On Local Tent-poles and Virtual Tents: LGBT Film Fests After the Downturn

Curator's Note

Gathering, ironically, beneath banners publicizing Absolute Vodka’s support of queer programming, directors from the biggest LGBT film festivals in the U.S.—Outfest, Frameline, and New Fest—commiserate. The year is 2009 and the American economy is in mid-nosedive. In response, the members of this Sundance roundtable glumly assess the “future” of LGBT film festivals. Queer film fests (and, as Outfest’s Kirstin Schaffer points out, festivals more broadly) face downsizing and major readjustments; they’re losing vital advertising sponsorships and in some cases, government funds.

LGBT film festivals went through a massive period of growth in the 1990s due to community organizing, volunteerism, and donation but also buoyed by commercial interests, which began targeting a gay consumer demographic with disposable income. The influx of corporate funding to LGBT events plateaued in the 2000s and then, as these panelists discuss, it dipped.

Within this changing financial landscape, leaders like Schaffer (featured here) predict the need for rethinking exhibition models that previously defined these festivals. What does it mean for LGBT festivals to showcase more tent-pole features, choosing high-production value films geared toward maximizing ticket sales and broad appeal? Unfortunately, films of interest to minorities within the LGBT community will get less play in actual exhibition spaces. By packing attendees into supersized auditoriums and relegating less mainstream fare to virtual venues, these new festival strategies polarize LGBT media exhibition between the local, large-scale event and the individualized, online interface.

Replacing theater screenings with online presentations does not necessarily *simply* represent a negative trend for festivals. Traditionally, LGBT film festivals have brought local community members and media makers together “in the flesh” in bracketed places and times, complete with Q&A sessions and (sometimes vodka-heavy) after-parties. Expanding to online venues arguably allows festivals to showcase a broader variety of films and provide access that transcends geographic borders, transforming the relevance of festivals beyond annual, single city events and allowing for snowball-style consumption through sharing.

What distinguishes the “virtual festival” from any other site streaming video? Clearly, the most popular LGBT festivals have themselves become brands. Their stamps on online films mark off officiated “picks” from self-curated work on YouTube, Vimeo, or Kickstarter, lending works cultural clout and further reach. These shifting curatorial goals and modes of festival exhibition, arguably necessitated by the economic downturn, surely impact local viewing environments in questionable ways, however they also represent alternative and potentially rich possibilities for consumption.

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