Gay-themed filmmakers seek alternative platforms

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Plenty of independent filmmakers struggle to find homes for their projects, but the directors of gay-themed fare might have it a little more difficult than some of their counterparts. Just ask C. Jay Cox, who wrote the screenplay for 2002's "Sweet Home Alabama" and directed Regent Releasing's upcoming "Kiss the Bride," which will serve as the opening night film for the 25th-anniversary edition of Outfest, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, which begins today and concludes July 23.

"There are certain types of indie films that are just harder," Cox says. "'Kiss the Bride' is a gay-themed romantic comedy, so that's a little more difficult."

Echoing that sentiment is Michael Shoel, president and CEO of Ariztical Entertainment Inc., which specializes in distributing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender content. "Often, commercial outlets don't recognize the films, not because of the gay issue but simply because there aren't a million movie stars in them. The problem with many distributors is half homophobia and half not knowing what to do with the movies."

That is precisely why some filmmakers are taking matters into their own hands and seeking out alternative distribution for their movies, either self-distributing or going straight to DVD, VOD or cable. That's not to say, however, that there aren't other viable options open to them. Outfest has screened more than 4,200 movies for more than half a million audience members -- including acquisition and distribution executives -- and companies such as Regent, TLA Releasing and Strand Releasing continue to provide directors with important theatrical outlets for projects featuring LGBT content.

But for directors like Todd Verow, whose film "Vacationland" premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last year and screened at that year's Outfest, self-distribution became particularly attractive after he received offers only for DVD release.

Verow opened "Vacationland" at New York's Pioneer Theater in last August at no cost to himself -- he and the theater shared boxoffice proceeds. The idea, he says, was to give the film real theatrical exposure in the hopes that it would perform that much better when Water Bearer Films released the movie on DVD.

"It can be simple or not," Verow says of self-distributing. "You can go ahead and rent out theaters and travel the country, but that seems like a lot of work and a big waste of money. You want to get press, which will give you blurbs for the DVD, and then you want to get it out on DVD," he explains. "That's where you'll make your money."

Malcolm Ingram, director of the 2006 production "Small Town Gay Bar," a documentary about a small community in the South, was more than happy to go the direct-to-DVD route with Netflix, which partnered with both Logo and Showtime for the TV rights.

"We played at (the Sundance Film Festival), and we played at Outfest," says Ingram, whose movie was produced by Kevin Smith's View Askew Prods. "We had deals fall through, but then Netflix wanted to jump onboard, and my main thing was getting the movie out there. These people had entrusted me to tell their stories, and I wanted to get it seen by as many people as possible.

"I think holding out for theatrical release might have hurt (the film)," he continues. "Theatrical is expensive, and it seemed like more of an ego thing, with the numbers not adding up. It comes down to the dream of seeing it in theaters. But I traveled to more than 40 festivals. I had my theatrical run."

Another docu that played at last year's Outfest, the 2005 production "Pick Up the Mic," also will be going directly to DVD. Producer Alan Skinner says that the one-two punch of being a documentary about gay rappers made the film seem too narrow in appeal for distributors. Still, Skinner says he's not sorry to have skipped a theatrical release. "It wouldn't have made sense for us financially," he says. "The business has changed."

Verow agrees. "I think theatrical is just less important these days. There are so many options now, and a lot of people are seeing films in ways they couldn't a few years ago. Theatrical distribution is a dead end in a lot of ways. Distributors aren't making money, theaters aren't making money, and no one has figured out how to revitalize that business yet."

Talk to many filmmakers working on gay-themed material, and you'll hear almost all of them express some degree of frustration with the traditional theatrical model. Writer-director Stewart Wade, whose 2006 film, "Coffee Date," played at Outfest last year, says that when he first took his script to studios, he received near-identical rejections of the project, which centers on the relationship between a gay man and a straight man.

"They said, 'We love the script, but our company doesn't want to put out a gay film,'" he remembers. "When I would say it wasn't a gay movie, they'd say, 'But there's a gay sex scene, so audiences will see it as a gay movie, and gay movies don't make money.' At a studio, it's all about the bottom line."

After making the rounds on the festival circuit and receiving multiple DVD offers, the film ultimately went to Film and Music Entertainment, which promised Wade a theatrical release. "They said they didn't see it as a gay movie but as a mainstream independent film," Wade says. "That was definitely part of what appealed." Still, Wade admits that the movie, which was budgeted at about $200,000, "made very little money" during its multimarket theatrical release.

Power Up, a nonprofit production and distribution company that produced this year's Outfest selection "Itty Bitty Titty Committee," is exercising caution in the wake of its 2004 production "D.E.B.S." Originally made as a short film, the project's feature-film rights were picked up by Sony's Screen Gems label and then sold to Samuel Goldwyn Films. "They chose to release the movie on Dinah Shore weekend -- which is the spring break for lesbians in Palm Springs -- and then they decided not to play it in any theaters there," says Lisa Thrasher, Power Up's president of film production and distribution. "So you had your entire lesbian audience in a city where it wasn't showing.

"Sony and Goldwyn are prestigious, and you want to do business with them," Thrasher adds. "But sometimes it's not the best thing for your film." "D.E.B.S.," which was reportedly budgeted at about $3.5 million and received mixed reviews, ultimately took in a little more than $96,000 at the boxoffice.

But not everyone has horror stories to tell. One gay filmmaker who hasn't had to compromise is last year's Outfest alumnus and award winner Ash Christian, whose 2006 feature-film debut, "Fat Girls," premiered at last year's Tribeca Film Festival. He signed a distribution deal with Regent, which is set to release the film in August. Christian says modestly, "It's going to open in at least 10 major cities, and I made money. You can't beat that."

Regent also agreed to hire Jeremy Walker + Associates Inc., a leading public relations firm that specializes in indie films -- which Christian admits he could never afford on his own. "I'll probably never have this experience again," says Christian, who will begin shooting his next film in Texas in September.

If it's up to Outfest programming director Kirsten Schaffer, he just might. "We're committed to helping directors in any way we can," she says. "Our hope is that the films get picked up, have a strong theatrical release, get a TV deal and make their money back so the directors can go on and make more films."     



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