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“There’s Always a New Battlefront”: How NewFest, New York’s LGBTQ Film Festival, Is Still Surviving

Executive Director David Hatkoff and Nick McCarthy, director of programming, discuss NewFest's evolution and what it takes to make it — as both a community and festival — then and now.

When the 2023 edition of NewFest kicks off on Thursday in New York, the LGBTQ film festival will proudly mark a historic milestone: 35 years of serving LGBTQ audiences and filmmakers.

That anniversary will begin with the Oct. 12 opening night premiere featuring Netflix’s Rustin, followed by 14 days of virtual and in-person programming across various venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn that concludes with a screening of All of Us Strangers.

Other star-studded award-winners and festival darlings like Monster, May December, Eileen, NYAD and National Anthem will screen, alongside special premieres for TV series Fellow Travelers and Our Flag Means Death; 4K restorations of Young Soul Rebels and Chocolate Babies; and the long-awaited follow-up, Beyond the Aggressives: 25 Years Later.

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It’s a lineup that embraces the connection between the past and present of the queer experience, particularly pointed in a year when numerous industry challenges have affected filmmaking, LGBTQ audiences and the film festival circuit. Perhaps the most jarring is the cultural hostility some storytellers and artists are currently facing, something reminiscent of the festival’s earliest days amid the AIDS crisis.

Following several years of Hollywood increasingly embracing stories from historically marginalized artists and civil rights gains across the country, conservative backlash to the LGBTQ community is stunting progress. Policies and legislation around everything from how one can legally identify to the clothing one wears to books and curriculum about their experiences have come to criminalize elements of queer identity. And according to Will Graham — co-creator of A League of Their Own — Hollywood is reigning in its commitment to queer stories as a result.

LGBTQ film festivals like NewFest, then, are something of a necessary space in this moment for queer stories and the vastly diverse community of LGBTQ people they are made by and for. Ahead of its 35th anniversary festival kick-off, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to David Hatkoff, NewFest’s executive director, and Nick McCarthy, director of programming, about the festival’s evolution and what is required, as a community and festival, to survive then and now.

When NewFest launched 35 years ago, for you, what did it mean to have an LGBTQ film festival — and really a space for queer audiences — at that moment in time, and what does it mean now?

DAVID HATKOFF That question speaks to a lot of what we’re trying to reflect upon this year. We’re looking where the organization started, the context and the landscape that the organization was launched in and how that has changed in some ways dramatically, in some ways, not as much as we might wish. A space for queer audiences to come together is really as important now as it has ever been, for somewhat different reasons. Nick and I were not here when the organization was founded, but we know what was happening for queer folks in this country in 1988. It was the height of the AIDS crisis. The government was not showing up for us. In some cases, demonizing us. The media landscape was not rife with many representations of queer folks, let alone positive or affirming representations of queer folks.

Something that I think has always been the case, the consistent thread when any queer person talks about growing up, is that they did not see themselves represented in media. So there’s a certain kind of loneliness and worthiness that is impacted by that. There’s a little bit of a Rashomon [effect] in terms of what the genesis of the organization was — we claim 1988 as Year One because that was when we became the festival as we now understand it, although we’ve added words to the name of the festival since. But at that time, it was about creating a space where the queer experience was put at the center and an intentional space was made for queer audiences to come together and see their stories on screen. It should be said that some queer audiences got to see their stories on screen at that time. That has shifted over the years and still has movement to go.

I think there’s something really revolutionary about that. Film festivals in general are really special places where people come together to have this communal experience, but community film festivals hold a particularly important place because it’s not just about appreciation of art. It’s also about community. What it means to be invited into a space to be able to see these stories, not as an interloper or not as a one-off, but as the reason for this event existing.

LGBTQ film festivals have a long history of being some of the only places where queer people — in the specificity of their diverse identities — actually see narratives that center them. How has that evolved over the years at NewFest?

HATKOKFF We say it all the time, and in some ways we say it so often that we have to remind ourselves that we actually mean it: authentic representation and visibility can change lives and even save lives. When someone sees themselves in a narrative, they feel like they matter. This year we had films from Netflix, Searchlight and other major studios. And often when we talk about classic films that NewFest has premiered over the years, we usually point to Paris Is Burning, Go Fish and But I’m a Cheerleader. We can’t take for granted that those films launched as instant classics because of spaces like this — the kind of platform that the mainstream ecosystem was not contributing. But there is a difference now in that some queer films representing some parts of the community have a different platform.

Nick and the programming team are as comprehensive as humanly possible, seeing what is out there. The community has always been diverse, always been broad. The representation has not been so, and they’re making sure that we can match our offerings to the nonmonolithic community that we claim to represent. Each year we spend a lot of time looking at past program guides and seeing what the slate of films were. The ones that are still talked about and watched jump out at us, but it’s even more interesting to see the ones that did not get distribution and who it was being programmed for. It wasn’t that long ago that queer festivals, which serve marginalized audiences, were still speaking to the most privileged part of this margin. Films that spoke to white gay men were the core of the program. Then more films about women started to emerge, even much more slowly films about trans folks and nonbinary folks, people of various classes, races, international stories.

For us in New York, being such an international city, to not consider those elements of the stories that we’re presenting would be a huge blind spot. So right now it’s an exciting, fun and overwhelming time and challenge to program a festival like this. Everyone wants to see themselves, and some people are interested in putting themselves in other people’s shoes. Not as many as we wish, to be honest. (Laughs.) But all of it speaks to how hungry people have been their whole lives to see themselves or some version of themselves. That’s their priority and I hope, once we get them in the door, they start to check out more of the program. That’s a balancing act that continues.

NICK MCCARTHY Year after year, we see more submissions come through. This year, we received over 1,000 organic submissions through our Filmfreeway platform. But as we talk about the films, we also talk about the audiences. The programming team is thoughtful about who is this for? Who is this representing? Is this authentic? Which audience do we know and are excited to gather in this space to see themselves reflected on screen? What community partners can we connect to? And all of this is to make sure that we have the safest, most inclusive, most electric and magical space. There’s nothing more energizing than a room of queers vibing off of the film, seeing themselves on screen or learning new things. I think that is something that goes hand-in-hand with our ethos at NewFest. It’s for the filmmakers, but it’s also for the audiences. It’s a connection that happens.

As we showcase more emerging talent, who knows who may be in the audience that may chat with that filmmaker, get connected and then next year have a short. And whenever we see issues of representation not coming through submissions, we reach out to other festivals that we know and ask do you have any films that feature characters of this identity within the spectrum? Some folks may not know how or be able to submit, too, so we do the amount of outreach that’s necessary through our partners and other festivals. We have All of Us Strangers, Rustin and Monster, which won best screenplay at Cannes and the Queer Palme as well. That’s alongside emerging documentaries from artists like Nneka Onuorah (Truth Be Told) who’s a [NewFest] alum, and the shorts programs where you realize these stories are all in conversation with each other. It’s about that connection and that we want to see all of it.

HATKOKFF The landscape has also shifted so much because of the discovery we’re talking about. If you didn’t have access to a film festival, and there wasn’t Netflix there to turn on, you weren’t going to see these films — especially the ones without distributors. You were never going to hear about them, never going to know about them. So because there are so many other ways to discover films that would not otherwise be on your radar, the purpose of the festival space — a queer and community festival space — has shifted and requires a different kind of buy-in. That’s what Nick’s talking about in terms of choosing the stories and the audiences. That combination is really essential.

We had a virtual offering initially in 2020, and we’ve maintained and committed to it because we’ve heard from so many people around the country who would never have been able to access something like this. But for folks who live in New York and have a million different ways and cultural organizations they can engage with and spend their money on — whether they’re intentional queer spaces or “queer for pride” —  it is really about leaning into that magic of being in a room full of queer people and the energy that comes from watching a queer story with your community. Last year, for example, our closing night film was All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which showed at New York Film Festival just a couple of weeks before. Director Laura Poitras was with us for closing night and she said NewFest was a completely different experience than it had been at New York Film Festival. Not better or worse, she says with a wink. (Laughs.) It just landed differently.

This year we’re showing May December which also played the New York Film Festival. We’re presenting Todd Haynes with the the Queer Visionary Award and framing a conversation around what a queer lens, perspective and voice means. I can almost guarantee you that that film is going to get very different laughs with a NewFest audience than it did with its New York Film Festival audience. So the community piece is what makes a festival like NewFest truly unique and is often my answer when people say, “There are so many queer movies out right now. Is a queer festival really still necessary?”

What are some of the programs that you’ve launched that help reinforce that expanded reach that might be possible now versus when the festival began?

MCCARTHY Several years ago, we launched a partnership with the New York City Department of Education a specially curated shorts program of LGBTQ+ high school-age protagonists. We host an exclusive screening for students, GSAs, youth organizations and the Department of Education staff to come and see themselves reflected on screen. It’s been one of the most affirming, heartwarming and enlivening experiences that we’ve had. We’re so excited to be able to continue that. Those are the moments that we’re thinking of — beyond what the queer festival atmosphere is — in terms of how we can have more impact in providing spaces for folks who may not be aware of it. It’s high school students coming into this 300-seat movie theater, seeing these short films and reflecting on a variety of experiences of people their age, and then us hosting that in conversation with filmmakers. That’s the next step of what we think about in terms of where audiences are beyond that face value.

This film festival used to be just a couple of days. Now it’s two weeks with an in-person and virtual component in multiple boroughs. Like all festivals, it’s also had ups and down in terms of its continuity. What were the biggest inflections for NewFest in its 35-year history?

HATKOKFF I think like any nonprofit, cultural and certainly any community organization, there’s been bumps along the road. It was not long ago that NewFest was at a survival inflection point for a number of different reasons. And like most resilient organizations, in the early to mid-2010s, the organization survived from the very hard work of a lot of people. Part of the shift from survival to thriving and now the incredible growth trajectory that we’ve done in the last several years was an embrace of NewFest as a year-round organization, and not just a festival. As you see at Pride, when you have these concentrated moments where you put eyeballs on you and then you say, “Alright, see you next year!” the momentum and energy doesn’t continue. So there was a concentrated effort to lean into being a 365 [day] organization. In the past three or four years, we added NewFest Pride, which is a five-day event in early June. We had the New York premiere of Bottoms, Problemista.

MCCARTHY We had Aristotle and Dante [Discover the Secrets of the Universe] as well. We were able to do The Stroll at that time, with a free screening in the Meatpacking District and have that space be reclaimed by the filmmakers.

HATKOKFF We added “Queering the Canon” in 2021. We’ve now done three installments of the five-day retrospective series at BAM where we look at films that perhaps didn’t get their initial due when they first came out. We launched our Black Filmmakers Initiative to address pipeline issues, and demonstrate support for Black LGBTQ+ filmmakers who needed travel support or subsidies to be able to submit their films to festivals. We launched the New Voices Filmmaker grant with Netflix. We do very regular programming at the LGBT community center. We do a ton of partnerships. This is a revenue generating piece of what we do, but it’s also really important in terms of audience development. We’ve worked with studios and distributors to say, you have a project coming out that is speaking to this community, let us curate an intentional audience who is likely to respond to the work that you’re doing. Let us get them in our room and become tastemakers and word of mouth.

We didn’t invent word of mouth screenings and we don’t just blast these wide. Because of the work that we’ve done over the last several years, we know who responds to legacy films, comedies, issue-driven documentaries. We have a really good understanding of who our audience is and a really deep connection to over 200 community partners in New York. So when we’re doing any of these events, we’re connecting with them. All of of that to say, the festival is two weeks as opposed to two days and yes, we show 130 films as opposed to 20 films, and that’s great. But come see us next month. Come watch something virtually and embrace the fact that intentional queer storytelling matters not just in this a finite space, but throughout the year. Our embrace of that has changed everything financially, audience size, profile and energy-wise.

MCCARTHY There are films that come out throughout the year — The Stroll, Bottoms, Aristotle and Dante — where those release dates don’t align with our festival’s October dates, but there’s still another opportunity to provide that space for folks to celebrate together and have the filmmakers present. That was a lot of the inspiration that we took. There’s such such a bevy of films coming out that we can’t wait to be in that space with our audiences and connect them with those stories and filmmakers. We can curate queer film and have the community meet us there throughout the year and in different spaces. That was the push towards expanding more into Brooklyn since 2021. We see so many more excited crowds and intersectional, intergenerational crowds actually, in a lot of our BAM screenings and at Nighthawk Prospect Park. Within the curatorial team, we’re excited when we’re figuring out the lineup and the slate and realize this will play well in this venue. Because when you’re thinking about curating, it’s not just the work of art itself, but the space that you set it within.

HATKOKFF That’s the next frontier for us. We were exclusively in Chelsea for many years, and as we know, Chelsea has a certain demographic of the community. By expanding into Brooklyn, we’ve managed to broaden that. We would love to be screening in Harlem, we would love to be screening in Queens, we would love to be screening in the Bronx. Accessibility has so many different meanings when it comes to feeling like part of a community. Geographic accessibility is one of the next steps that, should funding allow, we would really love to be able to continue broadening.

A lot has changed in terms of filmmaking, stories, distribution, festivals, some of that impacted by political and cultural climates, other bits by industry changes. What have been the biggest challenges for NewFest — whether you’re dealing with censorship, finances, changes in distribution interest and platforms, or even labor rights and strikes — versus when the festival began?

HATKOKFF Thirty-five years ago money would have been a huge challenge. The idea of corporate sponsorship or funding to be able to put on events of this scale was pretty much inconceivable. I think the work was there, to a certain extent, and the audiences were hungry. But the actual mechanics of what it takes to produce a festival — it was a huge challenge. Every year, as I think about what I’m going to say on opening night, I’m trying to broaden out and speak to what the landscape is. My first year, Trump was still in office, the second year the election was forthcoming. Last year, Don’t Say Gay was all over the place. This year, and as always, we’re battling for for trans rights.

There’s always a new Battlefront. In 1988 we know what one of the battlefronts was in terms of the AIDS crisis, in terms of people literally dying — and people are literally dying today in different ways. But the community remains under attack and there’s always a political landscape, so that has been sadly consistent. Maybe there were little pockets in the last 35 years where it felt like, “Oh, we’re in the clear.” Those pockets probably lasted two weeks — those finite moments. But there has always been an understanding, particularly for the most marginalized parts of the community, that LGBTQ people are under attack or fighting for their lives.

I think that the challenge now — well, it’s constantly shifting. If you’d asked me six months ago, after the Bud Light and Target stuff, there was a real concern that corporate sponsors were going to pull their funding for fear of standing alongside organizations like ours. That has not proven to be the case for us. But nonprofit cultural organizations are always in jeopardy. You have one major sponsor who pulls and all of a sudden, you’re in financial crisis. As we saw in the pandemic, organizations that weren’t agile enough to shift and embrace virtual quickly enough really took a hit. There’s the mechanics, there’s the funding.

As long as we keep our eye on the mission of providing a platform for queer stories and storytellers — as long as we don’t lose sight of what that means not just in terms of the Todd Haynes’, but the first-time filmmaker who’s seeing their film on the screen — we can continue to navigate whatever challenges come up. But there’s eight fires happening at all times, including that these are human beings, mostly queer human beings, who are making these festivals and films. So how do we take care of our staff and make sure that we are creating humane work environments?

We’re not just serving the audiences and the filmmakers. We’re serving the people who are actually creating the spaces for the audiences and the filmmakers to gather as well. The conversations that are happening right now through the strikes and other things are shining an additional light on how the work we do is personal. Most of us are getting paid in some capacity to do the work, but it is personal. We are bringing ourselves to the work. So how do we respect and honor that for everyone involved in making this happen?

MCCARTHY Being the purveyors of and celebrating these stories, and making the connections between those stories and audiences will be the core success against any kind of Republican bullshit talking point that’ll happen in a debate. Our stories are so rich and layered, so the powerful act of art itself in order to inspire, to affirm, to make you feel full of life again, we’ll always deliver on that. We’ll overcome whatever one sentence or quippy bullshit people who are hate mongering will try to throw at us. There’s more gravity to what we do that’ll always overcome more simplistic hate speech.

Interview edited for length and clarity.