“I think about the past a lot. That's where you find some of the best ideas.” This is the spark behind everything Marcus Hu does. From running Strand Releasing, a film distributor in its 30th year, to heading the Academy Grants Committee for film scholars and festivals, Marcus built his career around a love of cinema as a great unifier. He believes that, pandemic or not, this sense of community won’t go away. Here, he discusses the start of his company and the LGBTQ+ film movement it helped usher in.
As told to A.frame
New Queer Cinema happened right when Jon Gerrans and I were starting our company, Strand Releasing. We were also producing movies, including Gregg Araki's The Living End, which was part of that movement of edgy LGBTQ films. We made the entire movie for $15,000, which my mom funded.* It got a major theatrical release, which we never thought would have happened.
As distributors, Jon and I go to film festivals, take a look at the movies, negotiate to acquire them, and then decide how we're going to distribute them into the marketplace. Some of our other early movies were All the Vermeers in New York and this really edgy movie called Crush directed by Alison Maclean and with Marcia Gay Harden. They were just really eclectic.
Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning and Todd Haynes' Poison had come out in 1990 and 1991. Robert Redford noticed this vibrant, young set of filmmakers making these gay stories and decided to do a Sundance panel the following year. The panel involved The Living End, Tom Kalin's Swoon, and Chris Münch's The Hours and Times. I also remember Derek Jarman was there, Marlon Riggs was there, and Isaac Julien was there. It was very diverse and a really charged panel. That’s where my fellow Academy member B. Ruby Rich, who was the moderator, coined the term — the New Queer Cinema — and that stuck. (Her book, New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut, is essential reading.)
There was a real sense of pressure about gay rights at that time. AIDS was going on and it was on everyone's mind. We were all in activist mode.
Usually, we were the butt of jokes. It was not a good time to see gay imagery. So there was a feeling of wanting to tell our stories, wanting to see our images on screen, which wasn't being done before in a way that was really positive. New Queer Cinema really opened the floodgates for that, and we managed to get our stories out there. Christine Vachon, James Schamus, and Ted Hope got movies like Poison, Swoon, Go Fish, and Wedding Banquet out there.
A little later, countries around the globe started making their LGBTQ stories. It seems like the world became much more adaptive to having a story told in their own country, from the perspective of what it's like being gay.
It opened the door for HBO to have Six Feet Under and PBS' Tales of the City to be made. It allowed for all these gay stories to enter into the mainstream. It's so important because, as a gay person, I think that, if we hadn't done that, there might still be a lid cap on. We blew that lid off and allowed artists to have the freedom and to also make sure that networks knew that these stories could be told, that there is an audience for them, and that this kind of thing stops homophobia. That has been, I think, the most gratifying contribution we have made to cinema and to culture.
It allows the mainstream culture to absorb positive images. We're not always making movies where we're superheroes. We're telling our stories as everyday people so that people know that we are just like everybody else.
We happen to be attracted to the same sex, but we go to work just like you. We have dogs. We have families. We have children. The fact now that the movement has stretched to trans communities is really important. To me, the most important thing right now is to make Americans aware of trans stories and trans characters as part of our mainstream culture so people understand that trans and gay people, we’re no different than anybody else.
I'm seeing a lot more representation than I did when I was a kid. Netflix is starting to reflect the world to me, the way I see it. The stories of people of color, LGBTQ stories, it seems to be more of a reflection of who we really are, and it makes me happy constantly to see that kind of imagery. Maybe some of the characters aren't great, but at least there is some kind of representation.
I don't think that Jon and I ever changed our vision in the 30 years that we've been in business. It's always been about the eclectic films that we personally love. The only pattern I’ve noticed is our dedication to sticking with the same filmmakers over the years. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Gregg Araki, Fatih Akin, Catherine Breillat. We seem to keep the same filmmakers in our stable whenever we can, supporting them in ups and downs and just building a body of work. It’s why a lot of people have referred to us as a gallery, where we're the curators. I can’t pick a favorite. Looking back, the sheer volume of really great movies that we've done over the years… all the children are pretty to me.
*My mom also loaned us $15,000 to start Strand Releasing. I definitely got my love of cinema from her. Early on life, she would take me to matinees, opening me up to all kinds of fantasy films. She would take me to see James Bond movies, horror movies, science fiction movies romance movies, comedies, you name it. She was just a huge movie fan.