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Moving Gay Films into the Mainstream

Kathy Wolfe, Founder and CEO of Wolfe Video, at her office in New Almaden on Wednesday, June 9, 2010
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Kathy Wolfe, Founder and CEO of Wolfe Video, at her office in New Almaden on Wednesday, June 9, 2010
 
From niche product to broad accessibility, thanks to Wolfe Video

The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association declined to screen “Training Rules,” a groundbreaking documentary about a homophobic college basketball coach, at a coaches’ conference in San Antonio during the women’s Final Four tournament in April. But Kathy Wolfe was not deterred.

Wolfe, the founder and chief executive of Wolfe Video, the company that distributes the documentary, screened it during the conference anyway. Twice.

Over the past 25 years, Wolfe Video has worked to put gay media within mainstream culture. One of the few exclusive distributors of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender films in the United States, the company has helped to bring such award-winning films as “Big Eden,” “Brother to Brother” and “Desert Hearts” before television, movie theater and festival audiences across the country. The company, based in San Jose, currently offers 215 titles under the Wolfe brand, as well as thousands of DVDs from other distributors.

Wolfe Video’s acquisitions are winning major prizes beyond the gay circuit. A recent example is the Peruvian feature film “Contracorriente” (“Undertow”), directed by Javier Fuentes-León, which took home the World Cinema Audience Award in the dramatic category at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film’s emotional homoerotic narrative unfolds on Peru’s stunning coastline, far from the gritty urban landscapes that typically serve as backdrops for gay stories.

Paraphernalia of the many films Kathy Wolfe has distributed in the last 25 years
Adithya Sambamurthy, for The Bay Citizen
https://citizen-media.s3.amazonaws.com/uploaded/images/2010/6/kathy-wolfe-3/original/wolfe12_adi_tbc.jpg?Signature=ItWTyyNQIYI6vNrhnCzO4AX6vsY%3D&Expires=1359072823&AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAICY2ZBGLHCXTSKJA
Paraphernalia of the many films Kathy Wolfe has distributed in the last 25 years
Adithya Sambamurthy, for The Bay Citizen

Wolfe Video distributes 15 to 22 films a year through DVD and video-on-demand, with popular retailers like Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster, Best Buy and iTunes stocking its films. The company currently reaches 185,000 people through its mailing list and grosses $4 million a year.

“The mere existence of Wolfe Video has been incredible,” said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, an advocacy organization. “Inside the gay community, Wolfe films have raised awareness of the reality of our lives and our place in popular culture. They’ve also made gay issues much more visible in the culture at large.”

For these efforts, Wolfe, 62, has become a heroine within the gay community. She has won numerous accolades, including, on June 3, a lifetime achievement award at the New York LGBT Film Festival. On June 22, she will receive the 2010 Frameline Award at the 34th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival for her influence on gay and lesbian filmmaking. The festival runs from June 17 to 27, with screenings at the Castro, Roxie and Victoria theaters in San Francisco and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley.

“Wolfe Video fills an enormous void,” said Jennifer Morris, director of the San Francisco festival. “There just aren’t a lot of distributors who are willing to support solely LGBT filmmakers.”

In the Bay Area, gay and lesbian culture is now very much part of mainstream culture — and gay-themed movies like “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk” are attracting mass audiences worldwide. But for many years, the work of gay filmmakers was virtually invisible beyond niche circles.

Before Wolfe started Wolfe Video in 1985, public screenings of gay and lesbian films were rare. She said that in 1983, when she was living in San Jose, she traveled to San Francisco and spent two hours standing in line to see the 1983 French lesbian film “Entre Nous.”

The 1979 screening of the pioneering gay documentary “Word Is Out” at the Frameline festival inspired her to create her distribution company.

Kathy Wolfe, Founder and CEO of Wolfe Video, at her office in New Almaden on Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy, for The Bay Citizen
https://citizen-media.s3.amazonaws.com/uploaded/images/2010/6/kathy-wolfe1/original/wolfe1_adi_tbc.jpg?Signature=jcTtsP6edgg%2FYWlfOgOkKL4ow4s%3D&Expires=1359072823&AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAICY2ZBGLHCXTSKJA
Kathy Wolfe, Founder and CEO of Wolfe Video, at her office in New Almaden on Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy, for The Bay Citizen

“We are talking about a subculture that was starved of images of itself,” Wolfe said. “I am an entrepreneur, and I saw an opportunity to make a difference.”

At first, the company struggled to break into the mainstream. But when the actress Lily Tomlin asked Wolfe Video to handle five of her movies, including the 1991 film “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” (the company’s first big crossover success), the distributor began to gain traction beyond the gay and lesbian market. Before long, it started forging relationships with mass-market retailers.

Netflix, for example, which started stocking Wolfe Video titles in 1999, today carries more than 80 Wolfe Video films on demand and more than 150 on DVD, out of about 650 gay and lesbian titles. “Wolfe brings quality films to the genre, with good storytelling and high production values,” said Steve Swasey, a spokesman for Netflix.

Gay and lesbian films constitute only a tiny part of mainstream theatrical releases today. “How many Brokebacks and Milks do we get a year?” said B. Ruby Rich, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a writer on gay and lesbian cinema. “One if we’re lucky.”

For all the inroads it has made into mainstream culture, Wolfe Video still experiences pushback from potential customers. Some market segments remain hard to crack.

Airlines are a particular challenge; Air Canada is the only carrier currently screening Wolfe Video titles. But with airlines increasingly enabling passengers to select their own in-flight programming, Wolfe believes it will not be long before other companies climb on board.

She is relentless in pursuit of new avenues for gay and lesbian films.

“I don’t feel like I’ve achieved my goals yet,” Wolfe said. “With the digital world opening up so rapidly, the best of our work is yet to come.”

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