Sunday, August 22, 2010

WOLFE VIDEO celebrates a healthy 25th anniversary; Q&A w/President Maria Lynn

For my LGBT audience out there (particular those here in the USA) and for any audience interested in what's happening artistically and commercially in the GLBT market (yes, I'm reversing these initials according to the "fairness doctrine"), the name Wolfe Video -- and to a lesser extent Wolfe Releasing (the company has begun to release films theatrically over the past few years) -- should ring a bell.  What that bell signifies may differ from person to person. For me, over two decades, the Wolfe name and its little red wolf logo, had meant the kind of low-end, LGBT fare (or fodder) that might satisfy/satiate sexually, while not offering an equal level of intelligence.  

TrustMovies admits that he is basing his view more on the gay than the lesbian portion of Wolfe's catalog.  As a bi-sexual guy with the inclination more toward men than women, he's consequently seen more gay movies than lesbian -- and so may be judging Wolfe somewhat unfairly, as its lesbian catalog may have included more intelligent films (some of which he's indeed seen and enjoyed). In any case, a couple of years back, he began to notice something odd: A movie from Wolfe no longer guaranteed a low-end viewing experience.  In fact, one of his favorite films from 2009, The New Twenty (a still from which is shown below) surprised him no end -- first, by being a terrifically intelligent, sophisticated & entertaining movie and -- second, by sporting the Wolfe logo.

Consequently, when the chance came to have an interview with the company's President, Maria Lynn (shown below), he jumped at it. We'll get to our specific interview questions shortly. First, here's a little history on both Wolfe and Ms Lynn, cribbed and then updated from the Wolfe web site:

Serving customers since 1985, Wolfe is the largest exclusive distributor of gay and lesbian films. Wolfe’s acclaimed library can be found at as well as at national retailers such as Netflix, Best Buy, and VOD destinations such as Comcast, Time Warner and iTunes. In 2010, major Wolfe titles include: Sundance 2010 Audience Award winner, Undertow; the wildly popular And Then Came Lolaand Elena Undone. Wolfe is also well known for releasing classics such as Desert Heart, Big Eden, Were the World Mine and Thom Fitzgerald’s 3 Needles.

As President of Wolfe Video and Wolfe Releasing, in addition to the daily activities of running the company, Ms Lynn is responsible for acquisitions, contract negotiations and finance. She has extensive knowledge working with novice and seasoned producers and is intimately aware of the challenges and pitfalls they face. Lynn’s background includes Bachelor’s Degree in Communication and over 23 years in finance and operations management. Maria has been named as one of the Women Elite of the video industry three times by Video Business magazine, as has been named by Power Up as one of the “Most Powerful Women in Showbiz.”

In the interview below, TrustMovies’ questions appear in boldface and Maria Lynn’s answers in standard type:

If Wolfe began in 1985, that makes this year your 25th, right?

It sure is, and one of things that has been so much fun about this anniversary is that people are sort of reflecting: What was I doing 25 years ago? And some of them are realizing, "Was I even born?" “Was I out?” “Could I have found a gay movie back then?” You know, it was the very beginning of VHS -- let alone DVD.

Wow—is that true? (Thinks about it) Yes, I guess it is…

Video was just beginning. Gay and Lesbian bookstores weren’t even carrying them. The market has changed a lot since then.

GLBT bookstores...  I had forgotten that they used to carry these films. So many of the bookstores have shuttered now, whether G&L or just ordinary variety.

This was one of the first ways we brought movies to people, putting them in G&L book stores. Primarily in the 1990s. Back then, people were mostly renting, not buying. Bookstores were buying a video for $100 a copy, and renting it 100 times to make back their money.

from the upcoming Wolfe release, Elena Undone

More people are out today. We’ve seen this as part of the mainstream culture for quite some time now. But back in the mid-80s, nobody on TV was gay -- or out. So back then, when Wolfe began, there was a lot of work to be done.

That’s interesting to hear -- and to recall. Let me explain to you my impression of Wolfe over the years – and how it seems to me that Wolfe has changed. When I first began being aware of your company, it seemed to me that the gay marketplace you served was, well, maybe I could call it the lower end gay market: gay movies that were just about sex  -- and finding it -- and that were very obvious and typical. Then -- I can’t remember exactly when it was, probably over a period of a few years, and beginning five years ago, maybe -- I began to rent titles from Wolfe that were actually smart movies, more sophisticated and “adult” in a much fuller manner, but still with gay and/or lesbian themes. The New Twenty, by Chris Mason Johnson comes immediately to mind. I was shocked that Wolfe released this one – which typified to me everything best about new independent cinema, whatever the theme.

The New Twenty is one of my favorite films that we’ve released, too. And, yes, I think what you are saying is true. And there are several reasons for this. Our company has grown to the point that we now have the ability to find and release better films with more diverse subject matter. These are not all “coming out” films anymore. Plus, it is less expensive now to make films. You can shoot on HD and make a good-looking program, without the expense of film. Talen-
ted filmmakers have been able to make their first film -- or make more films -- where they simply could not have afforded to before.

from the Wolfe-released musical Were the World Mine

The other reason we’ve changed is that we have always considered it our primary job to get these films out to as many places as possible. And now, so many more venues are open to us. Our movies are on TV -- and not only on LOGO, but On-Demand, on HBO, and on iTunes. You can find them in retailers such as Best Buy. All this did not exist even 10 years ago.

I am wondering about how Wolfe’s growth and change might mirror the gay & lesbian movement in general. Are its titles becoming more inclusive and somewhat mainstream in the way that the gay movement and lifestyle themselves have done?

It’s hard to say exactly, because there have been so many people who have contributed to the civil rights movement for gays and lesbians. We have definitely been a part of this, and our goal, which is ongoing, is to help change public opinion. For instance, you don’t hear people use the word “tolerance” so much anymore now.

That’s true. People perhaps don’t just tolerate us. They might even appreciate us. Or include us, at least -- sometimes automatically even.

Now you hear better words used. For a long time gay and lesbian movies were put in a actual category called “special interest” – with the likes exercise and hunting videos. The gay genre was perceived as too small to be a real category or topic – too small to have its own place or enough consumers interested in it to call it a real genre.

from Wolfe's upcoming The Four-Faced Liar

Now, gay film really is its own genre. GLBT films now have their own category, just as do those in horror, or adventure. We also work hard to place GLBT films both on the “new release” shelf and in gay sections, so that they are easier to find. Some of these films are major independent releases, such as The Kids Are All Right, but some can also show up from smaller companies. Sometimes smaller companies actually can take better care of their filmmakers. The artists really appreciate this.

I'll bet they do.

We at Wolfe work very closely with all our filmmakers so that they are part of the process. Consequently they contribute heavily to the success of the marketing of their film. Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is one example of this. That was actually my first title here at Wolfe.

We only had a few documentaries at that time. We discovered that Lily was distributing videos from her home. So we contacted her and went out to dinner with her, and ended up making a deal. Really, we consider this Lily’s gift to us. The addition of Lily’s work allowed us to take our LGBT catalog into mainstream distribution for the first time.

How do you decide, for instance, how many lesbian-themed, as opposed to how many gay-themed, movie to release each year?

from Wolfe Video's popular Big Eden

What we distribute from year to year changes, depending on what the filmmakers are creating. Some years there are almost no lesbian-themed movies and then -- wham -- a whole bunch of them will appear.

How do films actually get to you -- and at what point in the process?

Sometime we are asked to distribute even before the film is made, or while it is being made. We now get submissions for films at every level of development – from script onwards.

How do you decide on choosing a film?

It’s hard to narrow down this process to a few words. Our focus, of course, is LGBT content. We’re always looking for something that we think will do well with that market and that will cross over to the mainstream market. But some movies we think are really important to put out to the world, even with no crossover potential.

Could you name one of these?

By Hook or By Crook.

I remember that one!  And, yes, now I know exactly what you mean. 

That was an example of a really unusual movie that just had to get a release so that people could have the opportunity to see it. It had a unique perspective that we had simply never seen before on film. Then there are documentaries like 8: The Mormon Proposition. This film handles its subject matter in a way that nobody has talked about before. I don’t even think there was a huge consensus about gay marriage – even in the gay community. So the idea that all that money was being raised by the Mormon Church to prevent civil rights came as a shock to a lot of us. Documentaries are harder to sell, so we thought it was important to get this one out there.

Did you release it theatrically?

No. That was done by Red Flag Releasing, the new company that Laura Kim and Paul Federbush started last year. It was launched at Sundance, in fact. We often do theatricals releases in tandem with filmmakers, though.

Do you think that viewers, even of gay and lesbian films, ever think about who the film's distributor is? I do, but that’s because I’m so focused on film.

I hope so. I think so. We started putting our logo on the cover of all our DVD boxes well before most companies did this. Even today most firms still do not do it. But we thought it important to do this – sort of in the way that seeing the American Heart Association logo on a box of fat-free brownies conveys something to the consumer. So the Wolfe logo conveys something, too. It says, This is a gay movie, and because Wolfe knows about this market, you can trust us to bring you something worthwhile.

from Wolfe's upcoming release And Then Came Lola

What part do film festivals play in your marketing scheme?

We put a lot of films out there at film festivals. These can effectively replace theatrical releasing for many films.

And there are so many film festivals now – and in so many different cities!

Yes -- and we’ve found that some festival audiences even howl when they see the Wolfe logo (shown at left)-- just like the wolf in our logo! G&L festivals are great marketing tools, too, because those audiences really help get the word out.

With theatrical releases growing more and more difficult to come by – they just don’t pay for themselves, really – most films can’t justify them.

What have you got coming up that you can talk about?

We acquired Undertow at the Sundance Film Festival, which will be released in theaters this September. It’s a beautiful gay love story set on the coast of Peru that’s very touching, and it has won awards at every festival it has gone to. We’re hoping it will be Peru’s submission for the year’s Foreign Film Oscar. What makes it particularly interesting is setting the film in a small Peruvian village. This is rather like setting it in small town America.

from Wolfe's upcoming release Undertow

We also acquired a film at Slamdance: The Four-Faced Liar. We call it “a comedy about drama.” This one is set in NYC, among a group of friends and it is a lesbian story, ultimately. It will be released this fall, arriving the same day on both VOD and DVD.

How is VOD doing for you?

We’ve been at it for about a year now. So we’ve had time to figure out how to do it. It is now doing well for us. You know, we get hundreds of film submissions each month. And we're only getting LGBT movies. This amazes me!

While we have you, is there anything else you want to say?

Yes: two things. For our 25th Anniversary, we are giving away $25,000 worth of videos: Every month this year we’ve been giving away both a Wolfe Gay Library and a Wolfe Lesbian Library (Editor's note: that still at left is from the groundbreaking lesbian-themed Desert Hearts, released the same year that Wolfe Video began). We have two winners every month – for the whole year. A library like this will make a great Christmas gift, too, and as there are five months left in the year, you’ve got five more chances to win.

How do you enter?

Go to and click the banner you'll see on the home page -- and just enter.

The other thing I want to say is that we’re working on a new campaign called Pay to Play. We really want the consumer to understand that piracy has an enormous impact on filmmaking. And not just by the end retailer that sells or rent. Like the music business, the film biz is also getting a reputation for piracy. Consumers need to understand that it is really hard in this market -- the gay and lesbian independent film market -- which is so much smaller than the market for big Hollywood studios. In order to keep seeing LGB&T films, you have to pay to play. You must either buy or rent these films – not steal them.

This is making that big an impact on you, financially?

Oh, yes: We have to pull films off the internet constantly -- as many as 100 times a day with some films.

Why is this happening? Are people somehow selling the movies to others in this way?

from Thom Fitzgerald's lovely but underseen 3 Needles

Sometimes, maybe. But it’s more, I think, that people want to share a movie with their friends and so they do it this way by posting the film on the web. But to get them to take it down is a very expensive and time-consuming thing. The money we make on films goes partially to the filmmakers, so piracy has a huge impact of these films and on their creators. If they can't make their living from their art, they will stop doing this and move onto something else. So tell your friends to rent or buy -- not pirate!

What especially are you doing to prevent this?

Wolfe is working now on a Public Service Announcement to get this message out.

Great news, and we hope that this has a positive effect. Thanks, Maria, for your time and all this good information. And we’ll keep our eye out for those new releases you spoke about.

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