Film buffs know that mid-January in Park City, Utah, is about more than great skiing — it’s the home of the Sundance Film Festival. Since 2004, LGBT Sundance participants have had a hub of their own with Queer Lounge, created by former film executive and out bisexual Ellen Huang.
Celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, Queer Lounge provides a place for LGBT filmmakers and actors to connect with each other and with mainstream film industry movers and shakers. It’s also a place for audience members and the press to get the scoop about all the LGBT offerings at Sundance and the other film festivals happening concurrently in Park City.
Ellen Huang’s vision for Queer Lounge came about after attending the Cannes Film Festival, where the international pavilions offer spaces where guests can get online, read papers in their own languages, and network with others. She thought that a place like that would be great for queers in the business at mainstream festivals, and Sundance was a logical place to begin.
"Sundance is known for launching some of the most seminal LGBT films, the most cutting-edge stuff, the best filmmakers," Huang said. The first Queer Lounge was the result of only eight weeks’ worth of prep time. "The first year we didn’t know what we were doing, and I didn’t know whether I was going to have lawn chair furnishings for the lounge."
The hard work at the beginning paid off, as Queer Lounge was an instant success. In subsequent years, Huang and her crew became more savvy about what kind of events to hold and how to market Queer Lounge. Then in 2006, a film about two cowboys in Wyoming, starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams, broke big.
"Brokeback Mountain was a really big factor in our having visibility in 2006," Huang says. "I became an expert on [it], is how my publicist pitched me, and it was fun, because I did have some expertise on how films are made and how films are marketed. … But it also brought a lot of momentum to the aspects of Sundance that were gay/lesbian that year."
Around the same time, Rolling Stone published an unprecedented (for them) two-page article about the LGBT films at Sundance and mentioned Queer Lounge. That kind of visibility was invaluable for Queer Lounge.
The momentum continued when Huang brought Queer Lounge to a different venue for the first time, the Toronto International Film Festival, in September 2006. "There is something to be said for doing these film festival hubs, and Toronto was big PR success for us, but it was extravagant to do," Huang explained.
She said she would love to bring Queer Lounge to other festivals as well, but that may depend on its new relationship with GLAAD. Last fall, Queer Lounge was added to GLAAD’s media programs portfolio, and this January it will host GLAAD’s special event to announce the nominees for the 19th Annual GLAAD Media Awards.
Queer Lounge was a more-than-full-time gig for Huang during its first four years. She worked 80 to 100 hours each week, leaving her little time for any personal life. "I really had to think about how am I going to be sustainable, how is Queer Lounge going to sustain itself, how is it going to grow and evolve to the next level," she said, "so I started looking at macro solutions. I thought, why not be part of a larger nonprofit which has similar values, outlook and mission, and GLAAD immediately came to mind."
Huang believes their alliance will be mutually beneficial. "I hope we can help transform each other," she said. "For me and Queer Lounge, having more of a foundation and an infrastructure. And on the other hand, I hope to help them transform to reach a different audience than they have in the past, which is generally older. I find it rare to find an organization that draws from the energy of youth and artists. I hope that helps bring a different vibe to GLAAD."
Both Queer Lounge and GLAAD share a vision of supporting LGBT filmmakers and bringing greater visibility to their films. Huang has ideas for doing this beyond the walls of Queer Lounge as well: "I’d like to see if GLAAD might be interested in helping me form a think tank from the Hollywood community that draws from both gay and straight influential directors, producers, and talent, and draw from organizations like SAG and WGA, to see how we can get ourselves on screen and on TV more."
Until then, Huang is looking forward to spending more time seeing films at this year’s Sundance rather than being at the Lounge most of the festival. In her pre-Queer Lounge days, when she worked with production companies for Helen Hunt and composer Hans Zimmer, among others, Huang often saw five movies each day at Sundance. Since Queer Lounge began, she’s seen as few as three some years, up to a maximum of 10.