Queer Film and the Film Festival Circuit

Curator's Note

Since May 2010, the most prestigious film festival, le Festival de Cannes, has a queer film award, the Queer Palm.  Cannes is not the only A-list festival to highlight queer film.  The "mother" of queer film awards, the Teddy, has been given out at the Berlinale since 1987 to push gay and lesbian films beyond underground and increase awareness both within film industry and general public.  Two decades passed until another A-festival created such a prize: in 2007 the Queer Lion at the Mostra in Venice followed suit. 

The time span of those 20 years – between 1987 and 2007 – encompasses the complex relationship between queer cinema and the film festival circuit.  In the 1980s, in a climate of an active LGBT movement, the production of (independent) gay and lesbian cinema increased and queer film festivals were founded (in North America and Western Europe).  In the festival season 1991/92, innovative, edgy films with a queer note travelled the circuit and won prestigious awards at Sundance, Berlin, Toronto.  This led film critic B Ruby Rich to coin the term "New Queer Cinema," for a wave that quickly became a niche market, helping the proliferation of queer film festivals worldwide and the growth of an unprecedented queer film (festival) ecosystem, with specialized distributors and programmers with their own networks and meetings at larger festivals (Queer Lounge at Sundance; the traditional Queer programmers meeting at Berlinale). 

Why do we need queer film awards now?  Festival awards add value to a film, function as seal of quality, which is used to promote the film, create buzz and audience.  Queer film awards, even as "non-official" festival awards, ideally do the same and add a focus on sexuality/gender within the heteronormative film world.  If they are not discounted as "ghetto awards," they might be a way for arthouse distributors to access an extra market: the parallel queer film festival exhibition circuit.  But: Have queer film festivals started out as arenas of community formation and counter-representation to become another revenue arm for the film industry?


Thanks, Skadi, for opening up these important questions.  Drawing from Virginia's post yesterday in addition to yours, I am intrigued the notion that the structure of the festival works to construct barriers.  Be it auteurism or the ghettoization of minority groups, festivals in their structure may determine what is seen, by whom, and within what context.

But I think your post wants to find a more positive spin on the function of awards.  Which necessarily begs the question--what is the end goal of showing at a festival if not broader distribution?  What has been the success of festival awards in leading to regional or national exhibition opportunities?  Does the parallel queer film festival circuit work towards or against that end?

Does community building inevitably suffer from submitting to the economic realities of the industry? 

So rich, this.

In the fieldwork I've been doing, I've found the tension you both describe to be one of the overwhelming dimensions of the festival project. Perhaps, as Matt suggested, there are some festivals (Cannes, Toronto) where the industry element, and the auteurist bent that often comes with it, baldly predominates. In such contexts, perhaps the imperative to establish a community that understands itself as counter-representative with regard to Hollywood (or mainstream film, if you like) is more or less absent.

But festivals are inherently, I would argue, about community -- the spatial and cultural communities that host them and thereby become something other than what they were prior, the communities of social capital that bring the festival into being via a panoply of individual and collective practices, the communities of "fans" that come to see the festival as "theirs" and increasingly (always) subject to interlopers and poseurs (usually stinking of corporate influence), the communities of wage laborers and volunteers that converge in space and time to produce the ephemeral, etc. Whither a fest positions itself with regard to the mainstream changes little about this general characteristic.

But there is, of course, the delicate matter of authenticity and the value it generates. If a festival (or a comic-con, or an expo) begins as an expression of counter-representation along lines of sexuality, gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, genre, or taste, how can growth occur in such a way as to avoid the (real or imagined) deterioration of that authenticity? At what point does a festival (as is so often lamented with reference to Sundance) sell out?


Skadi, fascinating questions. It raises for me a larger point, which we've all been dancing around here - in terms of critical utility, we presume to gain quite a bit by talking about film festivals along common terms - though we recognize differences amongst types of festivals.

But are we also losing something in that process? You point to a really interesting point of overlap between smaller, community-oriented festivals that have organized to mobilize (or even form) cinematic counterpublics, and the larger capital-F Festivals that serve gatekeeper functions for film culture. But by looking towards these points of intersection, might we also be overlooking the ways that film festivals diverge? If we are thinking about festivals in terms of their ability to organize counterpublics, shouldn't we be thinking more horizontally about patterns of cultural consumption - so that, for instance, it might be more productive to think of Inside Out (Toronto's LGBT fest) alongside the Queer Arts & Culture Festival, rather than the Toronto International Film Festival? Or, by stressing counterpublics, do we only end up affirming the ghettoization of alternative cinemas that you refer to above?

And, of course, there's the ever thorny nature of your closing question - even if we grant that queer cinema has become "another revenue arm for the film industry," is that categorically a bad thing? There was a lot more money sloshing about in the American independent cinema during the 1990s and 2000s than there was previously, in no small part because of its "migration to the mainstream," as Chris Holmlund put it. But that also meant that a lot of films were produced that might not have otherwise...

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