Out With the New: The Evolution of LGBT Film Fests

With unexpected partnerships, mentoring, and restoration projects, Outfest sets the standard high, and movie buffs around the world win.

BY Jeremy Kinser

October 11 2012 3:00 AM ET

A restored still from the 1919 German film Different From the Others, the oldest surviving gay-themed film.

 

The rivalry that frequently rears its head when eastern and western institutions collide was rarely more muted than this past March. That’s when Outfest, the 30-year-old Los Angeles–based nonprofit film organization, announced its partnership with NewFest, New York’s leading LGBT film festival. It’s a conversation that began quietly nearly a decade ago.  “We realized that both organizations were both doing very similar work and we thought if we came together, we could do it more effectively,” says Kirsten Schaffer, Outfest’s executive director. “But at that time, it was logistically just too difficult to make it happen, even though both organizations wanted to.” Eventually, board members at NewFest, stung by the sluggish economy that had made securing corporate sponsors a particular challenge, reached out to Schaffer to continue the dialogue.

It’s been a win-win for both organizations. It has included, among other things, Outfest programming NewFest’s 24th annual festival this past July, which saw NewFest also partnering with the Film Society of Lincoln Center to host the screenings.

“This has proven to be the best thing we could have done,” says Steve Mendelsohn, co-president of NewFest’s board. “It exceeded many of our expectations. We were able to sell out more screenings than in the past. And, most importantly, the feedback that we obtained this year was outstanding. We’re now stronger than before. We are able to attract new audiences, we have new partnerships, and we are planning to be able to present a lot of the other programs that Outfest does on the West Coast.”

The partnership and eventual merger will help rebrand both festivals and establish Outfest as a national organization. Schaffer has long-range plans to take other important elements of Outfest to the East Coast.

Among them is the organization’s mentoring project, OutSet. “Earlier this year, we took 15 young people, ages 16-24, through the program, and they made five short films,” Schaffer recalls. “All five films are really incredible.” Each student-made films screened at Outfest in July, and one of those films, Janella Lacson’s The First Date, won the Outstanding Dramatic Short Film Audience Award.

“That filmmaker also won two different scholarships,” Schaffer says. “She used her film as part of her application to New York University, and she was accepted to the film program there.”

Schaffer is especially passionate about the way another of the nonprofit’s programs has evolved. Outfest’s Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation, which is a collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles, Film and Television Archive, is celebrating eight years of preserving, protecting, and sharing vital LGBT stories for the screen.

The organization will present its annual Legacy Awards in Los Angeles October 13. Schaffer and her team helped secure other passionate cinephiles and influential filmmakers to cochair the event, including Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson, Milk producer Bruce Cohen, and X-Men director Bryan Singer. In a star-studded evening that will see Glee’s Darren Criss present super-producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron with the Visionary Award, another highlight will be the premiere of a restoration of Different From the Others. Directed by Richard Oswald and cowritten by famed psychologist Magnus Hirschfeld, the 1919 silent film is believed to be the only one of a group of gay-friendly movies made during Germany’s Weimar era to escape the Nazis’ destruction. It’s thought to be the oldest gay film in existence.

Depending on the condition of the film, restoration can take from six months to a few years. There are numerous technical elements involved in the process, including cleaning up the prints and soundtracks. There’s also the challenging research element, particularly with an obscure film from 1919. “Pieces of the film are missing, so it’s up to the preservationist to figure out how to do this preservation, how to re-create those pieces that are missing from the film,” Schaffer says.

There’s also the expense. The cost of making a clean, crisp print of a nearly century-old film like Different From the Others will likely approach $125,000.

“When we screened Word Is Out [a 1977 documentary on gay life] a couple of years ago, we brought some young people in to see it,” Schaffer recalls. “After that screening one of the guys said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there were gay people in the ’70s!’ That just proves to me even more how important it is to share that not only were there gay people in the ’70s, there were gay people in the ’10s.”

The Legacy Project is doing more than just restoration. It’s established the largest collection of LGBT films anywhere in the world. There are about 20,000 pieces in that collection, including feature films, documentary footage of Harvey Milk’s speeches, and even film of the first gay pride parades in L.A. and New York.

“We believe that it’s really important for young people to see images of gay people from the early 1900s and to know that we have a long, deep history,” Schaffer says.

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