June 04, 2021
Online Originals

Out in Front

Nearly 40 years along, Outfest brings LGBTQ content home

"Creating change, one story at a time."

That's the tag line of Outfest, the organization that for nearly 40 years has brought LGBTQ films and film festivals to America. This year, they are adding the OutFronts, as well, focusing on LGBTQ stories on television.

In a five-day festival, June 4-8, the organization will host panel discussions and screenings from television programs from Star Trek: Discovery to RuPaul's Drag Race, focusing on the stories we tell and the stories that affect us all.

Kerri Stoughton Jackson, Deputy Director of Outfest, puts it this way, "Our mission has been "changing people's hearts and minds, one story at a time." But it is about seeing somebody else's life. We're even talking about it, as we all know, within our own community.

"You see a story that isn't our own. And you find our place in that story, either a greater level of compassion, or a walk in someone else's shoes, whatever that entry point is.

"This last year, when we all have been at home, it has been, whether it's our television that is on any of these networks, or these streaming services, coming into our home. I have a kid and we had a very little TV policy. That's slightly changed during COVID, and we're getting back to the right standards.

"But that said, how often are we eating our food, meals in front of TV? Or just that thing that then inspires a conversation, whether that's with a partner, within our own selves, with our kids, that changes that conversation. For forever."

Mike Dougherty, Director of Festival Programming, explains the origin of the OutFronts as an outgrowth of the long-standing Outfest, "You know, we, in the film festival - and our film festivals, both Outfest Fusion and Outfest Los Angeles - we often include things that are from the episodic world.

"But it's very particular, to what's coming up at that time and what works for the festival. But there is so much representation on television now, that we don't get to highlight within that festival world. And the idea initially, had come, that The OutFronts would be part of one of the film festivals.

"But as I said, so much content is out there now that represents queer and trans people that it just started to look like it was going to balloon into its own animal, it's its own festival, really. And the hope was to do it.

"You know, the idea had come, prior to pandemic, to do it as an in-person thing. But during the pandemic when we invented our new streaming panel, our streaming service Outfest Now, we decided to start doing programming in Pride Month to really highlight that service.

"And this year, coming around, we thought, hey, we've been wanting to do this OutFronts event. And we have so much talent that is available to do panels from the comfort of their homes. So we made this our flagship Pride event. So we started reaching out and we were hoping, at the start, to have 8 to 10 panels. And just the more we asked, the more people were into it. And it grew, and grew into this 20 panel event."

Stoughton Jackson adds, "I think, a piece that I'd love to sort of, piggyback on Mike around, is that this is our 39th year. Next year is going to be our 40th anniversary year at Outfest. And Outfest Los Angeles, our summer festival, and Outfest Fusion, both have been a place where queer television content before has come to both get their approval on some level. But also to sort of get the buzz rolling.

"And so, way back in the day, Ugly Betty, came with their entire cast to Outfest Los Angeles, [as well as] Brothers and Sisters, Glee. We did an entire Glee panel, all of Transparent's episodes, when their seasons first aired, we got a sneak preview of each of those first season shows during Outfest Los Angeles, and a conversation with the entire cast. And for all five of those years.

"And so, I think, what's great is, to Mike's point, is that it's been a confirmation of how people see that our organization as a place that, one, has enough of a queer following. And our programming staff team has done such a good job over the years of curating truly, the most prestigious LGBTQ content. And albeit, largely in film, that television for years has kind of come to us to say like, 'oh, include us.' This is a place to be.

"And what's great about it is, I mean, you nodded your head with Ugly Betty, or Brothers and Sisters. It used to be that it was like, just Ugly Betty, and just Brothers and Sisters, but now we're at this place where we've got 17 shows. And we could have done more, if we had had more time, frankly. This is a great inaugural year. And I am super excited for what this is going to look like as we continue to move forward.

"And we've had some incredible response particularly, to some of the shows, in the way that we were hoping, in  the way fans respond, that I can only imagine what this is going to look like live, in the future. And so we are very excited for where this is headed, and for what we're going to be able to do."

The year of the pandemic also both helped and hurt the pursuit of new ways of reaching people and telling stories. Dougherty says, "[For] important events like this, [speaking virtually] certainly the way everybody has been doing their press and talking about their shows. It certainly helped then, to be able to put such a robust lineup together for this inaugural season.

"And it's really exciting, people just being available in their homes to join the conversation. The panels that we've recorded already, I think, it creates a more relaxing environment for people to talk about what they want to talk about.

"So in that way, it's helped. I mean, obviously, I miss these panels having an audience Q&A component, and hearing the raucous applause, and cheers and laughter that come from great moments in the conversations. There are parts of some recordings I watched, and I was like, 'man, I wish the audience was watching that when she said that.' That'll be the exciting thing for round two of the OutFronts."

In addition to the festivals and panels, Outfest has developed a program to help young people who want to be a part of the film and television industries. Called Outfest Forward, it is the educational arm of the organization.

As Dougherty explains, " There's Outfest Forward, which is our educational program's umbrella. And then, beneath that is Outset, which is basically the young filmmakers project. It's a film school for filmmakers, 16 to 24, I believe is the age range. That's in partnership with the LA LGBT Center.

"And every year they choose, I believe, it's 8 to 12 fellows, in that program, where they have weekly sessions with mentors, and teachers who give lectures, and advice on different aspects of filmmaking."

Stoughton Jones adds, "Our screenwriting lab program has been going on for over a quarter of a century now. And we have annually, over 200 submissions that come in from screenwriters, across the world, to attend what had previously been a three day lab, here in Los Angeles. We pick - we had, up until this year, or up until COVID, let me say it that way - we had picked five scripts, that then had three full day workshops.

"They each were given a mentor, agents, development executives, et cetera, came in for panel discussions. Each of the scripts were read by five other people within the industry, to give notes. And then we would do a reading of a scene from each of the scripts at Outfest Los Angeles. And then a number of those films have gone on to be made into feature films, a few of them premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.

"One of them was Peru's foreign language submission for the Oscars one year. And then people have also used that to get them other writing jobs, or that kind of thing - have filled in a lot of writers' rooms. You know, we've seen a lot of our lab fellows that have subsequently gone on to being a lot of television writing rooms.

"A few years ago, we opened up. It previously had been just four years ago, we opened it up to both episodic and screenplays for the lab. And then, this past year, we took nine scripts, 10 fellows, nine scripts - because there was one that was, or there were two that were co-written. So it's 11. There were 11 cohorts.

"And we did it virtually. It was a five day program. Again, similar sort of set up, where they each had met with multiple mentors on their script alone. And then had these group meetings with different aspects of writing and in Hollywood, whether that's development team, what it's like to be in a writers' room, how do you best pitch your stories, you know, all of those kind of elements come together.

"And we will be doing a reading of those scripts at this year's Outfest Los Angeles, which we're super excited about."

The program also celebrates diversity, as Stoughton Jones, says, "The submissions are still open. Netflix is on as a sponsor of the screenwriting lab, along with EFILM. The great thing that Netflix has come on to do, is they are providing waivers, because you pay a submission to submit your film. They are providing a number of waivers for people to be able to submit if they can't afford it due to they didn't get jobs during COVID, or that kind of thing.

"Or, also, to be honest, a lot of why Hollywood has been a white man's game is because they've had the financial ability, whether it's from families or in life to afford those opportunities.

"And so we're constantly looking at how are we best, one, promote the diversity of voices that are within our own community and the world at large. And, but also, how do we, with our partners, how are we able to create greater equity, and what those opportunities are.

"And so we're really thrilled that Netflix has come on board in this way. And, in fact, are offering this year, two fellowship - two $5,000 fellowships to two of the writers. Again, because you might need to take time off to attend the workshops, this could give some people a month or two to just really focus on their writing.

"Once they're gone through that lab to get the script where it needs to be, we are super excited about that kind of support."

And the support will continue through Outfest and, now, the OutFronts. As Stoughton Jones says, "All of the television shows and streaming shows that we're doing for OutFronts are under our OutFronts' umbrella. And, as Mike mentioned, they are being hosted on our Outfest Now channel.

"So it's all within this Outfest - the Outfest is the uber organization family."

To participate in the OutFronts or Outfest, visit Outfest.org.

More articles celebrating Pride Month.

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