The Movieline Interview: 20 Years of Strand Releasing, with Hu, Gerrans, Araki, and Bailey
As LA's Outfest Film Festival celebrates Strand Releasing with a retrospective honoring the company's twenty years in the film industry, we couldn't help but wonder: Where would the state of independent film be without Strand? Partners Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans have distributed films by some of cinema's most acclaimed directors, including François Ozon, Gaspar Noé, and Hal Hartley, and their pivotal influence and trailblazing tastes helped kick off the New Queer Cinema movement. Where other independent distributors have crashed and burned, Strand has been responsible for releasing great movies for two decades.
To commemorate the moment and to shed more light on how Strand has survived and thrived, Movieline spoke to both Hu and Gerrans as well as friend-of-Strand Gregg Araki and director Fenton Bailey, whose film Party Monster found a savior in the company.
JON GERRANS, pictured: [Marcus] and I started at very low-level jobs back at a company called Vestron Pictures -- back then, he was just a coworker and friend. If you asked me back then whether we'd be where we are today, I'd have been very surprised. I don't think either Marcus or I thought it would turn into what it has turned into.
MARCUS HU: Vestron was an upstart company, and then all of a sudden their tenth or eleventh picture was a big hit: Dirty Dancing. And so, Vestron decided to do all these productions, and each one of them flopped -- some of them never even saw the light of day -- and the company folded a year after Dirty Dancing. [Laughs]
So when we were faced with the dilemma of not having a job or paycheck or anything, I took my Rolodex with me and went back home to San Francisco to live. I got a part-time job working for Strand Theater, and there came an opportunity: I saw this movie called Macho Dancer, which was directed by Lino Brocka. We played it at the Strand Theater and it was a huge hit there, so much so that I called the director up and he said, "Well, why don't you handle the distribution?"
GREGG ARAKI: Marcus actually borrowed money from his mom for Strand's very first movie, Macho Dancer, and they sort of built the company on the success of that film. He's definitely close to his mother Evelyn -- she's kind of the silent partner and unsung hero of the whole Strand saga, and there would be no Strand without her! But Marcus I originally met because he came to a screening of my very, very first black-and-white 16-millimeter movie, called Three Lonely People in the Night.
HU: I was watching this movie, and I had this connection because it was a movie sort of about the life I was going through. It was about these crazy people in Los Angeles feeling very lonely and lost, and it had issues of sexual identity that I'd never seen represented on film before. It really spoke to me...so I borrowed $15,000 from my mom, and we made The Living End [with Araki].
FENTON BAILEY: They've always been completely unapologetic, completely unconcerned with what might or might not be perceived as politically incorrect. They've always been committed to visions of gay life of whatever kind of stripe.
HU, pictured: There was such a void there [in gay cinema]. There was no representation of GLBT lifestyles at that point that were readily available to the public. Granted, there were sporadic films out there like Longtime Companion, Parting Glances, Desert Hearts. But it wasn't until the year that Poison and Paris is Burning appeared at Sundance, followed a year later by Swoon, The Living End, and The Hours and the Times, that things started coming together.
Robert Redford was seeing that there was a huge influx of gay and lesbian choices on the film circuit, so he called a conference together. I remember everyone was there: Derek Jarman, Gregg, Isaac Julien, Tom Kalin, Christine Vachon, James Schamus, myself...we were all part of this huge discussion. At that very conference at Sundance, that's when Ruby Rich coined the term "New Queer Cinema."
The Rise of Strand
HU: It was a number of certain things clicking. If Macho Dancer hadn't worked as the first film, that may have deterred us, but that was a hit and it really gave us the seed money to get started. Then we had that tiny little movie, The Living End, which was a huge hit and helped propel the company to the next level and put some more money into our pockets. Each incremental step has helped us along the way.
ARAKI: I was around when Marcus and Jon were just starting out, and the origins of the company were so small. It was really like this guerrilla operation. Over the years, it's kind of grown into this thing that is really responsible for a significant chunk of independent and international film history. Where would these movies be if Strand hadn't released them?
GERRANS: For the first five years, Marcus and I held a lot of side jobs, a lot of temp jobs in the film industry. I never thought we would make it to the next year. We would work on Strand making hardly anything at all, and then the rent would come due, and we'd have to get a temp job.
HU: Gregg was really the instrumental person who introduced us to the Sundance Institute, and they supported us for a number of years. In the early, early years that we went to Sundance, they helped cover our overhead by letting us work in their offices, and eventually as we became a real company, we shared their office with them and helped pay the rent. It wasn't until about year five or six that we spread our wings and moved out.
GERRANS: When we had about fifty films, DVD really started to take off, and at that point, Sundance Channel and IFC came into business and stafrted licensing art house films for broadcast. That really was the point where we realized that maybe there is a business for distribution, and maybe we could survive. But it was a long haul, and you adjust accordingly.
ARAKI, pictured: They've always been lean and mean. They don't have a huge overhead, and they definitely have their niche marketed to and they know how to work it really well. Unlike these flash-in-the-pan companies that lay out a huge amount of cash and put a movie on 3000 screens that shouldn't be on 3000 screens -- and then are out of business two months later -- they've very frugal and wise.
HU: There were a number of movies that really helped. Andre Teschines' Wild Reeds helped us critically. The financial gains we got from a movie called Stonewall by Nigel Finch that was produced by Christine Vachon was another stepping stone. Our rereleases of Contempt and The Graduate really put us in another league and helped us be known for doing other things besides gay and lesbian films.
GERRANS: We really turned the corner when we had enough films that we could rely on that library and ancillary value. On home video, Psycho Beach Party was one of our strongest performers. Edge of Heaven did very very well for us, as well as The Secret and Edge of Seventeen. Love is the Devil, with Daniel Craig...every time a James Bond film comes out, we have to go back to the lab and strike up another batch of DVDs! [Laughs]
BAILEY: [Strand] has really been a major player and a pioneer in making gay media part of regular media, rather than a separate niche.
HU: I think that helped provide the next steps for gay representation in the media. It helped open the doors for things like Six Feet Under and The L Word and Will & Grace and all that.
GERRANS: It's changed dramatically, though. Certainly, ten years ago, you didn't have gay-themed channels and television shows. Before it was a news event when in a good, quality, gay-themed film came out theatrically. Now, it's an afterthought. The audience doesn't feel the need to see it in a theater like they used to. We used to say, on DVD, if it was a good film, it would at least do this much. And now, I have no idea anymore. It's so hard to predict -- it's become much more of a gamble than it ever was in the past.
ARAKI: It just started from the humblest beginnings -- just Jon and Marcus. Over the years, it's grown into this very important part of the independent film scene -- not just the American scene, but the international film world. Through the years, the company's certainly evolved, but as people, they're pretty much the same people as when I met them.
BAILEY, pictured: I will always throw myself under a bus for Marcus. If it weren't for him, Party Monster would have been one of those films that ends up nowhere. After Randy [Barbato] and I naively thought, "Oh, we're gonna make this movie, it has Macaulay Culkin and Marilyn Manson and all these people," we never gave a moment's thought to thinking it might not end up in theaters. And that's actually nearly what happened. We were offered a lot of money for the home video rights, and the financiers of the film took that money, but immediately, all the distributors walked away at that point. If you take out the home video portion from a distributor's post, suddenly you lose a major stream of income. But Strand made it work. If it wasn't for them, the film would have been straight-to-DVD.
HU: Jon has been the reason why the company has been able to survive twenty years. Without Jon's strategic and smart thinking as far as how to run the company, we'd be one of those sinking ships out there.
GERRANS: If Marcus wanted to start a publicity firm, he'd be very successful at it. He's very good at publicity. It's an area that I'm not particularly skilled at. [Laughs]
BAILEY: The movie business is not known for its shy, self-effacing people, and that's Marcus! He's really quiet and sweet and nice. He's just not your alpha personality, I guess. In the egomaniacal domain of Hollywood, it's a breath of fresh air. But just because he's sweet, it doesn't mean he isn't focused. He has a will of iron. That's his genius, and that's his talent. He's always been dismayingly easy to work with.
HU: I think I'm aggressive sometimes! Gregg Araki is one of my closest friends. If my parents are sick or something like that, he's the first person I call. Certainly, I'm similar friends with Francois Ozon, Fatih Akin, Maria Maggenti, Tom Kalin, Christine Vachon, James Schamus...for me, I consider them not just friends, but family. I think Strand has operated just trying to be nice to all our filmmakers and trying to work together as a family.