Outfest celebrates silver anniversary

Event helped bring queer cinema out of the closet

In its 25th year, it’s hard to imagine Outfest as anything less than a local institution — this year’s incarnation offers 235 films from 26 countries, including galas, premieres and even a “Dreamgirls” sing-along.

But it wasn’t always this glamorous, dear. In fact, “nerdy” better describes the early days of the LGBT fest, which began in 1982 on the UCLA campus, when a handful of grad students approached the head of the university’s film archives, Robert Rosen, about starting something they called the Gay and Lesbian Media Festival and Conference.

Back then, of course, gay themes seldom figured into mainstream pics. And often as not, homosexuals were depicted as sick, deviant or just plain evil. Arthur Hiller’s “Making Love” was a notable exception that year, but in the main, the fare at those early festivals was more outre.

“Groundbreaking gay work was dominated by experimental films,” Rosen recalls. “There was virtually nothing in mainstream cinema that reflected those interests.”

Yet the leap of faith paid off. “There was enormous interest even for things that were relatively obscure,” he says. “There was a German silent film, ‘Different From the Others,’ which had Ukrainian intertitles, and we had to turn away crowds even for that.”

Soon enough, the festival outgrew its academic cocoon, and Outfest as we know it was born, though the name didn’t change until the mid-1990s. “It became clear that we could not handle the crowds,” Rosen says. “They needed a bigger theater and more accessibility.”

For a dozen years, Larry Horne, one of those initial eager grad students, carried the torch, which was then passed to Morgan Rumpf. In 1999, Harvard-educated Stephen Gutwillig took over as executive director, with a mandate to expand Outfest’s mission (he now serves as the org’s nonprofit administrator).

To date, Outfest has screened roughly 4,500 films, all of which reflect some aspect of queer existence. Though the event itself — and the many others like it around the world — still qualifies as a niche fest, gay-themed stories no longer occupy the fringe status they did a quarter century ago.

One of the reasons for this growth is what Gutwillig calls “the democratization of the means of production” — the ease and affordability of new filmmaking technologies.

“It means that more individuals are telling stories though a queer lens,” he says. “Our noses are no longer primarily pressed against the glass of a media world that ignores or defames us, though there are a lot of us who are still outside. We have a ways to go, but we run studios and are at the vanguard of the do-it-yourself new-media landscape.”

His point could hardly find a better poster girl than Andrea Meyerson, whose “Laughing Matters,” a docu about lesbian comics, won Outfest’s audience award in 2003. This year, two of her pics made the fest’s lineup.

“I think a big part of why I’m a filmmaker is because of Outfest,” says Meyerson, whose first contacts with the fest came via its outreach partnership with Women on a Roll, a lesbian social org she founded. “Through working with Outfest, I got to see films and meet filmmakers, and this involvement was instrumental in my own development. I began to think: I can do this.”

With the rare exception of studio projects like “Brokeback Mountain” or “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” most gay-themed movies tend to originate as obscure independent productions, and as such, LGBT festivals play a crucial role in connecting filmmakers with potential distributors.

“In terms of acquisitions, I’ve found (Outfest) very efficient to see and become acquainted with the work of certain filmmakers. It’s where I first saw the work of Gregg Araki and Tommy O’Haver,” says Marcus Hu, a co-founder of Strand Releasing, one of many companies that specialize in queer cinema.

Given its proximity to Hollywood, Outfest enjoys a special relationship with the industry, something that sets it apart from other GLBT showcases. “This happens to be the movie capital,” Hu says. “And that makes Outfest a very valuable tool for gay people in the industry. Also, many studios support the festival, and I think that’s the real key to its success.”

Recent years have also seen the proliferation of LGBT film festivals in markets far smaller — and less progressive — than Los Angeles. Alongside the 31-year-old Frameline fest in San Francisco and New York’s NewFest, which just celebrated its 19th year, Outfest led the charge in decades of intense, and gratifying, progress.

“When NewFest and, even earlier, when Outfest or Frameline were founded, there were only a handful of LGBT films being made — a stark contrast to the hundreds of submissions we receive now annually,” says Basil Tsiokos, NewFest’s artistic director. “It was only within the past decade or so that the gay market was ‘discovered,’ (helping to) underscore our continued viability and significance.”

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