Aug. 14–22
$10 (one film)–$85 (10 films)

The Carolina Theatre
309 W. Morgan St., Durham

Protesters crowded the Civic Center Plaza outside the Carolina Theatre in 1995, when it hosted the gay and lesbian film series that became the full-fledged North Carolina Gay & Lesbian Film Festival the following year. Media editorials and religious zealots lambasted the venue as the “Sodom and Gomorrah” of North Carolina. The Durham district attorney and other political officials screened films in advance to determine if they violated “community standards of decency.” The Defense of Marriage Act was soon to be the law of the land.

As the 20th-anniversary NCGLFF begins this weekend, the dissenting voices are all but gone. Gay and lesbian entertainment is now less of a niche and more blended with the mainstream. The Southern Baptist church that rents historic Fletcher Hall each Sunday morning will peacefully find other accommodations during the NCGLFF’s opening weekend. And nearly two months ago, the Supreme Court held DOMA unconstitutional and declared that same-sex couples have a right to marry.

But a funny thing happened on the way to social justice: The NCGLFF risked becoming, well, just another film festival. If it played a role in advancing cultural acceptance of LGBTQ films, then its own success threatened to render it obsolete. After assessing the evolving cultural landscape, coupled with the festival’s finances and impact over the past several years, organizers wondered if the NCGLFF remained relevant as its 20th anniversary approached. In fact, they even thought about hanging it up.

When the Carolina Theatre reopened in 1994 after a five-and-a-half-year hiatus, it soon found part of its new identity in the NCGLFF, even amid the initial invective. The 1995 film series was a collaboration between Gay Pride March organizers and the Carolina, but the theater took over full production duties in 1996.

“The first gay and lesbian film series brought a lot of media attention to the theater,” says Jim Carl, senior director of the Carolina Theatre, whose 20-year tenure tracks with the NCGLFF’s lifespan. “It also made a hell of a lot of money. That opened a lot of eyes. Who knew there was a thriving gay and lesbian community in the Triangle that was being underserved?”

But two decades later, Carl had to face the irony that progress, not protest, had become the most significant impediment to the NCGLFF’s vitality.

“We’ve had ongoing discussions for the past two or three years about whether or not this festival, in its current iteration, was really still necessary, because of the mainstreaming of LGBT,” Carl says. “It’s not like it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when gays and lesbians really had to struggle to find positive images of themselves on television and in the media. In 2015, you can barely turn on a television program without there being gay and lesbian content, especially with the pay channels and Netflix.”

That concern was exacerbated last year when the NCGLFF saw its first decline in ticket sales since it expanded to its 10-day format in 2012. Bob Nocek, the Carolina Theatre’s CEO, concedes that a lackluster film schedule contributed to the ebb.

“There just weren’t those films that really got traction and got people excited,” Nocek says. “And we could feel itit just felt sort of flat.”

“In the late 1990s,” Carl adds, “LGBT audiences were so grateful to see positive images of themselves that low-budget, independent, grainy, scratchy images shot on 16mm with very bad lighting, poor acting and low production values were considered a major achievementthat they even existed. In 2015, LGBT audiences expect high-quality, well-shot, well-acted, professional-looking films.”

As a result of these shifting societal norms and consumer expectations, the NCGLFF found itself at a crossroads.

“I asked the question: Do we wrap it up?” Nocek admits. “Do we say, ‘You know what, it’s been a great 20 years,’ and bring it to an end, saying that the forces that started this aren’t there anymore? Ultimately, as we talked about it as a staff, we decided we’re not ready yet. And seeing the resurgence of films, there does seem to be a new energy about the festival.”

That energy manifests in a new influx of filmmakers and distributors who have made this year’s NCGLFF a target event.

“There have been three stages in the history of attracting filmmakers to the festival,” Carl says. “‘Where the hell is North Carolina?’ Then, ‘There’s a cool festival in North Carolina.’ And now, ‘We have to screen in North Carolina!’ This is the first year where filmmakers were truly upset if they didn’t make the final cut. We had 800 submissions. There’s this feeling, perhaps, of political activism by premiering in North Carolina.”

The 150 feature-length and short films selected represent what Nocek believes is the strongest lineup in years. One of the most prominent selections is I Am Michael, a biopic of gay rights activist Michael Glatze, starring James Franco and Zachary Quinto. The film is showing only once, on Wednesday, Aug. 19, in Cinema One.

<i>54: The Director’s Cut includes the copious depictions of bisexuality and homoeroticism that producers cut from director Mark Christopher’s theatrical release. While the festival now limits documentaries to invitation-only, two stand out. Drag Becomes Him depicts the life of internationally acclaimed drag performer Jinkx Monsoon, while Upstairs Inferno, the official Closing Night Film, provides powerful insight into the 1973 arson at a gay bar in New Orleansthe largest mass murder of gays in U.S. history.

In prior years, filmmakers could submit online links for consideration but had to mail hard copies if they were selected. But this year, the entire process can take place via an online portal. The result has been an increase in the quantity and international scope of submissions. Indeed, the digital revolution has had a pronounced impact, opening up many facets of the gay and lesbian experience to cinematic expression.

“Suddenly it wasn’t just the depressing, dark dramas,” Carl says. “We were getting [LGBT-related] horror films and funny shorts and animated films for the first time. We got science fiction films that happened to include gay and lesbian characters.”

Still, Nocek says he has tempered his long-term expectations about the festival, this year’s rejuvenated program notwithstanding.

“I had a sense when I got here and took over [as CEO] that there was incredible growth potential for the festival,” he says. “I don’t really know that I believe that anymore. I think there’s potential for us to grow it in small ways and keep it strong. But I don’t think this is the kind of festival where, 10 years from now, we’re going to double the audience. I just don’t see that as the course anymore.”

That’s probably good news for cultural progress in America. But if the festival reminds us of how much has changed, it also reminds us of how much hasn’t in a state still facing virulent efforts against LGBTQ rights: a hate-crimes statute that doesn’t cover sexual orientation or gender identity, the gestating N.C. Religious Freedom Restoration Act and a new law permitting court officials to refuse to perform gay marriages because of their religious beliefs.

These battles have shone a nationwide spotlight on North Carolina and helped make this year’s NCGLFF one of the most sought-after gay and lesbian film festivals in the country.

“That blindsided me,” Carl says. “I’m suddenly questioning the same thoughts I had a year or two ago about whether this festival is still relevant. Apparently, from the point of view of filmmakers and studios on a nationwide level, the answer is definitely yes.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Drowning in the mainstream.”