In 1992, Fine Line had five films at Sundance, but by complete accident, two of those films put us in the middle of the conversation about what had just been dubbed “New Queer Cinema” by film historian and critic Ruby Rich.
Ruby moderated a panel on the subject at Sundance that year. The two Fine Line Films, which were Tom Kalin’s “Swoon” and Derek Jarman’s “Edward II,” were both considered difficult films, and the fact that both of them were being distributed by Fine Line garnered us a lot of public praise.
I had already handled a number of gay-themed films earlier in my distribution career, so I was aware that gay audiences were a loyal part of the art film audience. That didn’t mean that anything with gay subject matter would get an audience…but the right films—the ones that didn’t pander, that didn’t reduce gay culture to stereotypes, and especially the ones in which gay life was treated as a given—these films stood out and the audience would be there.
My first professional encounter with a gay-themed film was with the movie “Outrageous!,” a Canadian film that was released in 1977 by Cinema 5. My job was a combination of co-op advertising, media buying and promotion. My boss, Don Rugoff, had taught us how to zoom in on niche audiences, mainly by use of radio. One of the biggest radio formats at that time was disco, which definitely had a huge chunk of the gay audience as regular listeners, so we set up promotions and word-of-mouth screenings through these stations all over the country. The ad campaign was simply the word “Outrageous!” in bold type, with no graphic image whatsoever. The entire campaign was built on the fact that audiences just loved this film, and all we had to do was tease them into the theater. Word-of-mouth was incredible and the film was a genuine art house hit.
As a result of the success of “Outrageous!,” I never shied away from gay-themed films going forward. It was part of why I pursued “Parting Glances” in 1986 when it was screened at the IFP Market. The film was smart and entertaining, but it was also the first film I had seen that dealt with the AIDS epidemic in any real way. What I didn’t realize was that the team of people who were part of its production would end up being the very people who would go on to be key players in the New Queer Cinema—people like Tom Kalin and Christine Vachon, both of whom I ended up working with on later films.
Post Fine Line, I found myself producing a period film for Miramax that brought me right back to the days of “Outrageous!” The film was “54,” which was set in the 1970s at the notorious disco Studio 54. Mark Christopher’s conception was that Studio 54 represented the moment that gay culture entered the mainstream, but Harvey Weinstein had other ideas and the final released film was nothing like the director’s original intent. I was actually a casualty of that battle as I was pushed aside from the production once things got heated. Fortunately, 17 years later, Mark got the chance to reconstruct his original film, and when it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival a couple of years ago, it was hailed as a “new gay classic.”
This coming Saturday, you can see four of these films at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for the Arts. They are all considered classics and rarely available on the big screen. Here is the schedule and the links to get tickets.
12 PM: Tom Kalin’s “Swoon”
8:45 PM: Richard Benner’s “Outrageous!”