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Out on the town

Special to The Times

BORN out of frustration, it has evolved into a celebration: Outfest’s Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival is turning 25 today. It is the city’s oldest continuous film festival and one of the largest gay and lesbian film festivals in the world.

The star-studded, 12-day event opens tonight with “Save Me,” a film about redemption starring Robert Gant (our cover guy), Chad Allen and Judith Light, and by the time it’s over, will present more than 250 features and shorts to an estimated 50,000 people, along with outdoor screenings, bands, panels and a “Dreamgirls” sing-along. Plus parties, lots and lots of parties. “The gays like to be together,” jokes Kirsten Schaffer, Outfest senior director of programming and operations.

But for all its revelry, Outfest has never been a lightweight. “The festival was created in protest in 1982, by graduate students at UCLA who were fed up by the de facto mainstream blackout on our lives,” says Stephen Gutwillig, executive director of the nonprofit Outfest organization. “There had never been a gay and lesbian media/film conference in the country,” says Larry Horne, one of those grad students, “and we thought it was high time to have one.”

Robert Rosen, then director of the UCLA film and television archives, agreed to be their faculty advisor. They gathered film critics and historians such as Vito Russo (“The Celluloid Closet”), and screened three features and some short films at the 280-seat Melnitz Hall over a weekend.

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The opening feature was “Making Love,” written by UCLA graduate Barry Sandler. It is seen as the first studio film to portray gay characters in love, and in a positive light, rather than as psychos or jokes. At the time, it was considered career suicide even to portray gay characters on film or TV.

In the last quarter-century, critical and commercial successes that include “Will & Grace,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “The L Word” have altered the landscape somewhat, and, according to Gutwillig, “Outfest deserves some amount of credit for helping change that climate. We are a gay and lesbian festival in the heart of the entertainment industry, and that impact can’t be underestimated.”

That first small event at UCLA was so successful, it soon outgrew its origins and moved off campus by 1987. Horne had become the first official festival director, guiding it for 12 years. Now a consultant for nonprofit arts organizations in New York, he says the biggest obstacle in the early days was getting the larger community to take the festival seriously. “I knocked on the [Directors Guild of America’s] doors for three years before they let the festival happen there,” he recalls.

But the community came around, and when the festival was welcomed into the brand-new DGA building in 1989, Horne says, “there was this feeling that we had arrived.”

The DGA has been a festival location for almost 20 years now, abetted by other venues throughout the city. Downtown’s Orpheum will host two galas, including the opening night party and screening of “Save Me.” The movie, set in an “ex-gay” ministry, is part of the five-film series titled “Queers in Christ.”

David Courier, co-director of programming, came up with the idea for the “Christ” series. “Each year I look for the major theme of the festival and this year, without a doubt, it was the intersection of religion and homosexuality -- and more specifically the volatile intersection between Christianity and homosexuality. We received so many films that spoke to this theme,” Courier says. “If people think this series is controversial, that’s awesome as far as I’m concerned. Controversy breeds consciousness and action.”

In the mainstream

In a sign of the slowly but surely changing times, “Save Me” has additional crowd appeal in that two of its leads, Allen and Gant, are openly gay -- still a relative rarity for Hollywood actors. (They are also two of the film’s producers.) For Gant, who played professor Ben Bruckner in the Showtime series “Queer as Folk,” Outfest holds a special significance. For years, while out to those in his private life, he had been professionally closeted. During that time, “There was a subconscious fear that kept me apart from Outfest,” Gant says. Then in 2002, while onstage at the Ford Amphitheatre for the closing night gala, Gant came out publicly to the crowd.

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“It was really powerful. I got a standing ovation. But it wasn’t really so much about me as it was representative of that moment of any individual finding the courage to step into their truth,” he says. “So Outfest from that moment has taken on a huge, vital place in my mind and heart.”

As much as Gant wants the film to reach a broad audience, “there’s nothing really as satisfying as showing it to our fellows; it’s almost like family night,” the actor says about opening the festival. Adds Allen: “When you’re a filmmaker or an actor, or anyone who’s working in entertainment who’s out and wants to see our stories get told, it’s so cool to be a part of Outfest -- to see what everyone’s doing and encourage each other.”

Allen credits his longtime Outfest attendance with inspiring him to make films like “Save Me” in the first place. For Outfest doesn’t present only what’s being produced, it produces filmmakers.

C. Jay Cox, an attendee since 1990, considers Outfest hugely influential to his career. Up until Outfest, “I thought if you’re going to be a filmmaker the studio system is the only option,” says Cox, whose first short played there in 1993, followed by his first feature, “Latter Days,” a love story between a Mormon and a party boy, in 2003. He’s also the director of this year’s closing night gala, “Kiss the Bride,” the first film to emerge from Outfest’s screenwriting lab, for which Cox is a mentor. This year, the lab is holding screenplay readings during the festival. Other new offerings include Boom!, a live music showcase intended for the community’s younger members. “We’re building a second festival, like a queer South by Southwest,” says Schaffer, referring to the popular film and music festivals held in Austin.

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Full circle

In looking to the future, Outfest is taking steps to preserve its past. The organization has partnered with UCLA Film and Television Archive to create the Legacy Project, devoted to the preservation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender -- or LGBT -- titles.

For Rosen, now dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, the university and Outfest have come full circle -- with some notable differences. “Twenty-five years ago, one of the reasons for having the festival was there was so little in the mainstream that dealt with gay and lesbian filmmakers or subject matter. Now we have thousands of titles in the collection, and it’s worthy of restoration and preservation as part of the culture.”

The first restored film, “Parting Glances” (1986), by the late Bill Sherwood, will be presented at the festival’s Legacy Project Gala. The film is also one of Outfest’s “25 Films That Changed Our Lives,” a list compiled for the silver anniversary.

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Like other early films, “Parting Glances” reflected the devastation that AIDS wrought. Films then also portrayed the wrenching experiences of coming out to friends and family. In the ensuing years, LGBT films began moving beyond such territory to explore the full range of human experience. The coming-of-age story will always have its place, as it does in mainstream fare, but now there are stories in which being gay is not the point. A prime example: Outfest’s awards gala film, “Itty Bitty Titty Committee,” in which the film’s lead character becomes empowered as a radical feminist; her sexual identity is not at issue.

“We’re seeing a lot of genre films, gay horror movies and mysteries and sports movies,” says Outfest’s Schaffer. “And the movies keep getting better, which is to be expected but not taken for granted.”

The fest is taking time to appreciate some positive work in the mainstream media as well. “Brothers and Sisters” and “Ugly Betty,” TV shows that feature LGBT characters, will be the subject of panels featuring cast and crew members. In both shows, the attitude is joyfully out, with no underlining or apology.

“LGBT communities are no longer primarily outsiders, our noses pressed against the glass of a media world that ignores or debases us,” Gutwillig says. “But we still have a long way to go.”

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weekend@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Best of the Fest

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Outfest ’07, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, opens tonight and runs through July 23. Though it’s impossible to take in all the offerings, here’s a day-by-day itinerary of some of the festival’s highlights.

Today

Hit the gala premiere and party, a glittery Outfest tradition, with Robert Cary’s “Save Me.” Directly preceding it: Director Bill Condon picks up the Outfest Achievement Award. 8 p.m., Orpheum Theatre

Friday

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See the documentary “Red Without Blue,” which follows the relationship between identical twins, as one begins living as a transgender woman. 8 p.m., DGA

Saturday

Get an early start with the short-film program Boy’s Shorts. 11 a.m., DGA

Make a radical leap with Super Dykes, Super Strength, with pioneering director Barbara Hammer in attendance. 4 p.m., REDCAT

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In the evening, check out The 9th Annual Home Video Gong Show. 9:30 p.m., L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s Village

Sunday

After brunch, take in “Bears,” a documentary about a different kind of beauty pageant. 1:30 p.m., Regent Showcase

Then head to the panel Ugly Betty Is a Beautiful Thing. 4 p.m., DGA

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Don’t miss two international entries -- the Israeli drama “The Bubble” and the Japanese drama “Big Bang Love, Juvenile A.” 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. respectively, DGA

Monday

“Holding Trevor” and “25 Cent Preview” are two of the “Five in Focus” films by first-time directors. 7 and 9:30 p.m. respectively, Monica 4-Plex

Or see the restored version of “Parting Glances,” which helped launch Steve Buscemi’s career. 8 p.m., DGA

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Tuesday

One of “25 Films That Changed Our Lives,” Todd Haynes’ “Poison” plays. 7 p.m., DGA

Not for straight men only, The Best of Lezploitation cheekily repurposes soft-core porn of the past. 9:45 p.m., Barnsdall Gallery Theatre

Wednesday

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For a musical interlude, head to the first night of the BOOM! Music Festival, with Red Car, Vivek and Emily Wells. (Team Dresch plays the second night, July 19.) 8 p.m., the Echo

See a sneak preview of a Hollywood film that shall remain nameless. Hint: It’s a big musical based on a Broadway hit that’s in turn based on a simply Divine movie. 9:45 p.m., DGA

Next Thursday

Get your tickets early for the “Dreamgirls” sing-along; it’s a sure sellout. 8:30 p.m., Ford Amphitheatre

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July 20

Another chance to laugh under the stars: The John Hughes-style teen comedy “The Curiosity of Chance” plays. 8:30 p.m., Ford Amphitheatre

July 21

The panel Brothers and Sisters -- We Are Family is a must for fans of the show. 1:30 p.m., DGA

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The mockumentary “Sunny and Share Love You” plays. 6 p.m., Regent Showcase

July 22

Hear them sing: “The Believers” is a documentary feature about the world’s first transgender gospel choir. 2:15 p.m., DGA

Celebrate the winners on Awards Night and a screening of “Itty Bitty Titty Committee.” 7:30 p.m., Ford Amphitheatre

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July 23

Close out the fest with “Kiss the Bride” -- a comedic expose of marriage written by Ty Lieberman and directed by C. Jay Cox, and the first film to emerge from the Outfest Screenwriting Lab. 8 p.m., Orpheum Theatre

Lisa Rosen

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Pricing and Info

Tickets for screenings run from $5 to $15, and for galas and special events, $12 to $150. Info: (213) 480-7065, www.outfest.org

Venues

1. John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood

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2. Directors Guild of America (DGA), 7920 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood

3. Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

4. L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, L.A.

5. Regent Showcase, 614 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood

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6. The Echo, 1822 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park

7. Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica

8. REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., downtown L.A.

9. National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, 111 N. Central Ave., downtown L.A.

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10. Orpheum Theatre, 842 S. Broadway, downtown L.A.


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