[Editor’s note: With Frameline Artistic Director Michael Lumpkin leaving his post after this year’s San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, SF360.org felt it appropriate to ask an equally storied figure in LGBT film to help mark the occasion. Strand Releasing President Marcus Hu graciously agreed to speak with his old friend Lumpkin about Frameline, queer cinema and the future of this niche festival.]
I’ve worked with Michael Lumpkin from the very inception of our company back in 1989. When Strand Releasing didn’t even have a name yet, and was based out of the Strand Theatre on Market Street, and we didn’t have any funds, Michael figured out way of getting our first film, Lino Brocka’s Macho Dancer secured, helped to take care of the print shipment, helped to deal with the funding necessary to pay Mr. Brocka for the rental. Michael has done so much for GLBT filmmakers, distributors both domestic and globally, that I don’t know how an organization such a Frameline will be able to find another figure head such as him. For me, Michael has seen the rise and fall of the New Queer Cinema, he’s helped bring Vito Russo’s vision to celluloid with Rob and Jeff [Epstein and Friedman]. When Michael started the festival, he was working with short films and a few spare features that might have featured gay content and a few years back he was bringing Ang Lee in to present the San Francisco premiere of Brokeback Mountain. He’s seen the evolution of GLBT cinema and hopefully will still be involved in some degree to our industry.
LGBT cinema owes a lot to Michael’s dedication.
Marcus Hu: How long have you been with Frameline and the festival?
Michael Lumpkin: I started with Frameline in 1979. The first film festival I worked on was in 1980. I left after the 1991 festival to co-produce The Celluloid Closet with Vito Russo, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. I returned to Frameline and the festival in 1995.
Hu: Why did you decide to leave Frameline?
Lumpkin: For a few years I have been wanting some new professional challenges and to use my experience and talents in other ways. It’s been a long and fulfilling time with Frameline, but I feel that I have the next stage of my career waiting for me somewhere out there. I am looking forward to discovering what that will be.
Hu: Prior to Frameline, what was your past experience and what city did you come from before moving to San Francisco?
Lumpkin: I studied film in college and graduate school. In school I discovered that I enjoyed showing other people’s films more than making my own. I think as a filmmaker I would have never lived up to my own standards and that there were many great filmmakers out in the world already.
Hu: What was your proudest moment/accomplishment with the festival and the organization? Please answer if two different answers.
Lumpkin: One Festival screening I am very proud of is our 2002 screening of the new silent film Claire by Milford Thomas with a full orchestra. To see such a complicated and beautiful program come together in the middle of very busy film festival was an amazing accomplishment. I really couldn’t believe that we had pulled that one off.
Hu: Filmmakers can be demanding, you don’t need to name names, but what was the most outrageous request by a filmmaker or situation?
Lumpkin: There was one filmmaker who was so difficult, so demanding and so unpleasant that I actually paid him NOT to come to the Festival for his screening.
Hu: What is your favorite film of all time?
Lumpkin: I hate this question. My answer probably changes every day. Today my answer would be Hitchcock’s 1956 version of because of Doris Day’s breakdown scene when she learns her son has been kidnapped and then Hitchcock’s ending. I really admire how he concludes his films with such efficiency.The Man Who Knew Too Much
Hu: What is your favorite LGBT film of all time and why?
Lumpkin: I hate this question too. OK, Pink Narcissus.
Hu: When you started with the festival, can you give a description of how large the program was and describe the climate of GLBT cinema.
Lumpkin: When I joined Frameline, the Festival was a program of short films that played at two or three venues in San Francisco. This was the model for the first four festivals. In 1981 the festival was expanded to several days and included feature film for the first time. This was also the first year the Festival played at the Castro Theatre.
At that time LGBT cinema was in an exciting time of discovery, both in terms of a global community finding each other as well as reclaiming its past. The emergence of LGBT (at that time ‘gay’) film festivals in the late 1970s began a process of defining LGBT cinema. We were trying to discover what sort of films ‘played’ to a self-defined LGBT audience and in the context of an LGBT film festival. During this time we were looking back at the history of LGBT cinema and the depiction of homosexuality in cinema. This was led by Vito Russo’s work in this area and the publication of his landmark book, The Celluloid Closet.
Hu: In addition to the festival, what other programs have you devised, worked with that you’ve seen grow—the distribution network, the community programs, etc.
Lumpkin: Frameline’s other programs outside of the annual film festival, Frameline Distribution and the Frameline Completion Fund, were direct outgrowths of the festival itself. In the early 1980s as the community of LGBT film festivals and exhibitors interested in LGBT cinema was growing, Frameline recognized the need for a distribution program that offered LGBT films to exhibitors in the US. In the 1980s Frameline released such films as Mala Noche and Trilogy by Terence Davies. As the Festival was growing we also realized that it was working financially, and that by supporting films so that they can be ‘finished’ and available for screening at the festival was of programmatic and financial value to Frameline. Initially Frameline paid for the subtitling of a few foreign language films so that they could be screened at our Festival. We also paid for additional prints of some films if a print was not available for our festival dates. The other motivation for establishing a funding program was the lack of films produced by and for women. Frameline realized that it could have a significant influence by providing direct support to these films and filmmakers.
Hu: Did you ever think you’d work this long with an organization?
Hu: You took a leave of absence to produce The Celluloid Closet, you gave control to Mark Finch, how was that? Can you describe?
Lumpkin: When I had the opportunity to work on The Celluloid Closet, I knew that I would only leave Frameline and the festival if Mark Finch were able to come here and take it over. Mark was working at the BFI in London, and I had known him for several years. Mark had already worked at Frameline for a year working on expanding and professionalizing our distribution program. After a year with us he returned to the BFI, but luckily for me and Frameline I was able to lure him back to run the festival when I left in 1991.
Hu: You were there at the rise of the New Queer Cinema with such filmmakers as Todd Haynes, Rose Troche, Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin and Chris Munch. Have you seen a vibrant renaissance of young emerging talent from the US as that crop of filmmakers from the ’90s?
Lumpkin: The New Queer Cinema happened at a time and in a place that will never be duplicated. Since that time there have been major advances and significant milestones for queer cinema, but that moment was the first time that the collective field felt like we had finally made it and were being recognized by mainstream festivals and mainstream media.
Hu: In the ’70s, ’80s and even the ’90s, GLBT imagery was still limited, today with cable shows and TV that cater directly to a gay audience, has that diminished the interest in having a GLBT festival?
Lumpkin: It has significantly changed the world that LGBT cinema lives in. When Frameline’s film festival began it was one of three film festivals in San Francisco—the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Native American Film Festival and Frameline’s ‘Gay Film Festival’. Now there is at least one film festival up and running in San Francisco every day of the year. So the film festival landscape itself has greatly changed. In terms of LGBT cinema, 32 years ago, gay film festivals, a handful of rep theaters, oh, and a few porn theatres were the only places to see gay films. There were the few feature films that were released now and then, but anytime any gay representation showed up anywhere it was the exception. Today LGBT content is readily available to almost everyone with cable television or a computer.
At the same time LGBT film festivals have flourished, with a festival is almost every large and mid-sized city in the U.S. This would indicate that the expansion of LGBT cinema and outlets for it has not diminished the interest in these festivals. The primary reason is that LGBT film festivals are a very important and valued community-building function for LGBT people. In addition, the commercial film industry was come to realize that for LGBT content, the LGBT audience is very important and that LGBT film festivals are a great was to market to this audience.
Hu: Have you seen a rise in GLBT films and stories globally?
Lumpkin: LGBT film production outside of North America is thriving, and is where some of the more interesting and innovative stories are coming from.
Hu: We’ve worked together on a lot of films during my start in 1989, has working with me been a rewarding or annoying experience for you?
Lumpkin: No comment
Hu: The audience has been a very vocal part of the experience of seeing a film at the Frameline festival, has it ever gotten out of control?
Lumpkin: You tell me.
They have gone over the top a few times, yes, in both good and bad ways. One of the things I am most proud of is the way that our audiences, our community ‘owns’ this festival. They truly feel that it is ‘their’ event. This is a dream position to be in, one that all community and non-profit organizations strive for. It is this ownership that is the foundation for the incredible support Frameline receives in membership, individual donations, government and foundation support as well as corporate sponsorship. The flip side of that community ownership is that they have no problem telling you what they think, especially if they are not happy with something.
Hu: What did you make of the reaction when Frameline screened Frisk? Did it seem unusual? Did you think it was an appropriate film for closing night? Would you have done that?
Lumpkin: I think my initial reaction to that screening was ‘I told you so!’ This was during my time on The Celluloid Closet, but that year I was on Frameline’s Board of Directors. I felt it was a big mistake to screen Frisk as the Closing Film o the Festival that year. It gets back to the ‘ownership’ question as well as appropriate programming. I would have definitely included Frisk in the Festival, but not in a high profile position.
Hu: What has been the most embarrassing moment for you during the festival?
Lumpkin: When I had to go up on stage at the Castro Theatre to pull a drunk Board member off the stage during his introduction of a film.
Hu: Post Brokeback Mountain, have you seen any changes in:
1. The perception of what your audience is looking for in GLBT films.
Lumpkin: It really cemented that yearning for the ‘BIG’ blockbuster, not just in audience’s minds but in those of filmmakers and the industry as well. Not matter how much LGBT cinema advances, changes or is accepted, these blockbuster films will always be very few and very far between. They usually falsely raise everyone’s expectations, which can prevent a lot of smaller projects to suffer.
2. The need for a GLBT festival.
Lumpkin: The answer is in the attendance numbers and the number of festivals now. People are still coming. I feel that the function and purpose has shifted over the decades, and festival organizers need to know and acknowledge who and what they are, not only in the landscape of queer cinema, but also in relation to the film industry.
3. Changes in how filmmakers are making, creating films for gay audiences.
Lumpkin: One significant change which reflects where queer film as an industry is moving is the number of directors who after making their first, and maybe second queer feature films, move into directing television, both queer and non-queer. This reflects how it has become more difficult for larger projects to get made and released theatrically. It also shows how broadcast opportunities for queer content have increased substantially in the last several years.
Hu: What would you like to see change with the festival, with the films, and your audience?
Lumpkin: I think the Festival has found a size and structure that works very well. For Frameline the challenges will be around maintaining the Festival’s leadership role in the field while moving forward with the expansion of the organization’s other programs including exhibition programs outside of the annual Festival.
For the films I would hope to see more queer films breaking out of formulaic structures. It’s part of the very successful industry cycle of the same film being remade over and over because the formula works in terns of box office. Doing something radically different with a tried and true formula, or trying a new formula is where I find the excitement in film.
I feel, and most filmmakers who screen at our Festival feel, that our audiences are the best anywhere. They have made this festival what it is in so many ways. Wouldn’t change a thing.
Hu: How has the festival been performing in the past five years? Have attendance numbers changed?
Lumpkin: For Frameline, the Festival has definitely leveled off in terms of attendance. We experimented with the structure to increase attendance, and for a couple of years we expanded the festival to 18 days. That increased attendance significantly even though there were the same number of films and screenings. After doing that for a couple of years we made a decision to go back to 11 days because the 18-day format felt less like a film festival and was a significant strain on staff having to be in festival mode for an additional week.
Hu: What do you see for the future of the festival after your departure.
Lumpkin: I don’t know what to expect, but I am very curious about what the future of the Festival might be. I feel there is a variety of directions Frameline might take the annual film festival.
Hu: What are your post Frameline plans?
Lumpkin: I plan to continue working in the film industry brining my years of experience to a new festival or new organization.
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