When Out On Film began in Atlanta back in 1987, it was a different world. An LGBTQ film festival was vital then for audiences starving for content – and it remains needed now.

The festival began by a handful of community activists, chief among them Rebecca Ranson. LGBTQ-themed films were brought to town and shown, mostly on weekends. This was long before the days of streaming services or TV stations that regularly host LGBTQ programming, so getting to see depictions of LGBTQ individuals was much rarer.

By 1992, the event had become a week-long festival instead of a weekend one. Ranson was still working on Out On Film under the umbrella of Southeastern Arts and Media Education (SAME) but the event was also co-staged by Southern Voice and Metropolitan Deluxe. Georgia Voice publisher Tim Boyd was involved, as was his partner John Kappers, who founded People Living With AIDS. SAME made a documentary about Kappers, produced by Ranson, that was screened at Out On Film in 1994 titled “About John,” featuring Boyd. Many of these folks remained with the festival until it was taken over by IMAGE Film and Video, later renamed the Atlanta Film Festival. Etcetera Magazine was also involved for many years following the name change.

In 2008, the Atlanta Film Festival decided it was time to devote themselves to one festival a year, not two, and a new team took over, including myself as festival director and my husband, Craig Hardesty, as board chair. That first year was a bit insane determining how to move forward independently but by 2009 Out On Film was ready, producing a spring and fall festival.

The festival has had multiple venues, including Phipps Plaza and the Regal Hollywood 24. It’s now housed at the Midtown Art Cinema, with supplemental venues such the Plaza Theatre, Out Front Theatre Company and occasionally the Phillip Rush Center. Out On Film added a day to its line-up after the new team took over and to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2017, became an 11-day event. It’s now one of the largest LGBTQ film festivals in the country.

Looking back at highlights, one of the films that premiered at Out On Film during 2000 was a small indie called “Sordid Lives,” written by playwright Del Shores. It went on to become a cult classic – especially in the LGBTQ community – and spawned a TV series of the same name and a sequel, “A Very Sordid Wedding,” which is the largest grossing film in Out On Film history. One of the biggest guests was in 2007 when RuPaul – well before “RuPaul’s Drag Race” became a sensation – came down for the film “Starrbooty.”

Since Out On Film made the commitment to programming year-round five years ago, it has been able to offer more collaborations and partnerships. In 2018, in a collaboration with the Decatur Book Festival, Out On Film was able to host an evening with Armistead Maupin, who spoke after a screening of the documentary “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” and was able to talk about the just-announced Netflix reboot of “Tales.” Another successful event outside of the normal Sept/Oct festival was a 50 Years of LGBTQ Cinema film festival with Atlanta Pride to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall.

Every blue moon I get asked why we still need an LGBTQ film festival. People say that they can see LGBTQ-themed films virtually anywhere these days. Why leave the house? The point is that there is nothing to rival the experience of seeing a movie with your community and having it impact you – or meeting the director or star of a film and getting to hang out with them and learn more. It also has to be said that in these scary political times, where we don’t really know what’s around the bend, it’s nice to offer a safe haven where the community can come together.

Those of us who live in gay-friendly areas have places where they can go and be around colleagues and friends who identify as LGBTQ. Yet not everyone has that luxury. Many of our patrons live OTP and aren’t even out to their families or their bosses. When they come to Out On Film, it’s one of the few times they can be around similar people.

Out On Film is something I have been doing since 2008 and it’s the greatest professional challenge of my life. It’s hard work and sometimes it wears me and my team to the bone, but it’s so worth it, especially when you touch people and make them realize that they are not alone.

Thanks to all the pioneers who laid the groundwork before the current team – Ranson, Boyd, Swicord, Kappers, Jack Pelham, Jake Jacobsen, Anne Hubbell, Dave Hayward, Gabe Wardell, Paula Martinez, Dan Krovich, Genevieve McGillicuddy and more. Thanks as well to all the patrons and sponsors who make the festival possible each year.

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