We Want Our "Dykeback Mountain"

Staff June 27, 2006

Fifty queer women crowded into a room at San Francisco’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender community center last week and watched four lesbians exchange numbers with one another. During that exchange, if there was one attitude the four women shared with their size-queen brothers, it was the consensus that no matter how good you are, you still need to be big to get noticed.

Despite the crossover success of television shows like "The L Word," lesbian-themed stories have yet to bring in their own "Brokeback" mounds of money. In a panel titled "We want our "Dykeback Mountain," lesbian directors, producers, and writers Guinevere Turner, Angela Robinson, Jamie Babbit, and Lisa Thrasher discussed why it was so difficult for lesbian features to get made and do well at the box office. General sexism, lack of studio leadership, and poor marketing strategies by companies clueless about gay audiences were among a few of the factors explored.

The filmmakers were in town for Persistent Vision, a conference examining the state of queer cinema and held in conjunction with Frameline30, San Francisco’s International LGBT Film Festival. Celebrating what it billed as three decades of revolutionary film, the festival wrapped on Sunday.

"I think we all experience what it means to be a lesbian in the boys’ room," said Guinevere Turner, a story editor and actress on "The L Word." "In some contexts there is a power and a coolness to it in which everyone knows I’m gay so they want to know if they can make slut jokes with you. And I’m like, sure, whatever gets me the job."

Angela Robinson, director of "D.E.B.S.," (2004) agreed. "You sort of eliminate all these other agendas and it’s this ancillary boys’ club where you hang out on the side as long as you’re not threatening to them," said Robinson, whose "Herbie: Fully Loaded" was the top-grossing film directed by a woman in 2005.

But from tree house to box office, the bike trip is not an easy ride for lesbian features. The numbers still demonstrate a classic disparity in earning power between women and men.

"Brokeback Mountain," the highest grossing gay film in U.S. history, brought in $174 million in theatrical distribution. With $34.5 million in comparison, the 2003 film "Monster," which also garnered Academy Award recognition, could be considered the highest grossing lesbian film of all time.

However, panel moderator Lisa Thrasher of the production company PowerUp! questioned the definition of a lesbian movie. While "Monster" featured a lesbian character, this was peripheral to the movie’s serial killer plot. So what makes a lesbian movie "lesbian?" All the panelists agreed it was less about the sexual orientation of the director or of the film’s audience, or even of the identity of the film’s characters. More important was that a gay storyline be central to the film as it was in "Brokeback."

By this definition, this leaves "Kissing Jessica Stein" (2001) as the highest money-making lesbian movie of all time. Its box office intake? About $7 million, demonstrating the panelists’ consensus that men just generally tend to "get more."

"I think it’s a combination of gender and homophobia," said Jamie Babbit, director of "But I’m a Cheerleader" (1999). Her new film "Itty Bitty Titty Committee," a comedy about baby dykes who blow up the Washington Monument, is currently in post.

"I would just like people (to be in the system) who are interested in good stories and who don’t have a lot of fear," she said.

Babbit praised the leadership of James Schamus of Focus Features, a straight white male who possessed a producer’s trifecta of commitment, clout and cash to make "Brokeback Mountain" shine. This, along with the star power of director Ang Lee, gave the project incredible leverage.

But as one audience member commented: "All this is great but it’s back to the man thing. How does it work for us?"

Panelists said one solution was for queer women working within the studio system to not sell out and remain committed to bringing lesbian-themed stories to the screen. But even more critical to this was a leadership that had power to push for followup once the film was done.

"You can make it through post with stars flying, you can get to Sundance with great reviews and a good buzz, but if you don’t follow up with the marketing and the push and the release date