Gay pix avoid niches

Broader-appeal fare highlights S.F. int'l fest

SAN FRANCISCO — Despite its prodigious growth in recent years, U.S. gay cinema — discounting such mainstream studio efforts as “The Birdcage” and “Philadelphia” — has yet to break out of very specific niche markets, with severely limited crossover potential even to hetero arthouse loyalists.

Last weekend’s events at the ever-expanding S.F. Intl. Lesbian & Gay Film Fest just might signal the beginning of that era’s end.

Whatever their other plusses or minuses, pics like opening-nighter “I Think I Do” and the next evening’s “It’s in the Water” rep a new spirit amongst indie gay filmmakers — one far more slickly commercial in production values and broad-appeal tenor than titles from the prior decade.

Appropriately, the morning after Friday’s gala, a host of distribution reps spoke on “Selling Out: The Marketing of Queer Cinema.” The Forum at Yerba Buena Center featured participants from Miramax, Fine Line, Paramount, October, Strand, Goldwyn, Trimark, First Look, Gramercy and Orion Classics.

While citing the prior night’s preem as an example of a possible “crossover” success, panelists said the success of gay-themed features is as much a crapshoot as ever.

Susan Glatzer from October noted that the increase in product means “audiences are becoming more and more discriminating … the films now have to be better and better.”

MJ Peckos from First Look cited the importance of grassroots campaigns. Her upcoming Brit imports “Different for Girls” and “Alive and Kicking” (both screening at the current fest) are each getting advance-awareness efforts during June Gay Pride events.

Given their usually small-scale release plans and advertising budgets, gay pics are especially vulnerable to bad reviews. And returns are often modest by general standards, with Fine Line’s Paul Federbush citing $2.5 mil for “The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love” as “a home-run for that kind of movie.”

All participants noted a crucial, compound debit that still dogs lesbian and gay pics: their low status on the ancillary totem pole. Major cablers remain skittish, leaving potential exposure to less-prominent, budget-constrained entities like the Sundance Channel. Video outlets are no less conservative on the whole, resulting in low cassette-sale numbers. And at this point, getting a theatrical sale is difficult in many overseas markets where lesbian/gay themes remain taboo or simply uncommercial.

One predictable rule of thumb goes for lesbian/gay auds as well as everyone else: When in doubt, attractive leads and an upbeat storyline help bring ’em in.

That formula was variously hewed to by several well-received preems over opening weekend, from “I Think I Do” to the suburban homophobia satire “It’s in the Water” and racier melodrama “Latin Boys Go to Hell.” Those shows all sold out the 1,550-seat Castro auditorium, as did the Saturday afternoon omnibus “Fun in Boys’ Shorts” — not surprisingly, since the latter featured “Inside Out,” a roman-a-clef from celebrity offspring Jason Gould.

Ticket sales have taken a remarkable jump even by this fest’s standards, with numerous sellouts amongst the Castro, Roxie and Victoria Theatre venues. The 1997 tally may well score a 50% gain on ’96, edging up toward an estimated 75,000 attendees and $300,000 in ticket sales.

The producing org’s anni Frame-line Award went Sunday night to U.K. broadcaster Channel Four, for its long, ongoing dedication to producing lesbian and gay-relevant product.

Before presenting the nod to deputy commissioning editor Jacqui Lawrence, local author Armistead Maupin gave a moving speech about how Lawrence’s corp had nurtured and stood by the miniseries adaptation of his “Tales of the City” — whose controversial U.S. airing prompted rather less stalwart support from Stateside co-funder PBS. Channel 4 is currently developing a sequel, sans PBS participation.

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