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  • Karen Frost

We Need to Talk About the Future of Lesbian Film

Several years ago, I had what I thought was going to be a good idea: what if I gave filmmakers money to make their dream lesbian film or web series and we figured out a way to monetize (aka make money) off that project so that these filmmakers could make more projects and viewers would be happy and everyone would win? It was going to be an experiment about how to harness the global power of the "pink dollar" so that everyone could live their best lives in a utopian, symbiotic relationship. Oh boy did I learn a lot. And while I hope to one day post about what all I learned, today's post is actually about possibly the biggest lesson I learned: distribution. And why the lesbian film industry is in trouble.

Here's how it works: You're a queer filmmaker. You make your dream movie. Now what? Distribution. Basically, you need someone who's going to get your movie on some kind of platform. Maybe it will go to theaters, but whether it does or doesn't, eventually it's going to have to end up online somewhere for people to watch from the comfort of their own homes. There are lots of streaming platforms, whose reputation and royalty rate varies. Basically, we can boil it down to:

  • Big names: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime

  • Known name but smaller subscriber base: Max, Paramount +

  • Free streamers: Tubi, YouTube

  • Barely anyone remembers they have content: Vudu, Roku

  • Tiny LGBT streamers like Lesflicks, Revry, GagaOOLala

Since the start of COVID, there's been a big shift in what the heavy hitters are accepting. Indie filmmakers aren't really making it onto Netflix anymore. Netflix wants new, flashy, and binge-worthy things, like "Squid Game," baking shows, or movies with A Listers. Sorry, indie films made on shoestring budgets, you're out. But indie films aren't really making it onto Max or Paramount+ either, so that leaves...

The other guys. Look, as a viewer, I LOVE Tubi. It has--hands down--the MOST LGBT movies you can find online. And Tubi has some fantastic, underrated lesbian movies on it right now. And of course, I work closely with Lesflicks, because I believe in its mission. But for filmmakers and their financial backers, being shut out and forced to put their movies places like Tubi and YouTube is a BIG problem. This is because these sites operate on an Ad Video on Demand (AVOD) revenue system. That roughly translates to, "Filmmakers, you will make a few hundreds dollars total from this platform, if you're lucky." (And I do mean if you're lucky, because YouTube channels don't even start to make money until they have a certain number of views and subscribers.)

This sets up a major economic problem. Let's say you, the filmmaker, use $50k of your own money to make a movie. You'll be lucky to get $10k back. You'll lose $40k. Gone. And every time you make new a movie, you're losing even more money. You won't be able to make many movies until you're broke. The same goes for anyone investing in your movies. At this point, it's not an investment, it's a non-tax deductible charitable contribution to the LGBT cause. Why keep burning money when there are other things that make money instead?

That's the problem at the individual film level. Now imagine this economic sinkhole on a bigger scale. It's not just one filmmaker or film, it's ALL the queer female filmmakers and films. How do you make multiple movies if every movie loses money? One solution is to make cheaper movies. After all, a cheaper movie has a higher chance of recouping its budget. But there's a catch: viewers will be unhappy at the lower quality. And then they won't want to watch it. And fewer viewers means less money, setting up a sort of negative feedback loop.

The narrowing distribution window for films may be a quiet disaster in the making. It's causing indie filmmakers to face an unprecedented economic squeeze. And since lesbian films have historically struggled to find access to the mainstream, the vast majority of lesbian filmmakers are indie--and thus are likely to be affected by this new distribution paradigm. Things are looking pretty grim if you've ever wanted to make your dream lesbian movie. Nevermind never seeing your film on a big screen, you may find it's YouTube or nothing for your cherished baby.

If you've read this far, you may be thinking, "But I just watched a lesbian movie! There are still lesbian movies being made!" And that's true, thank God. But what you don't see is the financials behind those movies. Even movies made for $60k aren't making back their budget. I know because I talk to their producers. And a movie made for $1 million or even $3 million? It will make back a mere fraction of what was put into it. Knowing that, the major studios won't touch most LGBT film content, even at the $2 million range. I've talked to the people who have been in those rooms as well, and the story doesn't change. Hollywood doesn't think lesbian content will sell as well it needs to in order to justify the creation of that content.

So what does this financial squeeze and Hollywood closing doors lead to? What we've seen for decades. There are basically only two kinds of lesbian movies: indie films made for cheap by indie filmmakers willing to lose their own money on their passion project and Hollywood scraps (or Oscar bait movies for A List actresses like Cate Blanchett or Kate Winslet). But while we're pretty much where we've always been, this is an especially terrible place to be if the world does finally go into economic recession in the next few years. Because in times of economic pinch, normally diversity is one of the first things to be tossed out the window. So much for our Hollywood scraps.

Because there's nothing we viewers can do about the Hollywood macro economy, this post ends closer to home, at the intersection of personal consumption and economics. Specifically, it's about piracy. Whatever else it may be, piracy is an economic problem for the queer film making community. Here's what I mean: Let's say a lesbian movie is made for $1 million. With that budget size, it needs to make back at least $1 million for the investors, producers, and distributors to break even. And let's say, for easy math, that each view is worth $1 on a legitimate subscription video on demand (SVOD) site (they don't make that high of a rate, but let's pretend). So our imaginary movie needs 1 million viewers to even start to break even.

1 million viewers is a hard enough hurdle, but now let's say someone pirates the film and puts it on YouTube with the altruistic goal of "helping people see the movie." And let's say that pirated version gets 500k views. Now the original filmmakers need to find an additional 500k people willing to pay to watch the movie to make up for the views that went to the pirated version. The difficulty of breaking even, much less making a profit, has just increased by 50% because of one person's actions. And look, piracy and its causes aren't always black and white. Not every movie is available to viewers everywhere, and sometimes the only way to see a movie is through a form of piracy, BUT--

Overall, piracy reduces the economic potential of queer female film. We within the community know there's a large and perpetual demand for lesbian movies. Queer women are HUNGRY for content. But there has to be money behind that demand that then drives supply. When viewers choose piracy over paying to view something (or watching it through an AVOD source like Tubi, which gives money back to the content producers), then these viewers are actually disincentivizing the creation of new content. They're throwing all the costs on the content producers and asking for a free product. And when that happens, it means future producers have to make cheaper, lower quality movies, because that's all they can afford--because they won't be making that money back from the viewers.

So what's the future of lesbian film? Approximately three years ago, I wanted to bring back the indie lesbian movies in the $1-3 million range. Today, based on the market, it's simply not a viable range for anyone who doesn't already have an in with Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. So if I had a crystal ball, I'd expect to see a lot more content ending up on Tubi and YouTube in the next few years.

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