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Gay pride abounds, but indie gay films tank

Smaller gay films are failing at the box office, but some experts say the films are just reaching out to different audiences.
/ Source: Reuters

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 independent gay films doing worse than ever at the box office and among critics?

Strand Releasing, which had 22 films in theaters last year (most with GLBT themes), grossed just $462,000. Killer Films, once a consistent producer of acclaimed “queer” projects, has shifted its focus to true crime dramas and other films, with tepid critical and financial success. At the same time, the 2005 Toronto Film Festival’s gay-themed best Canadian feature winner, “C.R.A.Z.Y.,” hasn’t been able to secure U.S. theatrical distribution.

Gay characters might have gone mainstream at the movies (”Brokeback Mountain”) and on TV (”Brothers & Sisters” and other shows), 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 schlocky genre films (the sex comedy “Eating Out”) similar to the kind of lowbrow fare generally aimed at straight audiences.

While smaller gay films are failing at the box office, their production is being fueled by the same venues that are 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 gay-focused 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.

While Regent’s 12 films in theaters in 2007 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 releases a worthwhile loss leader.

From festival to small screenNewFest artistic director Basil Tsiokos says 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 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 aren’t necessarily bad.

“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, referring to the Here! channel’s Donald Strachey telepics, including “Third Man Out” and “Shock to the System.”

On a more ambitious scale, Focus Features is one of the few specialty filmmakers that has been 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 already are well down the same path as 1970s black films, where quality projects like “Sounder” were the exception and blaxploitation flicks were the rule. Cable’s 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.