Conversations: Paul Allen of ImageOut
By Susan Jordan
Rochester’s ImageOut Film Festival celebrates its 25th anniversary this fall. The Empty Closet recently spoke with Board Chair Paul Allen about the past, present and future.
ImageOut was founded in 1992 by Larry Champoux, following an LGBT convention called Purple Hearts and Pink Flamingos. Larry and others screened movies during the convention and there was a clear excitement in the community for gay-themed cinema. Twenty-five years later, the Festival draws around 6,000 people, and this year includes 65 films from 20 countries.
Paul Allen notes, “Larry has talked about how the early ‘90s were a time of cultural tumult. There was a lot of activism connected with AIDS, like ACT UP. The arts were being defunded – art in itself is political.”
What do the early ‘90s tell us now? Paul said, “That time was the watershed for the LGBT community. It was clear there was a hunger for films that featured gay people. Larry was at Pyramid Arts Center and had connections with NYSCA (NYS Council on the Arts). There were an active arts community in NYC who were looking with horror at what was happening in Washington DC and wanted to take a stand for gay voices. When Larry went to NYSCA and had a chat with his contact about getting funding for lesbian and gay films in Rochester, the climate at the state level was very receptive.
“He secured the funding and people came out to see the movies. This didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened with the support of local people in Rochester and people in NYC – the heart of the LGBT art world. And there was a crop of gay movies to watch. The New Queer Cinema emerged in the early ‘90s and was global. For me personally in Australia, I started college in 1991 and I saw some of these same movies. One of my favorites was the lesbian movie ‘Go Fish’, which was fabulous and ground-breaking. The really radical thing was simply films about how people really lived their lives.”
ImageOut got its name in 1996, although it was born in 1993 as a program of the Gay Alliance. Paul said, “It was really born out of the Gay Alliance. In 1993 people in Rochester were ready for this and Larry got the Alliance to agree to make the Festival a program. For example, in The Empty Closet for October 1993 you can see that first Festival program, while in December there’s a review of the first Festival.
“A festival is a lot of work and quickly other people stepped up to help, such as David Emert and Susan Soleil. They really professionalized how the festival was run – as Larry says, ‘it’s a professional organization run by amateurs.’ Then there were money tensions between the GAGV and the Festival, eventually leading to a split. That put the Festival in danger as far as surviving as a non-profit. Fortunately the Rochester Gay Men’s Chorus took us under their wing – they were our fiduciary to secure state funding in our gap year. The Festival got non-profit status at the end of 1995, and 1996 saw the first Film Festival with the ImageOut name.”
Although the Festival drew 5,700 people in 2016, Paul says that 2010 was so far the year of peak attendance. He comments, “When we were coming up, this was the only place you could see LGBTQ films. As we all know, these films are widely available online and streaming. In the face of these cultural changes, the ImageOut board had to ask, why have a film festival? We think the answer is community building. Coming together in a dark theatre and watching together as a community – I think that’s what makes people come back. That’s the key thing that ImageOut offers the Rochester LGBTQ community.
“In those early years the festival was called the Rochester Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival and there was not a lot of trans content. We’ve had trans patrons and volunteers from the beginning, so it was distressing not to be able to offer them stories that could reflect their lives the way we were able to do for gay men and lesbians. I would say that in the last five years we’ve seen some really great programming that allowed us to claim to really be LGBT.
“In that same spirit our programmers are deliberate in selecting films that can truly represent the community, especially promoting movies made by people of color and women, who we know face the most barriers getting their films made and distributed.
“Also we’ve made an effort to push production companies to include captioning with their films so the Deaf community and hard of hearing people can enjoy the films. It’s important for accessibility and we have to pressure the companies to add captioning.”
What does the future hold? Paul said, “Most the video people (especially young people) watch today is YouTube or other online and streaming formats. There’s been an amazing explosion of non-traditional formats like web series. So that’s how younger people consume LGBTQ-themed media. I see a future role for ImageOut in curation and making people aware of what are the best LGBTQ video content is and getting people together to enjoy and discuss it. The barriers to making interesting video have tumbled because the technology is in everyone’s phones. Like what we saw with Vine, especially minority filmmakers are using this to get their stories out.
Meanwhile feature films are not on the Festival Circuit the way they have been in past years. After a debut at a big festival a lot of movies quickly cut distribution deals that pull them out of festivals like ImageOut. In Rochester we might get to see them during a theatrical run at The Little, but otherwise it’s online only. That is super for accessibility but maybe not so great for film makers to build up a relationship with their audience.
“In some ways this ties again back to ImageOut continuing as a festival as long as people are interested in coming out to see films, and want to be with others in a theatre rather than watching at home alone.”