When John Ramirez and Stuart Timmons started an on-campus gay film festival at UCLA in 1979, they would not have been able to imagine that, 41 years later, it would be showcasing the work of queer filmmakers right in the living rooms of people around the world.
Known since 1994 as Outfest, the festival was officially founded (under the accurate but unwieldy name of “The Gay and Lesbian Media Festival and Conference”) in 1982 and has been a fixture in the cultural life of LGBTQ Los Angeles ever since. Now grown into a non-profit global arts, media and entertainment organization, it not only continues to offer two annual world-class queer film festivals in LA every year (Outfest and Outfest Fusion, which highlights diversity in the LGBTQ community by featuring the work of people of color), but lives up to its stated mission – to “create visibility to diverse LGBTQIA+ stories and empower storytellers, building empathy to drive meaningful social change” – through mentorship, education programs, a screenwriting lab, workshops, fellowships, a robust Young Filmmakers Project and more.
In addition, the organization partners with the UCLA Film and Television Archive for a Legacy Project, the only program in the world dedicated to the archiving and restoration of LGBTQ films, which has to date established a collection of more than 41,000 items “and growing.”
As if all that important work were not enough, Outfest has expanded itself once more by taking on another operation – and in so doing, has also expanded its reach by entering the quickly proliferating industry of streaming entertainment.
Outfest Now, which launched Oct. 20, is the festival’s very own streaming platform, touted in their official description as “a year-round, always-on destination to meet the increasing demands for fresh storytelling with new perspectives within the LGBTQIA+ community.” What that means is that subscribers get access to a “carefully curated collection” of feature-length and short-form narrative and documentary films, episodic series, and exclusive conversations. It represents a creative vanguard of queer voices along with a celebration of the community’s legacy.
What it also means – and what makes the new platform significant – is that Outfest has made itself accessible to global audiences. For the first time, the content the organization offers can easily reach viewers anywhere, bringing stories, both true and fictional, that express diverse LGBTQ experiences from all across the community and elevate the visibility of many unrepresented identities and voices. Much of this material never finds commercial distribution; it makes a tour of the festival circuit and then struggles to self-market in the digital world, never gaining the opportunity to reach many of the viewers that might need to see it most. Outfest Now changes that dynamic and bridges the gap, which is good for the film artists, whose work becomes available to a much-expanded audience. And because they get to see that work, which they would otherwise never have seen, it’s good for the audience, too.
There’s another benefit embedded in the deal, as well, and it’s arguably the most important of all in terms of long-term effect. As the first mission-driven platform of its kind, Outfest Now’s revenues go directly to Outfest itself; that means anyone who subscribes will be helping to support and sustain the festival’s year-round programs – including its work in promoting and enabling the work of LGBTQ+ film artists around the world, in nurturing and enabling the talent of new and exciting LGBTQ+ storytellers, and in preserving and archiving the legacy of queer cinema for future generations.
As Outfest Executive Director Damien S. Navarro puts it, “By subscribing, you are giving back while also gaining access to an ever-rotating exhibition of the best in queer cinema, television, music, stage and digital content – all handpicked for you, by one of the most renowned organizations in the world.”
Such support is more vital to the organization now than ever, perhaps. Like all non-profit arts organizations, Outfest has been hard hit by the COVID crisis. Thanks to digital technology, the organization’s 2020 summer film festival in Los Angeles was able to go on, as scheduled, through virtual presentations and a handful of socially distant live events (such as drive-in screenings), but with no end in sight and no certainty of how the long-term disruption of a global shutdown will impact the future of film and television content, shoring up support for the future is essential.
The organization’s director of digital strategy, Tarah Malhotra-Feinberg, stresses the importance of staying ahead of the curve, telling us, “Outfest is doing vital work to increase representation, access and visibility across underrepresented and marginalized communities, which is more important than ever right now. Outfest is embracing technology and innovating its business model; that’s why we continue to lead during the pandemic.”
She also points out, “These aren’t just great queer stories. This is some of the best content I’ve ever seen, full stop.”
Outfest Now offers subscriptions on either a monthly or annual basis. It’s affordable ($5.99 a month, with a 10 percent discount on the yearly option), at a time when many potential audience members might be keeping a careful watch on their budget, and it includes not only access to a year-round selection of content from Outfest’s diverse library of short and feature film titles, but also episodic series, curated collections, and live streamed events – such as conversations with creators, casts and crews every Tuesday, and watch parties every Thursday, “presenting a year-round supplement to the content that is sorely lacking in the community,” according to Outfest’s official publicity. Subscribers can customize their own experiences with a personalized watch list, on-demand viewing, the ability to download for offline viewing and the same kind of simple navigation that has come to be expected as standard for any leading streaming service.
Among the major film titles available on launch are the critically acclaimed, BAFTA-nominated “God’s Own Country,” Outfest LA’s 2017 winner “Saturday Church” (starring Indya Moore and Mj Rodriguez of “Pose”), Jonathan Lisecki’s Spirit Award-nominated “Gayby,” and the Emmy-nominated series “Razor Tongue,” created by and starring Rain Valdez. In addition, there are curated film collections grouped under such categories as “Family Matters,” “Coming Out and Coming of Age,” “Brief Encounters,” and – just in time for your seasonal entertainment pleasure – “HallowKWEEN.”
While it’s true that the selection available at launch might seem a bit slim in comparison to streaming giants like Amazon and Netflix, there are plans to “exhibit an ever-growing rotation of contemporary as well as historical works,” in the words of Farhaad Virani, Outfest board member and Associate General Counsel at Amazon Studios, so subscribers can rest assured that a steady stream of new and exciting queer content will be coming their way each month.
If you’re looking for a full listing of the line-up available, you can find it by going to the platform’s website – outfestnow.com – and clicking on “browse.” While you’re there, you can find out more details about Outfest and its mission.
And, of course, you can also subscribe, making yourself an official supporter of one of the most respected and influential LGBTQ+ film festivals in the world, right from the comfort of your own couch.