At Tribeca, Queer Films Grow Beyond Niche Audiences

Two years ago when River Gallo began writing the script for his graduate thesis at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, he was surprised to learn he would be a trailblazer: he would become the first intersex director to make a film about an intersex individual.

“It was interesting to me that this is the first time,” said Gallo, whose short film, “Ponyboi,” premiered last weekend at one of the industry’s most revered gatherings—the Tribeca Film Festival.

“A year ago today we wrapped filming,” he told NYCityLens on Saturday. “It’s so surreal that I’m here now.”

The Tribeca Film Festival turns 17 this year, but this is the first time the weeklong event has designated a day for LGBTQIA stories and filmmakers, including intersex and asexual individuals. The Pride celebration on May 4, where a record 14 LGBTQIA-inclusive films premiered, was co-sponsored by the Stonewall Inn, a downtown bar known as the birthplace of the gay rights movement.

“To have Tribeca put on an entire day dedicated to us and their commitment to making sure we are visible and our stories are heard is such an incredible honor,” said Stacy Lentz, co-owner of the Stonewall Inn.

River Gallo’s short film “Ponyboi” about an intersex individual was well received at the Tribeca Film Festival.

For most filmmakers, participating in festivals is a valuable conduit to distributors. “Nobody goes to the festival without an agent or someone representing them who has the ability to herd buyers into the screenings,” said David France, whose documentary “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” premiered at Tribeca in 2017. It was subsequently picked up by Netflix.

Queer films have long enjoyed success at niche festivals like the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival and Way Out West in Albuquerque, N.M. But inclusion in Tribeca, a mainstream festival, opens a new market for them.

“It’s great being a part of LGBTQIA festivals,” said Sade Clacken Joseph, Gallo’s co-director. “But Tribeca allowed ‘Ponyboi’ to really stand out in the block it was in because it was the only film about that topic.”

Sarah Smith, director of the short film “Black Hat,” saw the same advantage. “Our film is very niche—it’s about a Hasidic Jewish man who happens to be gay,” she said. “That narrows the market, and that’s why festivals like Tribeca are important.”

Short films like “Ponyboi” and “Black Hat,” which both run under 20 minutes, are historically difficult to find viewership and distributors for, according to documentary filmmaker France.

“For a scripted short film, finding an audience is almost impossible,” said France. “Sometimes festivals are the audience for films like that.”

Phillip Guttmann, who wrote “Black Hat,” turned his original feature-length script into a short to make it more manageable. “I was wrestling with, how on earth would this get made?” he said. He and Smith used a $10,000 prize they had won for a previous short film as the seed money for “Black Hat.

Guttmann estimates that he has submitted “Black Hat” to around 50 festivals, a significant financial investment. At Tribeca, the submission fee is $50 for shorts, and $80 for features.

“Making a short is the way to get enough attention and funding for the film you want to film,” said France. Gallo has been approached by producers interested in turning “Ponyboi” into a feature-length film, thanks to the positive reception the short received at Tribeca.

The Tribeca Film Festival was originally conceived in 2002 to revive Lower Manhattan after the September 11 attacks. But in a city with a thriving LGBTQIA community, festival organizers would not have been hard-pressed to find an audience for queer films.

“It’s a huge step forward, but it’s also about time,” said Lentz of the Stonewall Inn. “I can’t think of a better year than on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots to do this.”

“I don’t like to judge institutions for things not happening too soon or too fast,” filmmaker Gallo said. “It’s just amazing that it’s happening.”

Mainstream festivals like Tribeca may also be drawn to a trend that France has observed: the growing maturity of LGBTQ themes. “What we’ve been doing in the last 10 years is presenting our stories as human stories about people that history should remember,” he said.

“Personally, I’m tired of coming out stories,” said Guttmann. “I always appreciate when I see stories about gay people and it’s not focused on the fact that they’re gay.”

For Gallo, audiences relate to his film’s main character as an outsider, although they may not share his intersex identity.

“A good film can resonate with any kind of person or audience,” he said. “So it’s cool that an established mainstream festival like Tribeca is recognizing our story as a human story.”