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Gay film fests fuel fast-growing market

Maria Lynn has been to dozens of film festivals in her 10 years as a film distributor but remembers few events as moving as the recent San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival premiere of Big Eden. When Thomas Bezucha's uplifting gay romance ended, she said, the crowd "gave it a five-minute standing ovation."

Based on that screening, Lynn and her partners at Wolfe Video decided to buy the video and DVD rights to Bezucha's film and package it in a glossy, two-disc set filled with extras, a first for a gay title. The result: Big Eden has sold 70,000 DVD units.

That's small potatoes next to The Matrix but a record for the rapidly growing gay and lesbian niche market.

It's the same race that film distributors run at Sundance, Cannes or Berlin: hitting the screenings, fielding pitches from filmmakers, seeking out that one miracle movie that will explode at the box office.

"It's a very delicate balance," says Strand Releasing president Marcus Hu, who seeks out possible winners each year with business partner Jon Gerrans. "First of all, it has to appeal to us on a gut level. Second, we discuss whether we can make it commercially viable and how we can market it."

Once the projections are made, Hu says, "you throw them out the window. Because ultimately you can never tell what a film is going to do. What works in one city doesn't work in another. Tastes change. In the world of distribution, you learn something every day."

Hu, who divides his time between Los Angeles and San Francisco, has been coming to the San Francisco festival for 16 years, not only to shop for product but also to launch movies he has acquired at other film showcases. He found Postcards From the Edge in San Francisco, as well as World and Time Enough and Edge of Seventeen.

For any distributor of gay titles, San Francisco is essential.

"It's the most inclusive in terms of the spectrum of films they invite," says Doug Witkins, president of Picture This! Entertainment in Los Angeles (Come Undone). "Partly that's a function of how long the festival is. They don't have to narrow down their selections to a specific programmer's taste but go out of their way to include everything: foreign films, darker films, comedies." (The Tampa Bay International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival is the fourth largest of its kind.)

It's risky to gauge a film's commercial potential by its reception at a gay film festival, Hu says. The gap between a festival crowd and a regular movie crowd is particularly wide when one factors in the charged social ambience at a lesbian and gay festival.

Lynn's partner, Linda Voutour, remembers being swayed by a lavish audience response to Chutney Popcorn, the coming-out tale of an East Indian lesbian living in London. "It did skew our opinion," she says. When the film was released, "it was not as successful as we thought it would be."

Poor timing can also prove a film's undoing. Iron Ladies, a good-natured comedy about Thai drag queens playing competitive volleyball, was a smash at the 2001 festival, but it opened the week of Sept. 11, 2001, and "went up in smoke," Hu says.

Sometimes, Hu says, he'll have a strong hunch about a film that doesn't play well in a festival venue. "I was in Cannes for the world premiere of Crush, Alison Maclean's first film (starring Marcia Gay Harden as a haunted car-crash survivor). All the big players walked out on that, but we picked it up, and to this day I think it's one of our very best films."

Gut reactions, educated guesses, wild leaps of faith _ the decision to acquire a film for theatrical or DVD/video distribution can be based on any combination of factors. Witkins says that he saw the gay romance Eban and Charley at the 2000 festival and clinched the deal because his mother liked it so much.

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