DURHAM—The license plate on the car parked near mine across the street from the Carolina Theatre read, “ASK TELL.” Though North Carolina was long burdened with the anti-gay views of the late Sen. Jesse Helms, the attitude in downtown Durham was out and proud as the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival celebrated its 15th year—and a new attitude for festivals in the area.

Approximately 500 filmmakers and festival-goers were present for the event, a simple tent with music, chairs and hors d’oeuvres with a bar (and, there was also free ice cream, the truest sign of a good party) in the plaza outside the Carolina Theatre. But the soiree’s goal is surprisingly ambitious—to build and foster a community among festival attendees that stays close to the theater.

Last year, “people were looking for a community aspect outside of the films,” says Bob Nocek, the Carolina Theatre’s president and CEO. He hopes to make the party aspect a regular feature of future festivals at the Carolina Theatre. “I’m prepared to lose money,” he says.

He didn’t confirm if they’ll do the same thing for the SF/ Fantasy-themed Escapism Film Festival in September, but fingers crossed. Parties are always better with a Klingon.

The festival itself remained a big hit, selling about 8,000 tickets as of Saturday night and one of the “liveliest” audiences in years, according to theater senior director Jim Carl.

And it continues drawing back regular filmmakers, such as producer Jerry Blackburn, who didn’t have a new film this year but has come just to enjoy the festivities. “It’s like coming home for Christmas for me,” he says.

The party broke up around midnight, as remixes of Ke$sha, Lady Gaga and Cher blast through the speakers as the remaining tired-but-wired partygoers continued to dance.

Adrienne Zi, director of the short Mother of the Year, says she’s formed a strong opinion of North Carolina based on her experiences here. “The stereotype of the whole Southern charm is a reality,” she says.

“It really sucks to go back to LA.”

North Carolina’s reputation may slowly be changing, one gay filmmaker at a time.