“If something’s not representing you, you just have to change it,” queer filmmaker Silas Howard told IndieWire last month. “Because no one else is going to care enough to do it for you.”
That’s exactly what “BearCity” writer/director Doug Langway did when it came to addressing the dearth of movies about his community: Bears. A passionate niche within gay male circles, a bear, for the uninitiated, is an affectionate term for “the bigger, hairier guy,” as Langway put it. With only one feature under his belt from 1996 (“Raising Heroes”), Langway initially set to work on a script that would encompass all the colors of the bear rainbow.
Seven years and three movies later, the “BearCity” trilogy is the biggest gay movie franchise you’ve probably never heard of. It’s also a triumph of a grassroots independent filmmaking model that has all but disappeared.
The recent New York premiere of “BearCity 3” was full of suspenders stretched over proud tummies; daddies decked out in their leathers; bearded muscle guys embracing; and even a handful of skinny guys lurking in the back. They were there to watch the third and final movie in a trilogy that not only represented them, but celebrated their hair and bellies. The audience hooted at each recurring character’s entrance, gasped in shock at the movie’s highly dramatic turns, and bobbed their heads to songs they could have been dancing to the previous week.
“These movies are for people that find a very different human body beautiful,” said Langway. “The bear community was completely underrepresented when we started seven years ago. But there was a large, growing community. So they were able to help us fund it.”
Langway partnered with gay film distributor TLA for the first “BearCity,” but self-financed the next two using Indiegogo. The team then self-distributed through their own website and through iTunes, making the bulk of their money on DVD and Blu-ray sales. As Langway put it, “We have an older clientele and they love packaging.”
“BearCity” became a cult hit, and the mix of outrageous comedy with earnest storytelling attracted name talent like Kevin Smith and Kathy Najimy. Smith, a bigger, hairier guy himself, served as executive producer on Langway’s documentary, “Bear Nation.”
Najimy, beloved by gay audiences for ’90s camp classics like “Hocus Pocus” and “Sister Act,” has long been an outspoken ally for the LGBTQ community. “She’s always been a big fan of the gay community, and a real supporter,” Langway said of the actress. “She’s been doing that since before it was cool. Of course she’s gonna help her bears.”
Stephen Guarino may not be a bear, but he makes an endearing bear-lover as Brent Richards-Dean, one half of the trilogy’s central couple. Guarino has been beloved by gay viewers since his big break on Logo’s “The Big Gay Sketch Show” (which also starred a 21-year-old Kate McKinnon), and has worked consistently since then. With a recurring role on ABC’s “Happy Endings” and now starring in Showtime’s “I’m Dying Up Here,” he says he most often gets recognized for “BearCity.”
“No other project has given me more access to the glamorous 1950s film star lifestyle that I’ve always wanted,” said Guarino, adding that he has traveled to 20 countries with the trilogy. “It was three years of being at a party in Bologna, Italy, where I’ve gotta make a speech, get on a plane and go to Oslo, then to a bear party in Rio. It was the most fabulous experience of my life.”
When he first heard about the project, Guarino wasn’t too sure a movie called “BearCity” would be the fabulous experience he described. “I was like, ‘Nope! This sounds like half porn, not doing it.” But when he read the script, he recognized a unique opportunity. “I thought, ‘Oh! This is a fully well rounded script where I am seen as a sexual being. I have a shower scene.’ This is the kind of thing I would never get. Nobody wants to see me in this kind of role.”
Guarino has been playing gay for over a decade, so much so that he had a front row seat to peak television’s gradual social progress.
“I used to play actual gay stereotypes, then I would play comments on stereotypes, and then I would play ‘real’ gay guys,” he said. “Now, every show has a gay character. If anything, they’re going to the opposite side of the spectrum; they’re trying so hard to make the person normal that they make them kind of boring. Or even worse, they make the gay guy very mainstream, so it highlights the quirkiness of the straight person.”
While Guarino recognizes that more representation is always good news, the power of true visibility was clear from the energy in the theater. Mainstream — even independent — film and television offers a very narrow sliver of the full diversity of the gay community. Between bears, cubs, wolves, and otters, there are as many variations within this smaller niche as there are human body shapes and sizes. Only a uniting papa bear force like Langway could render these characters fully human, and yes — sexy.
For anyone paying attention, it’s no surprise that it would take not one, but three movies, to contain their multitudes.