Strand Releasing’s origins can hardly be described as glamorous. “Jon and I were working for Vestron Pictures, when our paychecks bounced, and they went out of business,” recalls Marcus Hu, who now runs the 10-year-old, Santa Monica–based film distributor with partner Jon Gerrans. Shortly after, while booking films for Mike Thomas’s Strand Theater, Hu came across Macho Dancer, Lino Brocka’s melodrama about male prostitutes in the Phillipines.
“It sounded lurid and appealing,” he says. “Lino had no distributor here, so we booked it directly with him in the Philippines. Afterwards he said, why don’t you handle the U.S. rights? So I borrowed $5000 from my mother, and we did it.” (“We” included Thomas, who left in 1997 to form his own company.) The decision proved fortuitous, both for Strand Releasing—currently honored with a 25-film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art—and, in a small way, for film history. “Lino was very controversial,” Hu notes, “a political activist, who’s since died. Most of his things were lost. Ours is the only known print of his film, and after its MOMA screening, we’ll be donating it to the museum.”
Quirky tastes combine with ardent cinephilia to fuel this small, independently financed company. MOMA’s month-long tribute includes intimate and magisterial works by European directors Claire Denis and Manoel De Oliveira; maverick projects by American independents Jon Jost and Gregg Araki; daring films like East Palace, West Palace (banned in China for its depiction of homosexuality); and inspired revivals of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, or the camp classic Pink Narcissus, to be rereleased this summer. It’s an extraordinary list, full of fun and risk, that defies categorization to seek out films of quality.
What do Hu and Gerrans look for in a film? “First we ask, is it something we feel passionate about and are willing to devote 12 months of our lives to?” says Gerrans. “You’ve got six months of publicity, and hopefully, six to nine months of theatrical runs. So it helps if it’s a film you believe in.”
Eclecticism often works in the company’s favor. Take Love Is the Devil, John Maybury’s highly stylized biopic of painter Francis Bacon. “I was sure it would go to someone with a lot more capital,” Hu remembers. “But it was such a unique vision that others walked away from it. Well, that was exactly why we wanted it.”
They’ve had their share of controversy. Frisk, based on the Dennis
Cooper novel about a gay serial killer, screened on the closing night of San Francisco’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. “Audience response was horrific,” Hu recalls. But films like Wild Reeds, Andre Techiné’s lyrical portrait of French youth in the shadow of Algeria’s war of independence, and Steam, an Italian/Turkish coproduction, were surprise crossover hits.
Early on, Strand helped make a name for Gregg Araki, producing his The Living End (1991), a watershed of the New Queer Cinema, for an astonishing $23,000. More recently, the company’s production wing has expanded. “Hopefully,” Gerrans says, “we’ll be able to make the kind of films we couldn’t afford to buy otherwise.” Four pictures are in the works this year, with budgets ranging from $1 million to $2 million, including the movie adaptation of Psycho Beach Party, and Paul Cox’s Innocence. The past decade has seen the darkening of such Strand-friendly screens as New York’s Public Theater, while many competing distributors were snapped up by studios or pushed out of business. Audiences have also changed. “Ten years ago,” Hu says, “gay and lesbian audiences were hungry. Today they’re much more discriminating. And that’s a good thing.”
But with upcoming releases including Thom Fitzgerald’s Beefcake (about 1950s male models) and Lukas Moodyson’s Show Me Love (about Swedish schoolgirls who fall in love), Strand shows no sign of compromising. “When I look at the MOMA list,” Hu says, “even I think, wow, that’s a lot of great directors. Bigger companies all thought these films were not commercial. I can’t believe nobody else stepped up to the plate to handle them.”