Ian McKellen Launches LGBT Short Film Series

LGBT filmmaking embraces social media branding in the actor’s latest undertaking.
By  · Published on June 23rd, 2017

LGBT filmmaking embraces social media branding in the actor’s latest undertaking.

Ian McKellen’s recent big screen ventures have largely been commercial fare, including The Hobbit films, a return to the X-Men franchise, and a role in the live-action Beauty and the Beast. But it seems that where his heart truly lies is incorporating LGBT activism in his work.

McKellen, who is openly gay and has been out since 1988, has in the past been vocal about Hollywood side-lining gay actors and is known for his years of gay rights work. Some of his onscreen projects have aligned with his support for the LGBT community, his lead role in the TV show Vicious being a prime example. The comedy series, which was broadcast by ITV in the UK and PBS in the US from 2013 to 2016, features McKellen and Derek Jacobi as an old gay couple who have been living together for over 50 years.

McKellen, along with Vicious producer Gary Reich and the founder of The Brooklyn Brothers creative agency, Jackie Stevenson, are now banding together to produce a series of short films by and for the LGBT community, per The Hollywood Reporter.

Four short films will be released as part of the LGBT Heroes initiative, with a variety of talent either already attached or in negotiations to collaborate on the project. McKellen himself will be acting in some capacity. The Wachowskis and Tom Ford are reportedly in talks to direct corresponding films.

The first short has already secured Facebook as its broadcast partner. The social media platform will stream the premiere live as well as coordinate community outreach to support the film.

This is new territory for all parties involved. Facebook only recently ordered its first reality series and is jumping in headfirst with some big Hollywood names. Likewise, rather than approach traditional streaming services like Netflix or Amazon to get the job done, the LGBT Heroes team specifically chose a social media company as its first broadcaster. This definitely takes advantage of Facebook’s massive user base and reach. LGBT Heroes is also uncommonly transparent about their choice of having a brand as a distributor.

At the very least, this allegiance is rather conflicting. Facebook constantly faces scrutiny for its perceived inactivity when dealing with discriminatory behaviour on the platform. However, according to McKellen, the scope at which people discuss practically anything on Facebook, controversial or not, is precisely what is appealing about it: “I think it is democracy in action, free spirit in action, I am what I am in action. That’s why I support it.”

The careful curation of product, brand, and distribution paired with the star power linked to the project is in itself a refreshing approach to media production. There could be less strain placed on content creators to produce these smaller-scale films. Their influence alone is probably enough to attract brand involvement. There would be no need to wait for a more traditional studio to back a feature or even greenlight a series for more stories to come to fruition.

Time is an aspect that Stevenson is critical of when it comes to the film industry. There is simply a lack of initiative to fund LGBT stories that are current, relatable and normalised. There is hope that brands will be a more effective solution in their efficiency.

There’s also a matter of storytelling, specifically when it comes to the kind of sensationalism that the average LGBT film in Hollywood perpetuates. Per McKellen:

“Hollywood, to crudely sum it up, has tended to deal with fantasy, tended to deal with escape. Branding has to be up to date otherwise. [Brands] come up with a response to the world as it really is. It’s a much different approach to anything that Hollywood would do.”

LGBT Heroes voices a sincere need for the film industry to catch up and stop seeing non-heteronormative narratives as risky and divergent. With a further commitment to hire folks from the LGBT community behind the camera as well, the initiative is trying to foster a more holistic approach to inclusion that is very much needed.

Of course, there’s no denying that both Hollywood and outright brand associations are far from perfect. Using social causes as a means to make a buck can be trivializing. There’s no concrete way to truly measure a brand’s dedication to advocacy. Facebook has tried to put anti-discrimination policies in place, but there are inevitably many cases of toxicity and trollish behavior on the platform regardless.

Nevertheless, what McKellen, Reich, and Stevenson are striving for may still be an overall success given their concentrated goal to specifically provide for the LGBT community. Their main objective seems to be getting as much relevant content out to a target audience as quickly and freely as possible. It’s a fast and effective way to push LGBT content into mainstream consciousness, especially when well-rounded inclusiveness is still elusive in more traditional routes of media production and distribution. The ability to control what gets made is the biggest incentive, ensuring the kind of “diversity and authenticity” the project aspires towards.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)