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Here! provides 'Shelter' for gay-themed movies

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When it comes to niche markets, gay-themed movies occupy one of the nichiest of the niches. On occasion, a gay movie -- generally one backed by a studio or studio specialty division -- breaks out: In 1996, comedy "The Birdcage" climbed to $124.1 million domestically, while the 2005 drama "Brokeback Mountain" leveraged its eight Oscar nominations and three wins to collect $83 million domestically.

But most indie gay movies reach a fraction of those audiences. In 2006, for example, "The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green" picked up just $153,122 in its domestic release, while the gay horror movie "Hellbent" picked up a comparable $183,066. Both films were distributed by Regent Releasing, a division of Paul Colichman and Stephen P. Jarchow's Los Angeles-based Regent Entertainment, and have found a much longer life at Regent's sister company Here! Networks as subscription cable, broadband and DVD offerings.

Not content to just acquire movies, Here! Films, the network's theatrical distribution arm, is launching "Shelter," the first project it has made under a new independent film initiative to fund projects by and for the gay and lesbian community. Regent releases the film Friday in selected markets, including Los Angeles; it bows April 18 on Here! with a DVD release set for May 27.

The film marks the directorial debut of Jonah Markowitz, who entered the business as a creative exec for producer Cathy Konrad before branching out into art direction on films ranging from "Blue Crush" to "We Are Marshall" and production design on the indie "Quinceanera."

About four years ago, Markowitz, looking to break into directing, wrote his own screenplay about a young skateboarder/surfer who deferred his dreams of attending art school in order to help his sister, a single mom, raise her son. An unexpected encounter with his best friend's older brother forces him to take another look at his life.

"I wanted to find a different setting for a gay genre film," Markowitz says. "One that wasn't centered around a bar or locker room but would shake up the genre and look at the whole question of family."

Shopping the script around, though, he didn't find any takers until he was put in touch with execs at Here! who quickly adopted the project.

Working with a budget of less than $500,000 and a tight 18-day shooting schedule, Markowitz drew upon his expertise in design to make it work.

Initially, his script had been set in Long Beach, Calif., but after a location scout a few miles away in San Pedro -- where he was struck by a vista dominated by the Vincent Thomas Bridge -- he relocated his tale. He economized on sets by setting a number of scenes outside, and he likens the scenic possibilities of San Pedro to "shooting in Brooklyn. Any place you put the camera, it was gorgeous, so we got a lot of bang for our buck, since part of the movie is also about selling the California lifestyle."

Starring relative newcomer Trevor Wright -- who has acquired a string of TV guest appearances and known to gay audiences for appearing in "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" 10 years ago -- "Shelter" made its debut on the gay film festival circuit last summer. Taking home the outstanding first dramatic feature award at Los Angeles' Outfest and the best feature prize at Dallas' Outtakes fest, the movie found a receptive audience.

Now, having established "Shelter" as a potential niche player, Markowitz hopes that the movie can reach a wider audience -- always a challenge in the overcrowded indie market. But, Markowitz says: "It's not just for gay audiences. It's really about universal feelings."