Indie gay film biz in growth mode everywhere but on the big screen

Gay pride season seems to be extending well beyond its official month of June. Gay marriage is now legal in California, stars are coming out of the closet (and woodwork) as never before, and NewFest — the New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Film Festival — has kicked off the summer cycle of gay film festivals with its 20th anniversary run.

So why are so many indie gay films doing worse than ever at the boxoffice and among critics?

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.

Gay characters might have gone mainstream at the movies ("Brokeback Mountain") and on TV ("Brothers & Sisters" and others), but that success hasn't led to more mainstream projects featuring them in main roles. There's merely been more awareness of a target audience of affluent young consumers seen as willing to support any film with a gay theme, including more schlocky genre films (the sex comedy "Eating Out") similar to the lowbrow fare aimed at straights.

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.

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. One such example is TLA Releasing's "Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild," a sequel to 2006's "Another Gay Movie," which parodied and exploited gay and straight cinema cliches.

Tsiokos estimates that he's seen nearly 5,000 GLBT-themed features since he began as an intern in 2006. ("I'm joining an ex-gay ministry," he jokes about his "Clockwork Orange"-esque experiences.) But despite their sometimes poor quality, he says that the new genre films he doesn't always choose to program aren't necessarily bad things.

"There are two ways to look at them: You can say some pander to viewers, but they also open films to different audiences," he says. "It's not just the 'I'm coming out' and 'I have AIDS' films anymore." Colichman adds that genre films mark progress regardless of their quality. "Before our films with Chad Allen, had anyone seen a gay detective?" he says.

On a more ambitious scale, Focus Features is one of the few specialty filmmakers willing to bet on gay subject matter, with good reason: "Brokeback" became its most successful release ever. Focus now is producing a Woodstock film which, while not a gay film per se, is based on a gay man's memoir, and the studio might be taking its biggest risk by making Gus Van Sant's long-gestating Harvey Milk biopic "Milk."

Both have the potential to appeal to mainstream, discerning audiences. But aiming outside the gay ghetto marketplace makes them anomalies. For despite breakthroughs like "Brokeback," gay films are heading down the same path as 1970s black films, where quality projects like "Sounder" were the exception and blaxploitation flicks were the rule. Cable's current demand for cheaply made gay movies has ushered in an era of gaysploitation that only the most talented filmmakers and daring companies are likely to resist.

Gregg Goldstein can be reached at gregg.goldstein@THR.com.