Outfest 2004

July 8, 2004 If They Only Knew: Gay Directors & Teen Comedy
Outfest steamed into the DGA for its 22nd year, with its message of cinematic diversity louder than ever before. With sponsors such as HBO, Avis, Tylenol, Verizon and Evian, this year's Outfest was once again a clear voice for diversity at the movies. The unity of purpose was reflected in events scattered throughout the 12-day festival, for instance: honoring longtime indie filmmaker and Academy Award-nominee Todd Haynes; closing with the new film adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham's (The Hours) novel, A Home at the End of the World; and a DGA-sponsored seminar probing the trend of gay directors working in the teen comedy genre.

Moderated by Independent Directors Committee, West member Jamie Babbit (But I'm a Cheerleader), the "If They Only Knew" panel included DGA members Arlene Sanford (A Very Brady Sequel), Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.), Sara Sugarman (Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen) and Jim Fall (The Lizzie McGuire Movie), as well as the director of the current indie hit Saved, Brian Dannelly.

Robinson, whose indie film D.E.B.S. led to her landing the directing assignment for Herbie: The Love Bug for Disney, spoke about a convergence of cultures in the industry where "gay, pop and teen sensibilities" are merging at the studios in a hybrid that fits Hollywood's appetite for youth-driven films.

Babbit questioned whether studio executives, subliminally or otherwise, "marginalize" gay and women directors by assuming they can handle teen comedies, but not big-budget action fare or serious adult dramas. "Do you guys feel, always getting these kinds of scripts, that this is an infantilizing of gay directors; that the studio mentality stereotypes our abilities as filmmakers?"

Sanford, Sugarman and Fall didn't think so; they cited "economics" as the main reason why gay directors, many of them first-time independents, are offered teen comedies. "These kinds of movies have low budgets," Sanford explained. "The studios want to make them for $10 million-$15 million and recoup their money in the DVD market. They can pay first-timers scale or near scale and save themselves a lot of money. I don't think they make a conscious decision to target gay directors."

Arlene Sanford spoke eloquently of finding her own passion for material that can often be seen as formulaic. "The Brady movie, for me," Sanford described, "was about finding your own family, which is, subliminally, what we all do as gay people. When I sold the film that way, I wasn't thinking: that's what all gay people do. I was filled with passion and emotion for a story theme I could connect to. And that's what got me the job."

Sounding a note that seemed to echo throughout the panel, Brian Dannelly said he approached all his work from a very personal place as a "human being first," and not necessarily as a gay director with an agenda. "I did have certain goals on Saved, which were to make a mainstream film with subversive ideas and elements about how gays are treated at a Christian high school," Dannelly said. "But that came from my own experience. That was my inspiration when I sat down to make this movie."

Sara Sugarman agreed, insisting that the teen stories gay directors tell come down to individual choices, not sexuality. "I don't have the right to cross genres simply because of my sexuality," Sugarman concluded. "Why should a studio let me direct a huge action film if I've shown no evidence I can do that? I have to understand that if I choose to do a teen comedy, then I'll probably get offered loads more teen comedies. At the end of the day, I don't think it's about your sexuality. I think it's about your responsibility as a storyteller and the choices you make."

Luncheon at Pinot Hollywood

Outfest filmmakers gathered at Pinot Hollywood for a welcoming luncheon hosted by DGA African-American Steering Committee Co-Chair Loretha Jones. Independent Directors Committee, West (IDC) members Charles Burnett, Rick King, Robert Young and Elias Merhige, as well as Guild members Darren Stein, David Moreton and Sara Sugarman, were in attendance. Jones urged Outfest filmmakers to seek out the Guild members as "colleagues who can provide tremendous resources" for their fellow independents. "Let's face it: directing movies is a really hard job," Jones said. "Most of the time we have this vision but not a clear path of how to get there and the Guild is a community of directors who helps you through those questions."

Jones talked forcefully about her own background and how the DGA's relevance early in her career seemed far away. "I was a filmmaker and a lawyer in New York working on projects with budgets far below what I assumed the DGA would cover," Jones said. "But over the past few years I've seen the Guild make a huge difference in my life; from protecting my creative rights to tracking down residuals that were owed to me from making a film under a Guild contract. Every DGA director in this room can tell you about a residual check showing up at their door when they least expected it and most needed it."

When Jones announced that the Guild had led the charge to provide same-sex health benefits, the filmmakers burst into spontaneous applause. "Those benefits have meant a lot to my spouse and me and our family over the last 15 years," she noted.

David Moreton was equally effective as Jones in conveying Guild pride. He ticked off the landmark points of his resume, beginning with the Outfest hit, Edge of Seventeen, which launched his career and membership in the Guild.

"It was really a dream come true to join the DGA," Moreton said. "It was this professional stamp of approval and I felt like I had achieved a major goal in my life." Moreton talked about his latest film, Testosterone [playing in Outfest this year]. "It was shot in Argentina and was made under the Guild's low-budget agreement. It was a very flexible situation where they waived the 1st AD requirement because we weren't able to find someone who spoke fluent enough Spanish, with the time and money we had," Moreton said. "When we returned to Los Angeles for a week of shooting, we used a DGA 1st AD named George Bamber, who had worked on large budget movies. He was invaluable in getting the film completed. The DGA and Outfest are both fantastic organizations," Moreton said. "They're all about a like-minded community of filmmakers who truly want to help each other out."

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