In "La Mission," screening Thursday as the opening night film of Outfest, Benjamin Bratt plays a tough San Francisco ex-con grappling with acceptance of his gay son. Written and directed by the star's brother, Peter Bratt, the film had its premiere this year at the Sundance Film Festival and is indicative of a growing shift at Outfest away from pro forma coming-out stories and toward programming that locates gay themes and issues within a broader social landscape.
Outfest, entering its 27th year, is among the top tier of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) film festivals in the country, alongside Frameline in San Francisco and NewFest in New York. These fests are part of a circuit that is a de facto distribution network for many films yet also a place where the very notion of what makes for a gay film is in flux.
"Queer films are changing," said Kim Yutani, Outfest's director of programming. "Filmmakers are not necessarily only telling stories with gay characters at the center; they are interested in telling other stories too."
These evolving attitudes toward defining gay film can be read across the movies screening at Outfest under the heading "Four in Focus," featuring four first-time directors. Among those in the section is "We Are the Mods," director E.E. Cassidy's stylish look at one teenage girl's induction into the L.A.-set mod subculture of motor scooters, vintage ska and R&B and Fred Perry clothes while she explores her emergent sexual identity.
The film is just the kind of gay-adjacent filmmaking Outfest is moving to include, one that touches on gay themes without being easily classified as a "gay film." Cassidy acknowledges that having been turned down by a number of mainstream -- industry code for "not gay" -- fests, her film has been gaining traction on the gay festival circuit, which leaves her with doubts about how the film will be perceived by general audiences.
"People have told me, 'Once you go gay, you don't go back,' " said Cassidy, a Silver Lake resident. "I have to go where people want to show the film, even if I think it has a broader appeal than just the gay community."
Also screening in "Four in Focus" is H.P. Mendoza's witty, homespun musical "Fruit Fly," a story of aspiring young artists, which opens with a number extolling the virtues of San Francisco's public transit system, and "Drool," writer-director Nancy Kissam's offbeat road picture, starring "Mulholland Dr.'s" Laura Harring.
"Hollywood je t'aime," the lightly comic story of a vacationing Frenchman who decides to make a go of it in Los Angeles as an actor, comes into Outfest after just playing as one of the few gay-themed films at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
"What makes a film gay now?" asked "Hollywood" writer-director Jason Bushman. "Is it gay plot, gay filmmaker or just a queer take on life? I don't know.
"I don't feel stuck on the gay circuit," said Bushman of his film's screening schedule. "I'm happy to be there. But with that said, it's unfortunate a lot of the world sees a mainstream festival as having more credibility."
Especially in light of the uncertainty in the film business in general, and in the independent sector in particular, the business surrounding LGBT filmmaking is surprisingly healthy, with cable television and home video deals still available to a large number of films -- as well as screening fees from many festivals (though not Outfest).
On the flip side, moving from the gay-fest circuit to theatrical distribution for general audiences remains in many ways a largely unattainable goal for many LGBT filmmakers. "That is probably the biggest, most difficult issue of all," said Jeffrey Winter, co-president of the sales, marketing and distribution firm New American Vision. "Crossover is a major, major issue. People who make gay films in no way are afraid of being called gay filmmakers anymore, but do they want their films to be seen by straight people? Absolutely. And it is very hard to get those films out of the gay ghetto."
Many filmmakers are left to navigate the strange festival calculus of where to premiere in hopes of maximum critical exposure and perceived credibility before settling into a slot on the gay-fest circuit, where a film can play all over the world.
"It's not a disparagement to niche festivals when a filmmaker wants to go somewhere with more mainstream appeal," said Basil Tsiokos, former executive director of NewFest and currently a documentary programmer at the Sundance Film Festival. "They have to do what is best for their film."