It may not exactly be the Year of the Woman, but this year’s Outfest – the 27th iteration of L.A.’s seminal gay and lesbian film festival – leans more heavily toward lesbian fare than any in recent memory, with several key slots occupied by films from distaff helmers.
“We have two centerpieces geared toward women, Tina Mabry’s ‘Mississippi Dammed’ and Lucia Puenzo’s ‘El Nino Pas,'” says Outfest exec director Kirsten Schaffer. “And the Legacy Project gala is ‘Choosing Children’ (1984), which is more oriented toward lesbians. We also have Nancy Kissam’s ‘Drool,’ which was a huge success at Slamdance this year. And there’s ‘Ghosted’ from Monika Treut, who has a huge lesbian following.”
Diversity is key at Outfest, yet it’s an uphill battle for women, if only because there are always so many gay-male pics to contend with. “Any year we have the opportunity to highlight films by female directors we do,” says Schaffer. Last year, “there were definitely films that were lesbian, but they tended to be international and smaller films.”
This year’s shift of balance wasn’t exactly premeditated. “There are years when there aren’t many lesbians films,” Schaffer continues, “and then there are years when there are a bunch and we think it signals a trend, but then it kind of drops off again.”
Kim Yutani, Outfest’s director of programming, acknowledges capitalizing on the opportunity. “We saw so many strong lesbian films that have potential for wider appeal that we wanted to highlight them,” she says, adding E.E. Cassidy’s “We Are the Mods,” Wendy Jo Carlton’s “Hannah Free,” Nana Neul’s “To Faro,” Alison Reid’s “The Baby Formula” and Maria Beatty’s “Bandaged” to the list of films by which Outfest 2009 will likely be remembered.
“It’s a balancing act,” Yutani says. “We want the highest quality films possible and also ones that will appeal to our very diverse audience. And it’s not easy to do. I think there were a good number of lesbian films that were just stronger this year, especially the storytelling.”
Schaffer suggests that changes in technology may help account for the shift. “I would never say it’s easy to make a feature-length film,” she maintains, “but digital technology has made high-quality filmmaking accessible to more people. So we are seeing generally more diversity among the filmmakers.”
She also cites Outfest’s own programs as incubators of future success. For example, Nancy Kissam, who directed ‘Drool,’ was an Outfest Screenwriting Lab fellow in 2006. “That helped propel her career forward,” says Schaffer. “And Wendy Jo Carlton, who made ‘Hannah Free,’ has had a couple short films in the festival, as did Tina Mabry, the director of ‘Mississippi Damned.’ One of the things Outfest does best is nurture emerging filmmakers. We help them make connections that eventually lead to feature films getting made. ”
And there are other shifts occurring in the world of LGBT cinema. Theatrical exhibition is mainly on the wane, with home video and, especially, Web distribution gaining ground. Where that leaves entities like Outfest is unclear, though some insist that even seismic shifts will not compromise such fests as prominent players.
Maria Lynn, prexy of Wolfe Releasing and WolfeVideo.com, which deals exclusively in LGBT fare, is among those who foresee a long and vital future for such ventures. “The gay and lesbian circuit is huge,” says Lynn. “It’s the biggest niche, hands down. So these festivals – and Outfest is among the biggest – are important for marketing these films. Even if people don’t actually see them at the festivals, they are going to be more recognizable later on, when these films come to DVD or iTunes.”
For her part, Schaffer is embracing both past and future. “I expect to be investing resources in new media and Web technology,” she says. “That’s something we have started to plan for but not yet executed. I want to put Outfest at the forefront of new technology, with a year-round presence on the Web. But we’ll also continue to be a place people come to in July to experience LGBT culture. I do not want to replace the festival with the Internet.”