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Film The Inside Out Film Festival’s game-changing plan for LGBTQ cinema

Andria Wilson, Executive Director for the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival, photographed in and around 401 Richmond St., on May 6 2019.

Fred Lum

In one sense, the Inside Out Film Festival is huge. With 11 days of LGBTQ-focused screenings and an annual attendance of about 35,000, the not-for-profit organization is, after TIFF and Hot Docs, Toronto’s third-largest film festival in a city drowning in such events. In another, more practical sense, Inside Out is tiny. So much so that there is no ideal space in its downtown office to conduct a comfortable interview. But size, in these traditional definitions, doesn’t matter much to executive director Andria Wilson.

“We’re also the third-largest LGBTQ film festival in the world, and the largest one in Canada, and that’s been true for a very long time. But the question during my first year was: What does that size really mean?” says Wilson, now seated in a nearby café, a few weeks before this year’s festival kicks off May 23. “What is our responsibility to our community, to the industry? It’s not just about trajectory in terms of number of films or attendance, but about other kinds of growth. What can Inside Out do that isn’t being done elsewhere, and what needs can we meet for our filmmakers and audiences?”

Now in her third year leading Inside Out, Wilson is ready to answer those questions. For its 2019 edition, the festival is rolling out its most ambitious efforts to date, complete with not only an impressive variety of films (from the blockbuster-in-waiting Rocketman to a host of mid- and micro-budget productions) but also an embrace of industry initiatives that aim to help LGTBQ cinema grow outside the confines of the festival’s 11 days.

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Last month, Inside Out announced that it was partnering with Netflix on a four-year commitment to support LGTBQ Canadian filmmakers, including an investment in the festival’s LGTBQ Film Financing Forum (launched in 2017), which gives producers the chance to pitch projects to domestic and international executives. This move comes on the news of last year’s partnership with Telefilm’s Talent to Watch micro-budget production program, and the 2018 launch of Inside Out’s $25,000 RE:Focus Fund, an initiative that provides direct financial support to LGBTQ women and non-binary filmmakers to attend the festival and participate in its programming and network opportunities.

“I remember one of the first times I was at Hot Docs, and they were talking about how many films in the program existed because of funds that they themselves developed. To me, that is where I see Inside Out going,” says Wilson, who joined the organization in the fall of 2016 after co-founding Halifax’s OutEast film festival. “I’d like, at Inside Out’s 30th anniversary next year, to be able to say, ‘This many films in the program happened because of the festival.’ That is more important than, say, adding another 25 films to the lineup or another 25,000 bodies to the audience.”

Wilson is particularly proud of the RE:Focus Fund, which last year covered the travel costs to Inside Out for 23 filmmakers (it’s entirely supported by Martha McCain, who has committed $50,000 to cover the fund for the next two years; the Inside Out team is “currently cultivating other donors” to continue its support). One such filmmaker who benefited from the program was Alyssa Lerner, who attended last year’s festival, participated in the pitch session, won and used those funds to make her short film Bubble, which will premiere at this year’s Inside Out.

“After attending the festival, I felt inspired to use my voice to the fullest extent as a writer and director, and it really kicked off this journey of being a queer woman of colour filmmaker,” Lerner says. “I’d never felt that empowered before, and the support carried me through this whole year of developing my own film.”

The Netflix deal, though, arrives at a tense moment for the film-festival landscape. There was much grumbling, for instance, when TIFF decided to open its 2018 festival with the streaming giant’s historical drama Outlaw King and then showcase seven other Netflix productions. Given that Netflix is not exactly a friend of the theatrical business model – it hasn’t budged much from its position on releasing its films to theatres the same day they’re available to stream online – there is a question as to how much a film festival should support a company seeking to disrupt the entire film industry. (Cannes, for instance, has remained steadfast in boycotting Netflix productions from its lineup.)

“We’re in a unique position because for many groups that are marginalized, you seek out your content wherever you can find it. We haven’t always had theatrical representation options for queer films,” Wilson says. “I don’t foresee a challenge in the same way that the mainstream festivals might experience it, because we’ve always had to be adaptable and excited about having representation in any place that we can. If this partnership leads to more representation, then ultimately that’s what we want.”

On the topic of wider representation, Inside Out’s 2019 audience will find possibly the most diverse programming in the festival’s history, at least in terms of scale. Part of the reason that high-profile productions such as Rocketman and the Mindy Kaling-Emma Thompson comedy Late Night will be mixing with low-budget fare including Wendy Jo Carlton’s romantic drama Good Kisser and Gabrielle Zilkha’s media-representation documentary Queering the Script is how the larger industry landscape is in an especially unpredictable state of flux.

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For its 2019 edition, the Inside Out festival is rolling out its most ambitious efforts to date, including blockbuster-in-waiting Rocketman, which stars Taron Egerton as Elton John.

Photo Credit: David Appleby/The Associated Press

“We’re in such a fascinating and transformational time for our industry. Look at even two years ago, when Sony Pictures Classics wouldn’t give Call Me By Your Name to any LGBTQ film festivals,” Wilson says. “But now, with the success of some queer titles, we’re seeing an understanding opening up about the buying power of the LGTBQ community as a ticket-buying audience. It’s exciting that niche film festivals, which have historically had difficulty securing big titles, are well-positioned right now. We’re used to be not having all those resources behind us, so I see it as a superpositive change.”

But with this embrace of fare across the budgetary spectrum comes the risk of the festival appearing too commercial. The 2016 launch of the Toronto Queer Film Festival – “Queer activism. Queer aesthetics. No corporate sponsors” – can be viewed as a direct rebuke to Inside Out’s embrace of the mainstream.

“Honestly, I have so much space for that, because as a queer person who is very interested in making art and creating possibilities for showcasing art, there’s a lot of different ways that organizations can be part of that mission,” Wilson says in response to the growth of the TQFF, whose fourth festival is scheduled for this November. “I don’t think it’s adversarial: it’s complimentary. We’re extremely lucky and privileged to be in a city like Toronto, where both can be sustained by audiences.”

Don’t expect Inside Out, though, to take a cue from the city’s two other largest film festivals and build a year-round exhibition home such as TIFF’s Lightbox or Hot Docs’ Ted Rogers Cinema. At least not yet.

“I wouldn’t say it’s impossible,” Wilson says. “But I also feel passionately about the power of transforming a space that wasn’t built for you, necessarily, so the fact that we get to do this takeover over the Lightbox for 11 days and see the space filled with a community is a powerful thing. But we’ll see. Where we are right now in terms of the industry, the massive shifts that have happened at the top, we couldn’t have foreseen those three years ago. So three years from now, who’s to say?”

Inside Out runs May 23 through June 2 in Toronto (insideout.ca)

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