Out On Film and COVID-19

When Georgia Voice publisher Tim Boyd asked if I’d be interested in being the guest columnist for this edition, I hesitated for a moment. My head said I was much too busy to take on another task, especially during my busiest time of the year, but my heart said I really wanted to do it.

Movies have always been a huge part of my life. Growing up in Milledgeville, I was a teenage boy with low self-esteem, few close friends and a home life that was scary. I was a loner with a secret I knew one day I’d have to deal with. I knew I was gay and most everyone did, but it took a while to find the confidence to be myself. Movies became my escape. I will never forget the experience of seeing a movie on the big screen for the first time at the Campus Theater, a beautiful cinema within walking distance of my grandmother’s house. It’s now gone. A bookstore is in its place now, but the theater shaped my life.

At UGA years later, I found a tribe of people who loved movies as much as I did. Soon I was with the university group that helped bring movies to campus. Now, decades later, programming is what I do for a living now. I’ve been serving as the festival director of Out On Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival, since 2008, and it’s about as perfect a job fit as I could ask for.

Like most everybody, I had grandiose plans for 2020. My husband and I were planning a trip to Paris. Professionally, I was planning the best Out On Film year in our history, after the big news we had earlier this year that we had become an Oscar qualifying film festival. Then COVID-19 hit and changed everyone’s lives. I spent much of March in utter disbelief and fear about what was happening. Some self-pity slipped in as well.

After a while, I realized how fortunate I was to be healthy and to have an organization that (at least for now) is financially stable. I also realized that the show goes on. We could still do a festival, just one that looked different. Our top priority during this time, however, was the health and safety of our patrons. Many of our brothers and sisters are dealing with compromised immune systems. As such, Out On Film has opted for a virtual film festival, save for a 40th anniversary drive-in screening of “Fame” on October 3. It doesn’t allow for in-person interaction, but there are many advantages. Patrons have a larger window of time in which to watch a movie, and the shift to online gives us greater access to filmmakers around the world.

I love seeing movies in a movie theater, and I have hope that we’ll get back to that point soon. The online component, though, is one that will have to stay with us beyond this year. It’s important for us all to be able to adapt and do what is best for audience members.

Although movies have always been an escape for me, I never really saw that many LGBTQ people on screen while I was growing up. There were a few here and there, but inevitably those characters had to die or lead tragic lives. It’s truly refreshing to be in an era now where LGBTQ people can have happy endings.

Our mission with Out On Film has always been to represent the community we serve and reflect as much diversity and inclusivity as we can. We also want to show positive experiences of the LGBTQ experience. We work very hard at that. We are in an era where this is more representation, but there’s still some work to do to reflect us all.

Out On Film is lucky in that we have been able to adapt and pivot what we have to offer. I hope that you will be able to join us and take advantage of the next 11 days — September 24–October 4 — and see great films from around the world, as well as listen in on conversations with the likes of Margaret Cho, screenwriter Kevin Williamson, Del Shores, Alexandra Grey and many more. Movies let us all see ourselves on the big screen. Movies bring us all together and make us laugh, cry, scream and feel alive and happy. After the year we’ve had, we all need that.