Turning 35 this year, Frameline, or the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival, joins the ranks of some of the world’s most senior film events. It also has the distinguished title of the world’s oldest gay festival, starting as a small gathering back in 1977, but quickly catapulting to screenings in the city’s iconic Castro Theater, which it still uses today.
It’s probably not a surprise that the first LGBT event would come out of San Francisco. The city has a long tradition of being culturally forward (and counter-culture) and even produced North America’s oldest film event, the San Francisco International Film Festival, which is held annually in April.
indieWIRE traveled to Frameline’s momentous event this year, arriving midway and attending the Centerpiece screening Wednesday of Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf’s doc “Wish Me Away” about popular country singer Chely Wright, which had a reception at the Castro that could only be described as electric. But audiences in SF are known to be vocal and subsequent directors screening their films at the theater have noted that they always wanted to show their films there.
iW asked about San Francisco’s audiences after catching up with Frameline’s executive director K.C. Price and Festival Director Jennifer Morris, who talked about the festival’s humble beginnings and the state of queer film. The pair also talked about the festival’s continuing influence in LGBT programming and how it continues to inspire other festivals in the U.S. and around the world. As the conversation began, in fact, a group from the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire just left the room. Their “Eau Queer” festival was inspired by Frameline.
indieWIRE: Frameline is not only the oldest LGBT festival in the world, but also the “biggest.” How did it start out back in the day?
K.C. Price: It’s the 35th anniversary of our film festival, and coincidentally, it is also the 30th anniversary of our distribution program and 20th anniversary of our completion fund grant program.
The first [Frameline] film festival was held in a small community space in 1977 off Market Street about 15 blocks from here. They had about 50 – 60 people there and showed a dozen super 8 films and projected them onto a white sheet on the wall and didn’t have sound, so it was quite different [laughs].
It gained popularity pretty quickly though, and over the next three to four years they moved to the Roxie Theater which we still use today. And then I think for their fifth festival they moved to the Castro Theater because the audiences were so large they needed the space.
Now 35 years later, we have an audience of about 57,000 – 60,000 with a [lineup of] 231 films from 30 countries and we have four venues.
iW: I’ve heard Frameline described as the “grand daddy of gay film festivals.” I’m sure it’s had an enormous impact beyond San Francisco.
KCP: Absolutely. That class from University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire were just here for instance. I’m always fascinated how programmers from other festivals come here and it’s great how other people come here and get inspired to start festivals, such as that class, and [another woman] who’s been here from Savannah, Georgia and is starting one there.
iW: Some people question the general need for a gay festival in a progressive city like San Francisco with so many “mainstream” film events embracing gay content into their general program, how is it still relevant?
KCP: My answer is an unqualified yes! And my reason is that nowhere but at an LGBT festival like Frameline or other festivals like this in other parts of the country are you going to get the same amount of queer cinema that doesn’t necessarily have all the distribution channels and access.
Sometimes when I’ve heard that argument, some may say, ‘oh, I can see this on Netflix or some other channel.’ But there are many films here that will not necessarily be available even in those distribution channels. And that’s also true of other festivals that spotlight a certain community such as the Jewish or Asian festivals. Plus, there’s no other place that you’re going to get so many representations in one place. There’s a wide array of films you can see about gay people.
iW: San Francisco audiences are more apt to be vocal compared to others. Wednesday night’s screening of “Wish Me Away” was so spirited and there was quite an electricity. People booed in certain places when Richard Nixon came on screen and cheered and stomped during other scenes.
Jennifer Morris: That was quite a special screening. One of our magical moments.
KCP: We’re so proud as a festival that [Wednesday night] turned into one of those moments that people talk about for years. There was this famous screeing of “Lillies” a number of years ago and there was something about that that brought people to their feet and that was similar last night.
iW: I think last night was more than the fact she’s a famous singer though…
JM: No, it was more than that, she’s been to the Bay Area before. It was the movie itself because people see her through the movie and relate to her journey and what she had to go through. They really related to her through the film and how the filmmakers chose to tell it. They really respond to that and understand.
KCP: One of the great things about Frameline audiences is that they’re a long standing audience and have been with us for years. They’re a cinematically sophisticated audience that really knows how to respond to a film.
JM: Like with “Bob’s New Suit” (directed by Alan Howard), the filmmakers were amazed how the audience laughed at all the right places, and said this was the first time that has happened. I’ll never forget way back when we showed “Bound,” (1996), the Wachowskis’ first film. They sent us a letter afterward because the audience really responded saying they’re never going to watch the movie with an audience ever again because that was so perfect and they always wanted to keep that memory.
iW: Changing focus a bit, how are things going for LGBT filmmaking generally on an artistic level? You see a lot of films obviously in programming a large festival in addition to the many more submissions.
KCP: I’ve been hearing from a lot of people that it’s getting better. People come up to me and say that quality is ‘better than before’…
JM: It’s getting better because we’ve been freed from the typical coming out stories and the falling in love with your straight roommate stories. I mean, we still have the coming out stories, but they’re deeper and more intense. Not so much ‘drama, drama, drama – I’m gay, end of story’… Now, it’s ‘I’m gay, and what does that mean?’ And there are a lot more stories.
Films now are honest and unapologetic so you’re seeing the real thing, whereas before we felt like we had to put on a polite face. Now they’re raw and honest films.
iW: So how about on a commerce level?
JM: Well, just like other indie films, things had looked up, but then it changed. Though it seems like now a lot more films are being picked up, most are not getting theatrical. With the technology change, there has been an increase in the ability to make a film across the board and therefore a lot more films are now submitted. There are also a lot more amazing documentaries because people have access to telling stories they weren’t able to do before.
We have a lot of first-time filmmakers again. Actually it’s interesting because we hadn’t had a lot of U.S. feature filmmakers in recent years, but this time, there has been a lot more. Though a French film we’re showing, “Tomboy” (dir. by Celine Sciamma) is really good and I’m sure people will really like it.
KCP: This year, Eldar Rapaport’s “August” was based on a short he had done some years before, and we gave him some completion funds and he came back with his feature and had his screening here Saturday which was great.
JM: And “Codependent Lesbian Space Aliens” (directed by Madeleine Olnek) is a first feature that you have to see. It’s one of the smartest gay Sci-Fi films, it’s also funny.
KCP: Alan Brown did a short that was inspired by Matthew Shepard who’s here with a first feature [“Private Romeo”] that’s like an all-male military academy twist on Romeo & Juliet and it’s really challenging but the audience loved it. Wolfe Releasing picked it up out of the festival.
iW: So what sort of advice would you give to first time filmmakers gay or straight who may be undertaking a gay-oriented story today?
JM: The films that do the best – because I see what people respond to – are the films with a genuine story and genuine characters. I go to the audience and they like “Bob’s New Suit.” You might think, what is this going to be? But the characters are relatable and they like them. You need to have a real story and not just a formula. Formulas don’t really work anymore, they want a good story that takes them somewhere.
iW: And what is to look forward to?
JM: [Looking back] we’re doing the 20th anniversary of “Paris is Burning” (directed by Jenni Livingston) today and then “Leave it on the Floor” (directed by Sheldon Larry) this weekend is going to big. It’s very special and we’re looking forward to it.