Helmers owe it all to L.A.'s oldest fest

Over the years, Outfest has launched the careers of dozens of directors who might not have found an audience on the independent film circuit. Gus Van Sant landed an agent at the festival after “Mala noche” screened in 1987, and helmers such as John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) and Tommy O’Haver (“Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss”) have gotten a boost from the Hollywood-based event.

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“I remember when my first gay short, ‘Sleeping Beauties,’ played at Outfest in 1998,” says “But I’m a Cheerleader” director Jamie Babbitt, whose “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” screens this year. “I was in the same program as the ex-girlfriend of my then-and-current girlfriend, Andrea Sperling, who produces all my films. Andrea had broken up the year before with this filmmaker, whose short about their breakup was titled ‘My Pretty Little Girlfriend.’ But while her ex’s film was about them getting into a big fight, and how she ends up killing Andrea with a gun, mine was more like a fairy tale about this great relationship and two people who end up madly in love. And I recall just thinking, ‘Wow, there’s too many lesbians making movies about the same girl!’ ”

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“I’m a huge fan of Outfest,” says director Gregg Araki. “It’s a really important showcase for young independent filmmakers, and it was really instrumental in helping launch my career in the early days.” In 1988, Outfest showed Araki’s first feature, “Three Bewildered People in the Night.” “A couple of years ago, I was given a lifetime achievement award by Outfest. It was the same year ‘Mysterious Skin’ came out, and they gathered a bunch of actors from ‘Mysterious Skin’ to present the award. They also got a lot of actors like Rose McGowan and Craig Gilmore who’d been in my films, and it was so much fun to see everyone again, like a sort of high school reunion.”

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Directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey‘s “Party Monster” and “Eyes of Tammy Faye” were both opening-night films at Outfest. “There’s nothing in the world more fabulous than walking in with Macaulay Culkin, Wilmer Valderrama and Seth Green to a theater packed with 1,000 gay men. It was totally wild!” Barbato remembers. Five years earlier, the duo’s “Party Monster” documentary won Outfest’s jury prize, much to their shock. “I remember it so clearly because it’s one of the only awards we’ve ever won,” says Barbato, who nearly skipped the awards show altogether. “I didn’t know what to say. I got up and stumbled and made a complete fool of myself. Later that night someone said to me, ‘This is Hollywood! You always need to be prepared to accept an award!’ Of course, I haven’t gotten one since then, but at least I’m prepared and always carry a speech with me now, just in case.”

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“The first short I ever made, ‘Chickula! Teen-age Vampire!,’ played at Outfest, which was the first film festival I’d ever attended in my life,” says “D.E.B.S.” director Angela Robinson. “I remember being mortified at the screening when the moderator asked all the filmmakers to go up onstage and answer questions about our respective films, until this really cute girl asked me a question and we ended up talking after the screening. She was beautiful and smart and intense, and I thought I’d met the girl of my dreams until she told me, in all seriousness, that she believed in aliens and was waiting for the mothership to contact Earth again any day.”

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“Outfest has always served as a home base for me as a filmmaker,” says director C. Jay Cox, whose “Kiss the Bride” closes this year’s fest. “It’s a place where I can show work that might not be accepted by the studios, and it’s also served as a great inspiration for me as an audience member: What are the movies I’d like to see? What are the experiences I want to have? The culmination of all that was the screening of ‘Latter Days’ in 2003 at the Ford Theater, under the stars, where it won the HBO audience award for best first feature. The other highlight was arriving in Jackie Bissett’s amazing classic Cadillac convertible. I saw this friend do a double take when he saw Jackie driving the car — and then he did another double take when he saw me in the car, too.”

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