Before its upcoming run at Movieland Boulevard Square starting January 24, Jerry Williams, producer and director of Spider Mites Of Jesus: The Dirtwoman Documentary, took his film to seven different film festivals. Here’s how it went.
Here’s a choice between two movies: One features three hot men with their shirts off and the other showcases a 300 lb. drag queen (see above). Based on the images alone, which would you choose to see?
If you picked the three hot men, you understand my movie’s fate.
Spider Mites Of Jesus: The Dirtwoman Documentary looks at the multifaceted world of Richmond native Donnie Corker. As Diversity Richmond Executive Director Bill Harrison said in the movie, “There are people in the gay and lesbian community here in Richmond who have always been embarrassed by Donnie. I never have. Because I remember back in the day, when very few people from our community would go public and talk with the media. Donnie would. And he didn’t very often package his message the way most of us would have… but he was present.”
As the producer/director of the documentary, I was met with similar responses when I entered and played LGBT film festivals around the country.
In 2017, I interviewed 70 people about Richmond’s most notorious gay icon, Dirtwoman.
In 2018, I entered film festivals.
In 2019, I took it on the road.
Of the 41 festivals entered, 16 of them were LGBT.
Of the 7 festivals where it actually showed, only 3 were LGBT (and one of those was in South Africa).
Interestingly, I had several people tell me that my doc wasn’t likely to be embraced by LGBT festivals. That turned out to be the case. The reason: most of them are looking for upstanding, inspirational subject matter. Several transgender stories and the story of a gay men’s chorus playing in the deep South were prominent at festivals I attended. Anything politically charged or aspirational had a better chance of getting accepted.
Even though Donnie Corker (aka Dirtwoman) was notorious for his sexual exploits (sometimes in public), his life was ultimately a positive gay narrative. He was courageously out in the 70s, when many gay people (myself included) were still firmly in the closet. His outrageous exploits were tempered by his generous gestures. Sure, there are stories about Donnie’s sexual encounters, but the doc also tells stories of two women whose lives he saved.
Here’s a quick rundown of what I learned about showing a gay film at festivals.
Cinema Diverse in Palm Springs
Until I visited this desert resort, I had no idea that about 50 percent of Palm Springs residents over 55 identify as LGBT. That’s a whole lotta queers in one small desert city, and they were everywhere! Sadly, this festival is held in September, when many of the residents are still living in cooler climes (it was, literally, 102 in the shade).
As a result, the festival wasn’t packed. But there was a healthy crowd, and there were after parties every night. Almost everyone we ran into was extremely friendly (probably due to the laid-back lifestyle and their more mellow age groups).
As for the description of how the film was received in the introduction, that’s what happened at Cinema Diverse. Most of the audience attended the other film (with the three hot guys), while only about 25 people came to experience Dirtwoman. Of those, several were former Richmonders. The emcee, who hadn’t previously seen the film, enthusiastically expressed his admiration during the Q&A. He raved about the movie and wants to bring it back for a regular run. Even so, either the jaded audience or the unfortunate publicity meant a modest crowd for Dirtwoman.
Out on Film in Atlanta
A few weeks later it was on to another city in the middle of a heat wave, Atlanta. This festival had lots of great films, but mine got relegated to Saturday morning at 11am. Again, a few former Richmonders show up, but the crowd was smaller than 20, though everyone who was there thoroughly enjoyed the film and embraced Donnie’s legacy.
The Florida Film Festival in Orlando
Even though it’s not focused on an LGBT audience, this well-established, 28-year-old festival features a number of LGBT films. Spider Mites Of Jesus: The Dirtwoman Documentary was one of them, and Programming Coordinator Tim Anderson was a big fan of the movie. He even booked it for two showings.
As a bonus, they offer promotional opportunities with Central Florida University, which is about twice the size of VCU. Two students in the Film Marketing and Distribution class were assigned to be my advance publicity team. They handed out postcards with roses to people at various social events and helped generate interest. Here’s the exit interview video they created after the first show:
They also organized a drag show to cap off the second showing featuring Annie Mae, Draggedy Anne and Waka Shame. Since I was paying the queens to perform, I requested that they arrive before the screening. That way, they could add some fabulousness to the lobby and enjoy learning about Dirtwoman. In typical fashion, they showed up during the closing credits! Click here for highlights of their show.
Ironically, the reception from audiences (100+ at both screenings …and mixed sexual orientation) was wonderful. Again, if people just gave the story a chance, they found it entertaining and enjoyable.
The Richmond International Film Festival
In April, 2019, the Richmond International Film Festival made Spider Mites Of Jesus: The Dirtwoman Documentary the opening night event. The Byrd Theatre was packed! Of course, this was an expectedly diverse audience of locals who had experienced Donnie themselves. Gay wasn’t even an issue. As expected, the Richmond audience at the film was wildly enthusiastic.
So, this was my challenge. How do you “sell” a documentary about a gay man, who was ultimately ahead of his time and decidedly outrageous? What does this say about gay audiences vs. non-gay audiences? Are our straight friends more open to experience the diverse array of characters that populate the LGBT universe? Are our own brothers and sisters more jaded and less open to exploring their own?
On January 24, this movie comes back home for an extended run at Movieland. I’m expecting a broad audience to show up… gay and straight and everything in between. Hopefully, Donnie has transcended Richmond’s gay community to become an icon of self-expression that anyone can appreciate. Come find out for yourself.
Jerry Williams is the producer/director of SPIDER MITES OF JESUS: THE DIRTWOMAN DOCUMENTARY. It’s opening at Movieland on January 24 and will run three shows a day as long as it sells tickets. Click here to get yours in advance. Jerry will be attending the screenings on the first weekend.
Photos courtesy Jerry Williams