBT audiences have outlets to find the content, festivals have become just another place to view content that could just as easily be punched up On-Demand, broadcast on Logo, or delivered to your mailbox thanks to Netflix.
Gregg Goldstein's got my back:
"While smaller films are failing at the boxoffice, their production is still being fueled by the same venues drawing gay audiences away from theaters: cable TV, DVD and the Web. Small-town audiences who can't find gay films in their local Wal-Mart can head to Amazon, subscribe to Netflix or turn on MTV-owned basic cable channel Logo. Distributor Regent Entertainment, owner of the Here! pay channel, is more than doubling its annual film production/acquisition slate to about 25 releases in the next year for brief theatrical runs.
For while Regent's 12 films in theaters last year grossed just $335,000, Regent/Here! CEO Paul Colichman says the channel's $7-per-month fee, DVD revenue and low marketing costs make theatrical a worthwhile loss leader."
To wit, at last year's Out On Film, we paid (gulp) a whopping four figure guarantee for a single screening of a little, tiny feature. Do the math. Even a sellout would not have been enough to cover the cost of the rental. Factor in venue rental, technical costs, marketing expenses, operations, and you've got a model that is doomed to lose money.
In short--the screening cost us more than an itty bitty bit o' money.
Here's your guarantee!!
My primary complaint with distributors who insist on charging festivals to screen films is this: "Now that the fests have built and energized the LGBT base, and distributors are recouping their investment with ancillary sales on DVD, cable and on-demand, it is unfair to ask festivals to shoulder the burden of paying guarantees while we essentially do the work of marketing the films to LGBT audiences. In other words, we are performing a service to the distributors by reaching OUT and marketing to the LGBT community" where the real money will be made by selling DVDs, or by selling the film for cable.
But don't just take my word for it: THR backs me up with a quote from my fellow NYU Cinema Studies Alum, Basil Tsiokos: "Even NewFest artistic director Basil Tsiokos admits that long-running festivals like his, San Francisco's Frameline and Los Angeles' Outfest serve more as launching pads for DVD and cable than for theatrical runs."
I am especially pleased to see that IndieWIRE entering the discussion on the state of queer cinema with the addition of a regular feature in IndieWIRE.
Kudos to Michael Koresky and Chris Wisniewski for their insights.
Among the most interesting questions raised in the piece, which discusses "post-gay" cinema is this discussion of what makes a film queer in the first place:
" For the fiction films, it seems that having an LGBT character in some prominent role is sufficient grounds for inclusion. Morgan Jon Fox's "Omg/HaHaHa" and Sam Zalutsky's "You Belong to Me" aren't really about queerness in any meaningful way -- and that's fine. I would still take either over the awkward lesbian subplot in Kyle Schickner's "Steam." Nevertheless, the question about what makes a movie queer is important for two reasons. First, it makes me wonder what it is queer audiences want or need from their movies (identification? entertainment? titillation? a political call to action?). Second, since these festivals provide their eclectic indie entries with perhaps their only public screenings, many of these movies -- some worthy of an audience, some less so -- would never screen anywhere without the annual June queer spotlight."
Thought provoking stuff, and something we've grappled with mightily in Atlanta when planning, programming, and presenting Out On Film. The Atlanta Film Festival 365 (as IMAGE will henceforth be called) is essentially a secular organization as it were...we are not LGBT by calling, nor is the organization bound to honor any sort LGBT mission based on our existing mission statement.
Ru the Day: Ru back in the ATL for closing night of Out On Film 2007!
Last year, a member of Atlanta's LGBT community, a patron of both Out On Film and an Atlanta Film Festival pass holder effectively "outed" OUT ON FILM for being "too straight" in a blog post:: "Should the gay community of Atlanta simply be grateful that there is a predominance of straight people willing to put on a gay film festival for us? Considering they're pulling down paychecks from it, it's difficult for me to accept that it's completely altruistic. Now let's go back to that lone panel they presented for us and it's seemingly generic title: The State of QUEER Film. Yes, queer. It now occurred to me that a lot of straight people, including the moderator of the panel, felt very comfortable using this word. Our word. The word we use with each other. I think the state of "queer" film is that we need to take it back."
This critique made an impact on me. As we embarked on a strategic planning process for the Atlanta Film Festival, it became evident that the 21 year old Out On Film Festival needed to move OUT from under our dominion. I am pleased to share the events future plans with you here, from a May 2008 article in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution.
"While Image will be "stewards" for this year's Out on Film —- to be held Nov. 6-9 —- and participate in the call for entries and film selections, the event will move to Theatre Decatur, which will become one of the fest's major players, Wardell says. Also involved will be Carma Productions Inc., which annually prints guides to events such as Atlanta Pride....Ideally what we'd like to see happen is for a lot more of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community leaders to take ownership of the event," Wardell says. "We can continue to give guidance, but Out on Film needs a community. We're using as a model the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which has such a large base and sponsorship support."
NOTE TO LGBT FILMMAKERS, or FILMMAKERS WHO HAVE MADE AN LGBT FILM!