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Of Fearless Masterpieces and Queer Visions: Strand Releasing Hits 25 Years of Uncompromising Passion for Exceptional Gems

Of Fearless Masterpieces and Queer Visions: Strand Releasing Hits 25 Years of Uncompromising Passion for Exceptional Gems

Among the numerous concepts associated with the word “strand,”
there is one that describes it as an element that forms part of a more complex
entity but still retaining certain individuality. It is a singular thread,
which despite belonging to a group of similarly functioning organisms, remains distinct
and separates itself from the rest by means of originality. Although Strand Releasing got its name from a landmark building in the city of San Francisco, the company led
by Marcus Hu and John Gerrans since 1989, can likewise be define as a unique
component standing out in an industry eager to homogenize.

Having worked in the distribution business in San Francisco
for companies like Orion, New World, and United Artists, Marcus Hu moved to
L.A. in the late 80s to work for Vestron Pictures — where he met Gerrans. The
latter was working in the business affairs department where he gained
experience that would prove useful in years to come. After financial
instability sent Vestron into bankruptcy, Marcus returned to San Francisco to
work with Mark Thomas who managed the historic Strand Theater.

 “When I was
working up at the Strand Theater just kind of making ends meet, I saw a movie
called Macho Dancer, and Mike Thomas
and I decided to ask the director, Lino Brocka, if we could acquire the picture
to handle the U.S. rights for it, and he graciously agreed to it,” said Hu. “It was really
going to be the first time any of his films had gotten U.S. distribution. It is
a film from The Philippines. He was already a well-established, radical
filmmaker.”

From the very first film they acquired, it was clear that
Strand had an affinity for works that were bold and that showed stories rarely
seen in cinema at the time. And just as the newly founded company was picking
up steam, a new wave of gay filmmakers brought out their stories out into the
world. Strand Releasing was ready to give them exposure and get them to their
audiences. 

“Back then when we were working on films like The Living End and those early gay films, we were really there at
the cusp of the New Queer Cinema. There was such an eager audience to see
movies like the Téchiné film Wild Reeds or
Claire of the Moon. Then Gregg [Araki] had
the follow-up Totally Fucked Up, and
we did Stonewall with Christine
Vachon and Postcards form America. Those
were the films that really established the New Queer Cinema”

With an evident and unfed hunger for this kind of cinema,
the possibilities were endless for those willing to take the risk and advocate
for these up-and-coming artists 

“By fortune of circumstances we ended up
getting in the business right about the time where there was very good Gay
cinema coming out with some really talented directors like Gregg Araki and Tom
Kalin making their first films,” said Gerrans. “There were other companies to support those
films, but those films might have been to small for them, so it was a good
opportunity for us.” 

These days the marketplace has changed and seeing
a queer film or gueer characters in the media is not a rare occurrence. Such
proliferation of content has made for a crowded field in which quality films
have a harder time getting attention. 

“Queer Cinema is not marginalized so
much. Is no longer marginalize when you can see gay characters on regular programming,
soap operas, ‘Ellen,’ ‘Six Feet Under,’ ‘Queer as Folk’ or ‘Will & Grace,'” added Hu. “Queer
culture is just as apparent in everyday culture. It has made it harder for us
because I think audiences are less likely to pay money to see gay images of
themselves in a theater when they can see it on television.”

For all the outspoken passion for finding great new voices
in the LGBT realm, Strand’s catalogue is much more than simply a compilation of
early queer auteurs. Their library is an extensive collection that includes some
of the most daring and groundbreaking masterpieces of World Cinema. Titles like
Gaspar Noé’s bleakly powerful I Stand Alone,
Thomas Vintenberg’s It’s All About Love
– one of Marcus’ favorites – and more recently Carlos Reygadas cryptic avant-garde
puzzle Post Tenebras Lux. Undoubtedly
many of their films appear like hard sales on the surface, but with a
strategically targeted publicity campaign they are able to connect with those
niche audiences that otherwise wouldn’t have access to them.

On Strand’s procedures for choosing a film, Marcus declares
there is actually no procedure. 

“It’s
such weird thing,” he said. “I don’t think John or I, or even when Mike was here, that we
really did it with a calculation thinking that a movie would make money. It is
always about ‘Do we respond to it artistically?’ ‘Is this something that
interest us?’ Because as you can see from the kinds of films that we select
that a lot of them are certainly not chosen for their commercial potential.
They need a supporter, they need an advocate, and we try to do that.
Occasionally you hit the jackpot when you get something that’s commercially
viable and well received critically. I don’t think that we always look at it
as  ‘Is this gonna make a lot of money?’ when we select something.” 

John Gerrans seems to agree.

“You are always
looking for the most interesting film you can find. Is it the subject? Is it
the story? Is it the quality? Is it the director? Is it the cast? Or is it a
combination? Sometimes is the combination of all, and sometimes is just one
element. Ultimately is about finding something we think other people would want
to see.”

Among those particular titles that became all-around
commercial and critical successes are films like the gay coming-of-age comedy Edge of Seventeen. 

It is a very
mainstream movie, and it’s a very good movie,” Hu said. “It was also critically acclaimed.
I think it is a beautifully told coming out story, though it’s a very
conventional one, it’s a very good one” 

The film remains the
company’s highest grossing title to date. 

Other milestones include a reissue of
Godard’s glorious Contempt and just this
past January, Alain Guiraudie’s beachside murderously sensual Stranger by the Lake, which has become
one of their biggest hits in recent memory. On the awards front, their
commendable decision to distribute the complex and heartbreaking documentary The Missing Picture, which granted
them an Academy Award nomination. 

I’m so glad and so proud that we have
that film in our library” said Hu. 

Previous Strand titles that connected with
Oscar voters include Ayn Rand: A Sense
of Life
for Best Documentary Feature, and the Live Action Short Trevor, which was in their queer shorts
compilation Boys Life 2, and actually
won the statue.

As a distributor who places innovation and artistic
integrity above easily digestible profitable products, Strand has experienced
its fair share of controversy. Upon the release of Paradise: Faith, the second installment of Ulrich Seidl’s
provocative trilogy, hundreds of letters from religious groups across the
nation were received. They pleaded for Strand to cancel the release of what
they considered sacrilegious imagery, an incident John Gerrans describes as
“new heights of controversy.” While thinking of other incidents in which one of
their films has caused public outcry, Marcus recalls the divisive views
expressed by the gay community towards Gregg Araki’s The Living End, a film that Strand also produced. “I know The Living End certainly stroke a chord
with some gay people because of the radical violence that the characters have
towards the homophobes. Finally we had gay characters that fought back for a
change, that didn’t take it lying down, they actually had guns and would shoot
someone back if push came to shove. I think gay people had not seen that kind
of representation and some took it in a wrong way. They didn’t think it was a
good idea that it had these gay who were vigilantes in a way”

Curating cinema as an art form is definitely a challenge
when the pieces in exhibition are also part of a business model. In this regard
Strand Releasing has persevered and stayed true to form as a distributor of
unconventional works. Their efforts to promote intellectually challenging and
forward-thinking material have made earned them much recognition throughout the
years. For their 10-year and 20-year anniversaries MoMA hosted retrospectives
of their varied films, including one titled “Carte Blanche” (White Card), which
focused on the now internationally acclaimed auteurs that Strand helped by
launching their careers in the U.S. such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Francois
Ozon, Jacques Nolot, and Fatih Akin. Several other tributes and retrospectives
have honored the company’s audacious selection of films, among them are one at
the Sundance Film Festival and another at the San Francisco Yerba Buena Center
for the Arts.

In the ever-changing landscape that is the film industry, is
it always difficult to see to far into the future in terms of what will be a
successful business model. 

“Who knows where the future of cinema is headed with
the way the platforms have been changing in such a rapid way,” Hu said. “Who would have
expected the complete obliteration of 35mm formats, and as quickly as it
happened? Who would have expected that VHS would be dead pretty much overnight,
like the dinosaurs, like a comet hit it? With the decline of DVDs going the way
they are I’m not even sure if I could predict what the longevity of the DVD is
going to be. I think the culture is changing, you used to have those college
audiences that would really support an art film in the market place, and you
don’t have that anymore. They are distracted on different things; they are less
interested in cinema and art today than they were 20 years ago. There is a
different kind of thinking, I don’t think that people are as engaged in
intellectual interests as they are in Candy Crush, or whatever the current
diversion is.”

Nonetheless, both co-founders remain optimistic about what
the future holds for their unconventional brand. 

“It’s exciting because you
never know what the new technology is going to bring,” said Gerrans. “It’s fun to follow it and
be at the forefront of what’s going to happen. We are certainly in a position
to take advantage of that, I find that exciting. You come to work and you never
know what the new breakthrough will be. We have the library films and those
will be able to go on to whatever new platform of distribution comes. Now it is
cheaper to make films, we are going to see all these film in all these markets.
Filmmakers are finding financing from around the world, for distributors like
us, who do international pictures, that is great.”

It has never been, and probably never will be, easy for Hu
and Gerrans’ company to make a business out of their passion for the medium.
What is most commendable is that their essential convictions haven’t changed
from the day they started. Their ongoing struggle to open spaces for fearless
masterpieces and queer visions to be seen is a courageous demonstration of
their commitment. Marcus candidly recalls financing Araki’s The Living End with money he borrowed
from his mother, while John had to keep his day job for a few years to get
Strand off the ground. Yet, whatever the challenges, and there are many, they
continue in their never-ending quest to find those outstanding art house gems
no one else would dare to embrace. Perhaps this is just how it should, after
all, like each one of their films, Strand Releasing is too marvelously eclectic
to be replicated, now or in another 25 years.

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