Outfest facing new hurdles

With growing mainstream acceptance of gay subject matter, what role is left for film festivals like Outfest?

Five films that push the boundaries at this year's Outfest

Los Angeles' oldest continuously running film festival will celebrate its 27th edition under somewhat straitened circumstances.

With money harder to come by, Outfest, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, is being forced to cut back on the number of screenings. This year, 47 features will be shown from July 9-19, compared with 64 last year.

"It's definitely a challenge," says Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Outfest, estimating that corporate spending is hovering at about two-thirds the level of 2006, when Outfest's year-round budget -- which includes spending on several outreach and archive projects as well as the festival itself -- approached $2 million. It is now about $1.5 million.

While a relatively modest drop compared with the plunge other arts organizations have faced, this could impact an L.A. institution that has proved a launching pad for many gay-themed movies, helping them find their way to mainstream audiences. How much has Outfest helped these films? Consider that about 90% of the movies screened in the past secured distribution deals, Schaffer says (boosted by the growth of indie distributors like Wolfe Releasing, Regent Media and Strand Releasing).

But the festival has done more than draw attention to individual films; it has also promoted individual careers.

"The studios, and independent producers, look to Outfest for talent," Schaffer says. Disney, for example, hired Angela Robinson, director of Outfest title "D.E.B.S.," (2003) to helm "Herbie: Fully Loaded" (2005); and Tommy O'Haver, who directed "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" (1998), was hired to direct "Get Over It" (2001).

Outfest also has provided a watering hole for the kinds of contacts that generate business across the board -- business that might diminish as Outfest cuts back on its parties this year.

Just two years ago, "at an Outfest pool party, I met a young filmmaker named Dustin Lance Black," says Dan Jinks, the Oscar-winning producer of "American Beauty" (1999). That resulted in a collaboration on a project even he suspected might never get made. Going on to net Oscar wins for screenwriter Black and actor Sean Penn, "Milk" is living proof of how important Outfest has been.

"Milk" did not premiere at Outfest, but movies that have have also benefited from the attention.

"Outfest has established ways of giving films really great presentation with the oomph of an L.A. premiere," says Marcus Hu, president of Strand, the subject of a 20-year retrospective at this year's festival. " 'Party Monster' was a huge premiere party, which turned it into a huge media event that got a national profile for the film." Released in 2003, the movie went on to gross more than $728,000. Other titles showcased at Outfest include 1994's "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," which earned more than $11 million at the U.S. boxoffice; 1996's "Bound," which took in $3.8 million; and 2001's "L.I.E.," which made $1.1 million.

If financial limitations run the risk of limiting Outfest's ability to support endeavors like these, they are only part of the challenges the festival is facing. Given shifts in the mainstream acceptance of gays and lesbians within the entertainment scene, is Outfest still as crucial to the LGBT community as it once was?

Its organizers argue yes -- especially in a year when the majority of California voters passed Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage measure.

"A lot of people felt slapped in the face when Proposition 8 when through, and again when it was upheld (in the California Supreme Court)," Schaffer says. "Arts organizations have an ability to create cultural change; people have to shift the way they think before they shift the way they vote."

This year, Outfest believes it must further that shift. Given the mainstreaming of gay material, the festival has looked for more provocative subjects in its current lineup.

"At this point, simple representation (of gay people) is not enough," says Kimberly Yutani, Outfest's director of programming. "The films we're showing this year are a lot more challenging than they may have been in the past. They're not just coming-out stories; they're dealing with issues around queer families, gender identity, violence, class -- issues from around the world."

Of this year's crop, Yutani anticipates special interest in the opening-night gala selection "La Mission," starring Benjamin Bratt as an alcoholic ex-con who reacts badly to his son's coming out. "And it's unlikely that you'll see something like 'Raging Sun, Raging Sky' (2008) -- a three-hour, sexually explicit art film -- on Logo," she adds.

On the other hand, the economic conditions that made fundraising such a challenge this year suggest that a more accessible approach could be in the festival's interests.

"You have to expand (the) audience, so it's not just LGBT people but (also) their family or friends," argues Basil Tsiokos, former artistic director of Outfest's New York-based counterpart Newfest. That will draw broader and younger audiences, he says, "which also makes it more attractive to sponsors."

"We've always done that," Schaffer says. "Because we're in the heart of the entertainment industry, there are straight executives who come to look for talent. And a lot of the filmmakers who are local have friends who are not LGBT. You don't have to be gay to have fun at Outfest."
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