Gay and lesbian films seek a mainstream audience on their own terms

After your indie movie wins both the Audience Award and the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival, what can you do for an encore? That's easy: You land the opening-night spot at the 2001 Houston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

Such is the route taken by Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the glam-rock, glitter-bedecked, ambisexually celebratory movie musical based on the long-running off-Broadway show created by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask. Hoping to exploit the wildly positive buzz generated last January at Robert Redford's annual winter wonderland for indie cinema, Fine Line Features plans to release the gender-blurry extravaganza in July. The film will open on the art-house circuit, but Fine Line nurses crossover dreams for its small-budget, high-decibel movie, meaning that the distributor fully expects to reach far beyond the usual audience for what might euphemistically be described as "niche-audience fare."

Which, of course, raises the inevitable question: If Fine Line wants Hedwig to make a splash with mainstream audiences, could it be counterproductive to be screened in a niche festival? That is, might a high- profile screening at a gay-oriented fest brand the film as being exclusively for devotees of queer cinema?

Burning rubber: John Cameron Mitchell directs and stars in Hedwig, which is taking a direct road to cult status.
Burning rubber: John Cameron Mitchell directs and stars in Hedwig, which is taking a direct road to cult status.
No holds barred: Kim Longinotto takes a nonjudgmental approach to Gaea Girls, her documentary on Japanese female wrestling, but the sadomasochistic subtext still cannot be denied.
No holds barred: Kim Longinotto takes a nonjudgmental approach to Gaea Girls, her documentary on Japanese female wrestling, but the sadomasochistic subtext still cannot be denied.

"Not at all," claims Trask, whose lyrics and music propel the action and illuminate the characters in director-star Mitchell's campy libretto. "Because, look, let's face it -- the only people who know about niche festivals are in the niche.

"I guess it would bother me if Fine Line gave us a list of all the festivals they were going to send us to, and they were all niche festivals. Then I would say, 'You know, you could be missing an opportunity here.' But since that's not the case, you certainly don't want to ignore a niche market that might be particularly interested in your movie. I mean, Hedwig arises out of a certain culture -- a gay culture, a drag culture -- and a certain downtown scene in New York. And you can't ignore that. It's just that you have to engage in a kind of juggling act if you want to reach a broader audience as well."

Indeed, it's often not so much a juggling act as a magic show. And sometimes the magic doesn't work. A case in point: Aimée and Jaguar, Max Färberböck' s lyrically tragic tale of star-crossed lesbian lovers in Nazi Germany, garnered rave reviews and respectable box-office numbers during limited theatrical release in 2000. Even so, the film wasn't deemed sufficiently commercial to play Houston art houses. That's why last March Aimée and Jaguar had its local premiere at the Museum of Fine Arts where, despite being ignored by Houston Chronicle critics, it attracted scads of paying customers for two weekends. "And a lot of the business," says MFA film programmer Marian Luntz, "was repeat business."

Pressed on the subject of box-office expectations, even Trask admits that Hedwig might present a marketing challenge. The film originally was produced for New Line Cinema, distributor of such mainstream product as Thirteen Days, Sugar & Spice and Next Friday. In the wake of Sundance, however, New Line passed Hedwig to its specialty-film subsidiary, Fine Line, which deals primarily with art-house product.

"But that's okay with us," Trask insists. "Fine Line's whole purpose is to start a film at a smaller level, and then grow. New Line's purpose is to start on 2,000 screens and shrink. It's a different business model. And we're not the kind of movie that can be stuck on 2,000 screens all at once."

Given the size of the niche market and the potential for crossover appeal, it's difficult to see how Hedwig and the Angry Inch could avoid turning a profit. Especially since, as Trask confirms, the final budget was "somewhere between $3.5 and $4 million." That was more than enough, the composer-lyricist says, for him and Mitchell to make the movie they wanted to make.

"When budgets get big," Trask says, "the list of rules gets longer. And the number of compromises you have to make gets longer. Because, automatically, you need to start second-guessing your artistic impulses with the thought of what an audience wants."

The fifth annual Houston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival kicks off Thursday, May 24, with a premiere screening of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the MFA. Cesc Gay's Nico and Dani, a Spanish-produced coming-of-age love story, and Thomas Bezucha's Big Eden, a tale of gay romance in small-town Montana, will kick off commercial runs (at the Greenway 3 and the Angelika, respectively) during the two-week festival.

But wait, there's more: More than a dozen other programs of shorts and features have been selected to unspool at DiverseWorks, Aurora Picture Show, the Rice University Media Center and the MFA.

Among the highlights (all reviews by Joe Leydon unless noted):

Gaea Girls -- By turns humorous and horrifying, and sometimes both at once, this overly long but ineffably fascinating documentary drops us deep into the world of Japanese female wrestling. Grizzled vet Chigusa Nagayo, a champ grappler who looks like she could bitch-slap Godzilla, is scarier than anything this side of Boot Camp as she verbally and physically brutalizes the young wanna-bes at her training facility. Some of her students crumble under the pressure and take flight. But teary-eyed Saika Takeuchi, seemingly the least qualified in the class, doggedly endures the pain and embarrassment of repeated ass-whippings. Why? She wants "to be someone" and "stand out" in the ring. Or maybe she likes to be mistreated? Directors Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams take a scrupulously nonjudgmental approach to their subject matter, but the sadomasochistic subtext is discomfortingly apparent. (7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 26; and 9:30 p.m. Monday, May 28, MFA)

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