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Festival of FESTIVALS.

No longer just a footnote to Pride, lesbian and gay film fests are bringing exceptional cinema--and greater visibility--to towns across the continent

Just above Hollywood Boulevard on a cool summer evening, Tinseltown's gay and lesbian power players mingled with do-it-yourself festival programmers and zero-budget filmmakers from all over the country. Spilling out of the modern all-glass house into the backyard dominated by a shimmering pool lit from underwater, people such as Kirsten Schaffer and Justine Barda, who put together the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival out of a one-room office, were elbow to elbow with "industry" bigwigs. Among them: the party's host, Brace Cohen, producer of this fall's hotly anticipated Kevin Spacey drama American Beauty and a longtime board member of Outfest, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. This cross-section of talent focused on the nurturing of gay film was unprecedented--and so heady that Schaffer left her sunglasses by the pool after stripping down to her skivvies for a dip with representatives of New York City's Mix Festival.

The occasion was not just the opening weekend of the fest but also Outfest's Summit '99, the first-ever conference designed to share the trade secrets of gay and lesbian film festivals. "It was like boot camp for festival directors," Seattle's Barda says approvingly. "It was hard to believe that something like this hadn't happened before, since so many [gay and lesbian] festival directors come to their jobs without a lot of festival experience."

Summit '99--the brainchild of Sundance Film Festival programmer and Outfest board member John Cooper and Outfest codirectors of programming Shari Frilot and Shannon Kelley--included roundtable discussions on how to pamper filmmakers, seminars on new cinema and video technologies, and dialogue between small-town film programmers and big-time distributors, who often hold access to the popular movies that festivals rely on to draw audiences.

Was it useful? "It was a blast," says Summit '99 coordinator Loren Roberts. "At the final brunch Cooper asked, `Would any of you be interested in doing this again next year?' and every single hand in the place went up."

In many ways the conference seems the culmination of a decade of learning and remarkable growth by organizers, programmers, filmmakers, and audiences. But 1999's festival season is not over yet: In the hometown of the University of Texas, a street banner proclaims the approach of the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, beginning August 27, and film programmers in Tampa, Fla., Seattle, and other cities are busy preparing their fall events.

As the millennium approaches, film festivals are as vital a part of the lesbian and gay social landscape as weekends in gay resorts or the annual pilgrimage to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. In this age of cyber superconnectedness existing alongside real-world isolation, the festivals are still one key place where local gays and lesbians get together to affirm and reinvent themselves. They are a unique location, neither entirely public nor private, neither a bar nor a parade, where audience really and truly means community.

"Outfest is one of the few opportunities that gay and lesbian people from all pats of L.A. can cross lines that they don't usually cross," says outgoing Outfest executive director Morgan Rumpf. "You see the leather daddies in the lobby with members of the Coalition of Older Lesbians, and you think, These are two communities that may not mingle that often."

From early June through mid July, the three largest U.S. festivals--Outfest, New York's the New Festival, and the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, presented by Frameline--each draw tens of thousands of people to see hundreds of features and shorts and attract corporate sponsors ranging from giant alcohol companies and film studios to local car dealers and furniture stores.

But the "big three" are not alone. There are more than 125 queer film and video festivals worldwide--with more joining up every minute (watch the Phillipines for the newest one, this year). The veteran fests have evolved substantially over the years, while the relative upstarts both emulate and depart from the models of their elders.

North of the border, Inside Out, the, Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival of Toronto, continues to widen its niche past its artist-centered origins and acquire impressive mainstream credentials. "The festival started as an artist-run event, very much community-based," says programmer Shane Smith. "We try hard to make sure it maintains that flavor, but we're [also] able to launch mainstream films."

One axiom every festival has taken to heart--particularly this year--is that location is everything. The grand and spacious Castro Theatre, a classic movie palace, has long been a showcase for Frameline; at age 23, the San Francisco event remains the mother of all festivals, with June's attendance surpassing 74,000. Down in Los Angeles, Outfest began its second year programming the nation's first year-round gay-operated movie theater at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center's Village at Ed Gould Plaza facility.

Yet most festivals have to make the best of borrowed theaters. New York's New Festival in June expanded from two venues to four, allowing the event to grow beyond 30,000 admissions. "It's a little bit harder [in New York] to bring everyone together in one central place, but it is. a growing crowd," says New Festival program coordinator Basil Tsiokos.

Also this year, Toronto's Inside Out moved into new quarters: two auditoriums at the snazzy 14-screen Famous Players Paramount multiplex in the heart of Toronto's entertainment district. The change helped the May fest increase its audience by 25%, up to more than 20,000.

"It was, `The Queers Take Over the Multiplex,'" says Inside Out's Smith. The filmmakers seem to love seeing a film they made for a few dollars [projected] on a big screen at the multiplex." Hilariously, the festival shared screens with The Phantom Menace, leading to bizarre tableaux of Star Wars fans gaping at a giant LED screen announcing shows like Wish You Were Queer--demonstrating that the best venue can also serve a festival's mission to increase gay and lesbian visibility.

The fests are a major attraction for young queers seeking community but not yet at drinking age. With that in mind Toronto's Queer Youth Digital Video Program shepherded four young filmmakers (out of 20 applicants, ages 15 to 25) through the making of their first work, providing equipment, editing expertise, and two hands-on mentors: Melissa Levin, founder of the group Lesbian Helpers, and festival coordinator Dam Gellman. "It fulfills two objectives that we're committed to," Gellman says, "involvement with youth and the creation of new works."

Also in the role of community boosters, Outfest took its show on the road for a second year. In a colorful bus advertising the gay Fine Line feature Trick, Outfest California visited Fresno, Santa Barbara, and San Diego with two- and three-night programs. "We work with the people who already program gay and lesbian film in those communities," explains Outfest's Rumpf, "and together we're able to create something exciting that increases opportunities for audiences and filmmakers and strengthens local gay communities."

Frameline's savvy Send It Home project takes another tack to outreach. Now in its second year, the San Francisco-based program lets festivalgoers visit a tent behind the Castro Theatre to buy and send a videocassette of a favorite movie to a hometown library, high school, or civic organization. "It gets the films into the hands of the people who need it the most and to [institutions] that might resist [buying gay films] and use money as an excuse," explains Desi del Valle, Frameline distribution director and creator of the program.

But it's not just the "big three" festivals that bring lesbian and gay films to cities and towns across the country. In areas with less-heralded queer populations, festivals are thriving, often scheduled well away from traditional summer pride celebrations. With a ten-day October event--compared with only a few days in larger cities like Atlanta or Miami--the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival draws audiences from as far away as Orlando and Atlanta. "We're expecting maybe 20,000 this year," says Dorothy Abbott, director of the festival now billing itself as "ten straight years of queer film."

The movies unspool in the Tampa Theatre, a grand palace of the same 1920s vintage as the Castro, and closing night features a street fair, both the gay men's and the "womyn's" local choruses, and outside talent such as last year's guest, Sophie B. Hawkins. Tampa has a history of savvy artistic and political moves: artistic in its decision a year ago to change its name from the Pride Festival and political in its choice seven years ago to move from crowded June into October, happily coinciding with National Coming Out Day.

Farther west but still in the South, Austin is a town that's "busting at the seams," says festival artistic director Scott Dinger, and so is the city's gay and lesbian population and its film festival, now expanding to five theaters for its two-week program. The event's influence is felt not only in its rising attendance--15,000 at last count--but also in the rising profile of its programs, this year including an evening with John Waters and a nationwide screenplay competition. And don't discount the importance of that street banner. "One man last year told me, `I didn't get to go to the festival, but every time I drove to work under that banner, I thought to myself, Yeah!'" recounts Dinger. "It's a great thing for Austin."

In Seattle, Schaffer and Barda are in their second year as codirectors, having taken over when founder Skylar Fein left for Paris in January 1998. The two have injected unprecedented energy into a festival that began only four years ago. "Prior to our [festival's] arrival in '96, there was never a gay film festival here, and that seemed like a notable lack for a city with such a vibrant community," Barda says.

Not to mention a long history as a film-mad city, with a highly respected international fest and smaller events for African-American, Asian, and Jewish films. "You don't want to program more than the market will bear," Barda notes, "but at the same time more festivals build stronger filmgoing audiences. Plus I've always believed that seeing a gay film with a gay audience is really important. We always viewed the festival as a community event."

The magic that transpires when lesbian and gay audiences come together is a common theme among festival programmers. As Austin's Dinger puts it, "You go to the festivals [in other towns], and you see there's so much community and so much going on, and you come back home and say, `How can I fit this into Austin?'"

With all that's happening--don't forget the 100-plus fests not detailed here--the final year of the 1990s may sound like a time for gay and lesbian festivals to rest on their laurels. Instead, it's a season of turnover, as the executive directors of three of the largest festivals leave for new horizons. After six years the New Festival's executive director, Wellington Love, is returning to acting; after three years Toronto's Ellen Flanders has moved on to become a producer, and after five years Outfest's Rumpf will be driving cross-country and writing a book. An actor, a producer, and a writer? Sounds like the three of them together have the makings of a terrific feature to anchor some lesbian and gay festival of the future.

Find more on gay and lesbian film festivals, including those in your area, at www.advocate.com

RELATED ARTICLE: FRESH FROM THE FESTS

Wanna get the target audience jazzed about your gay- or lesbian-themed movie? Get thee to a film festival, While movies that already have distributors use the tests to fire up the buzz for their imminent releases--as with last year's Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss or this year's Head On and Better Than Chocolate (both of which collected festival prizes)--movies still looking for distribution or broadcast outlets rely on festival heat to rise above the pack, Herewith, a roundup of some of the hottest features from this summer's festivals that are good bets for finding wider audiences.

TITLE: The Accident BUZZ MAGNET: Director Joseph F. Lovett, one-time ABC producer (the AIDS specials In a New Light) THE SCOOP: This wrenching, introspective autobiographical documentary about the death of Lovett's mother, which he witnessed as a boy, played to packed houses; The New Festival had to add additional screenings,

TITLE: Chutney Popcorn BUZZ MAGNET: Star, cowriter, and director Nisha Ganatra (near right) THE SCOOP: American lesbian motherhood meets Indian family tradition in this surprisingly affecting comedy, which took home top audience awards in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.

TITLE: F. Is a Bastard BUZZ MAGNETS: Swiss director Marcel Gisler and teen actor Vincent Branchet THE SCOOP: The tale of an abusive yet intensely emotional relationship between a young fan and his drug-addled rock-singer boyfriend in the 1970s, F. takes audiences where Velvet Gold-mine never dared, One surprising segment gives scary new meaning to "a boy and his dog,"

TITLE; Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 188 BUZZ MAGNETS: Young documentarian Yvonne Welbon and Ellis (right), her centenarian subject THE SCOOP: Another multiple audience-award winner, Welbon's well-told tale of the oldest known African-American lesbian is both enlightening and irresistible.

TITLE: Lola and Billy the Kid BUZZ MAGNETS: Turkish director Kutlug Ataman and a top-notch cast of Turkish-German unknowns THE SCOOP: Jury prize winner in New York City, Lola stirs a cross-section of immigration and sexual identity issues into a harrowing yet ultimately uplifting narrative.

TITLE: Sex Monster BUZZ MAGNET: Mariel Hemingway THE SCOOP: Who could resist a screwball comedy with Personal Bests star grown up into a suburban housewife who turns into a Sapphic serial seductress? Hemingway unveils a flair for comedy in her best performance yet.

TITLE: Speedway Junky BUZZ MAGNET: Jonathan Taylor Thomas (far right) THE SCOOP: Thomas's turn as a bisexual Las Vegas hustler ("Buy him something, and he'll have sex with you") drew audiences to writer-director Nickolas Perry's gritty street drama about a straight teen runaway and the gay hustler who loves him, Comparisons to My Own Private Idaho were amplified by Gus Van Sant's role as Junky's executive producer.

TITLE: Why Not Me? BUZZ MAGNET: The country of France THE SCOOP: New York's audience favorite, about four queer friends' coming-out party for their parents, was the tip of an impressive iceberg of Gallic features headed this way.

--Bruse C. Steele and Anne Stockwell

RELATED ARTICLE: OPENINGS FOR SUCCESS

When the romantic comedy Trick opened recently with the highest per-theater average of any gay movie in history--almost $20,000 a screen for its first three days--its distributor, Fine Line Features, did more than celebrate, Within days "they put more money into continuing the [promotional] campaign because it had such a big first weekend," notes Jenni Olson of PlanetOut's lesbian and gay movie Web site, PopcornQ. Big opening weekends, she adds, also keep films playing longer, encourage theater owners in other cities to book certain movies, and give gay-themed material an impressive track record to help green-light future projects.

To goose gay and lesbian films' early returns, PlanetOut and Los Angeles's Outfest have combined forces to create the Queer First Weekend Club, a grassroots network set to muster audiences whenever and wherever gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender films reach theaters, With a Web page on the PopcornQ site, the club works with local gay film festivals to E-mail members and encourage them to buy tickets that all-important first weekend, "People need to know that if you say, `Well, I know it's playing, and I'll see it next week,'" Olson warns, "the fact is, it may not be there next week." Some of the club's upcoming targets: Out of Season and Finding North, opening in many locations on August 20, and Better Than Chocolate, hitting about 20 new cities on August 27.

--B.C.S.

RELATED ARTICLE: HEAD ON COLLISION

AUTHOR CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS STANDS BACK AS THE MOVIE VERSION OF HIS SEX-FILLED NOVEL WINS FESTIVAL PRIZES AND HEADS ON TO THEATERS BY HOWARD FEINSTEIN

When Christos Tsiolkas was a fifth grader in Melbourne, his Greek immigrant mother discovered his secret journal, hidden under his mattress. It was "a do-it-yourself porn magazine," he recalls, made up of clippings of male actors' heads with their torsos and imaginatively enhanced privates drawn in. Mom hit the roof and, Tsiolkas says, introduced him to the notion of guilt.

Tsiolkas, now 34, brought that mixture of highly charged hormones and emotional backlash to his partly autobiographical 1995 novel, Loaded, the story of gay 19-year-old Ari, an intelligent, irreverent, and ever-horny Greek-Australian who spends the majority of his time drugged up and pursuing anonymous sex in working-class Melbourne, Though not yet published in the United States, Loadedhas now reached these shores in the altered form of Head On, a surprisingly explicit film that won top prizes at both San Francisco's and Los Angeles's gay and lesbian film festivals.

With no voice-over, the film has dropped the manic, euphoric, fiery interior monologues that drive the novel. Directed by out lesbian Aha Kokkinos (Only the Brave), Head On is a cooler journey into despair, but Tsiolkas wasn't onboard for the adaptation: "I didn't want to be involved in writing an iconoclastic narrative that I'd already explored," he says dismissively, speaking on the telephone from--of all places--his mother's house in Melbourne. "On another level," he adds, "there was probably a fear [on the pad of the director and produced that I didn't have the experience."

Not that Tsiolkas isn't a cinephile. "I spend all of my money on film books," he says, and he even codirected a shod film for Australian public TV. As a child, he recalls, he preferred "women's" films, like The Turning Pointand An Unmarried Woman, to other kids' favorites, like Star Wars. "I saw The Turning Point [again] a decade ago," he says, "and I thought, I don't know why this got me at 13, but it did make me aware that there were other kinds of cinema."

The novelist is less enamored of the gay sphere: "Individual gay men and lesbians have been important in my life, but I've kept a distance from the scene. I don't have that confidence in my looks and body. But I also feel something destructive is appearing in gay male culture." He points to the recent suicides of two good friends. "They were everything that the gay scene idealized," he says. "It made me think, What is this thing called gay community?"

His latest novel, The Jesus Man (also still in search of a U.S. publisher), again crashes together immigrant culture, sexual identity, and violence. It's the story of a Greek-Italian working-class family in Australia with three sons: a typical macho man, a sensitive gay fellow, and a troubled heterosexual who commits two heinous murders. "I can't separate my sexuality from my ethnicity, my class position, and how I think about the world generally," the author says. Calling himself both an anarchist and a socialist, he insists, "Authority remains to be resisted." That's from Jump Cuts, a collection of gay-related essays he cowrote with Sydney activist Sasha Soldatow, but the words might just as easily have been spoken by Loaded's Ari, who harangues about social injustice.

While the film's Ari is more focused on his own hedonistic pursuits than on the class struggle, Tsiolkas credits hunky Aussie soap actor Alex Dimitriades with fine work in Head On (opening in theaters September 10). "Alex put head, soul, and groin into it," he says--and the ardor in his voice suggests that Dimitriades might once have wound up in Tsiolkas's own childhood journal.

Feinstein contributes to Detour and London's The Guardian.

Rich is a contributor to The Village Voice and a commentator on the National Public Radio series The World.
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Title Annotation:Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival
Author:Steele, Bruce C.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U9WA
Date:Aug 31, 1999
Words:3309
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