Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” is garnering awards buzz and praise from the industry’s most respected critics, but if that film came out 10 years ago, the gay coming-of-age story could have counted on a more specific foundation: The LGBT film festival circuit. San Francisco’s Frameline, Los Angeles’ Outfest, and New York’s NewFest were once the go-to market for queer filmmakers and films, but once they break out, many directors with enough clout can easily graduate to a bigger arena.
LGBT filmmakers rarely face the stigma that once limited opportunities, but for the emerging and mid-career filmmaker, as well as foreign filmmakers looking to break into international markets, queer film festivals remain a vital opportunity to get their work in front of an often adoring audience. At a time when gay identity has yet to truly permeate Hollywood filmmaking, that support system is more vital than ever.
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This past weekend marked the opening night of NewFest’s 28th year. New York’s LGBT film festival offers five days of programming for queer cinephiles and others who share their sensibilities. Appropriately unfolding in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, the festival mostly focuses on local premieres. (The festival made an exception for Ingrid Jungermann’s “Women Who Kill,” which previously screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in April; it quickly sold out anyway).
Before the opening night screening, the festival honored Tituss Burgess (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) with a new award, the NewFest Voice & Visibility Award, presented by community icon Debra Messing. Burgess was plucked from the relative obscurity of Broadway by Tina Fey when she cast him as D’Fwan on “30 Rock,” and then gave him a star turn on “Kimmy Schmidt.”
Though not gay herself, Fey may be one of the better-known advocates of queer identity in popular culture by simply introducing Burgess to wider audiences. He’s a singular voice that would not have broken through without the help of a part written specifically for him. LGBT film festivals provide the same amplification for filmmakers, albeit on a smaller scale.
“It really does make or break careers,” said Lucy Mukerjee-Brown, director of programming for Outfest and NewFest, in a phone conversation with IndieWire. “If a film plays the festival, it gets reviewed and distributors see it, they get offers, and that filmmaker then gets to make another movie.” The festival prides itself on providing industry access and networking opportunities. “We make sure to put distributors, sales agents, and talent agents on our juries, so that they’re aware of these films.” In an over-saturated independent film market, these films might otherwise get lost in the crowd.
Mukerjee-Brown has programmed Outfest and NewFest for the past two years, and cites inclusivity as a leading priority in the films she chooses. “It’s been great to witness the evolution of the industry in terms of queer films, but there’s still a lack of diversity within the LGBT spectrum,” she said. At the opening night screening of “The Pass,” the theater was almost entirely made up of white gay men. The festival submissions, according to Mukerjee-Brown, look largely the same.
“I make it a priority to ensure that these line-ups are as inclusive as possible, so that anyone could walk in and find a film that features someone who looks like them, so they can look up on the big screen and see themselves reflected back.” The tide may be shifting for inclusivity, as the success of “Moonlight” shows, but Mukerjee-Brown’s impassioned dedication to inclusivity points to the fact that LGBT people have always been ahead of the curve. No one appreciates the importance of raising up new voices more than those who have struggled to make their own heard.
NewFest has to fill seats, however, and this year the lure was beefcake Brits. The opening night film, “The Pass,” stars Russell Tovey (“Looking”) as a closeted footballer and depicts his gradual self-destruction over twelve years. Based on the play by John Donnelly (who also wrote the screenplay), the film is told in three acts, in three different hotel rooms. Tovey and co-star Arinzé Kene provide plenty of eye candy for thirsty queens, but the movie never transcends its theatrical structure, proving yet again the lesson of “August Osage County:” Good plays don’t always make good movies.
Rather than chasing B-list celebrity vehicles, NewFest shines when it casts a wider net, such as with its robust line-up of Latin American films. Most notably, “Don’t Call Me Son,” from Brazilian writer-director Anna Muylaert, which opens next month at Film Forum, and “RaRa,” the debut feature from Chilean director Pepa San Martín which snagged The Grand Prix Jury Award at The Berlinale.
Both films examine parent-child relationships from different lenses: a gender-bending teenage boy whose life is upended when he learns his mother kidnapped him, and two little girls with lesbian moms who must reckon with the knowledge that society views their family as unnatural. Other films of note are the surreal and futuristic “The Cult,” from Brazilian director André Antônio, the nostalgic romance “Esteros,” from Argentine Papu Curotto, and “La Plaza De La Soledad,” a documentary from photographer-turned-filmmaker Maya Goded about aging sex workers in La Merced, Mexico.
For Jungermann’s “Women Who Kill,” a second New York festival run (the film played Tribeca earlier this year) gives audiences another chance to see the film, which has garnered buzz but has yet to receive distribution. The dark comedy from the “F To 7th” creator was inspired by Woody Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” NewFest had to add an encore screening of the heartfelt comedy “Miles” after an initial screening sold out. About a teenage boy who joins the girls’ volleyball team in order to snag a college scholarship, “Miles” stars Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser, and Missi Pyle, and is the second feature from “Nate and Margaret” director Nathan Adloff.
“Moonlight” is in its own category of breakout film, but this year’s queer indie success story was Andrew Ahn’s “Spa Night,” a lush coming-of-age drama about a young Korean-American man torn between his duty to his family and his burgeoning sexuality. Strand Releasing bought distribution rights to Ahn’s debut feature out of Sundance, but smartly courted LGBT audiences by playing Frameline and Outfest before its August release. “Spa Night” won over critics, even garnering praise from notorious contrarian Armond White, whose “Moonlight” review was far less positive.
Needless to say, LGBT stories have been far more plentiful on television and independent productions; as usual, the studios are the last to catch up. In recent years, Hollywood has increasingly receded from the niche, with acclaimed fare like “Carol” and “Brokeback Mountain” being produced by mini-majors (The Weinstein Company and Focus Features, respectively). Gone are the days of “Philadelphia” and “The Birdcage,” mid-level projects that tentpole-addicted studios don’t even produce anymore. That’s what keeps the LGBT circuit more relevant than ever. Even if NewFest’s line-up is a mixed bag, it still provides a more inclusive portrait of modern society than anything offered up by the mainstream.