Wolfe Video: Ahead of the Pack
On the 20th anniversary of Wolfe Video, we’re reminded how a few good women and a gift from Lily Tomlin transformed a simple idea into the largest lesbian-owned entertainment company in the country.
Driving to Wolfe Video’s corporate headquarters in the idyllic, historic town of New Almaden, California — an hour south of San Francisco and mere minutes from San Jose — feels like a leap back in time. A narrow, meandering road winds past bucolic cottages and Wells Fargo whistle-stops still standing from the 1800s, when the area was known primarily for the New Almaden Mines. Older than any of the state’s gold mines, the vast complex of New Almaden’s mining operations produced mercury that was later used to process ore during the gold rush. The New Almaden Mines lasted longer than any other such operation (from the 1840s to the 1940s) and produced a greater total value (76 million pounds of quicksilver) than any other metal mine in California.
Today the abandoned mines are a vast series of ghostly tunnels that attract numerous tourists to the historical site. Kathy Wolfe, who founded Wolfe Video 20 years ago, moved to the town long after the mines were closed. But her office displays a complicated map of those tangled underground tunnels, and she can talk for hours about the area’s history.
It may be the New Almaden Mines that put the pastoral town on the map, but it’s Wolfe Video — the largest exclusive distributor of lesbian and gay entertainment in North America — that is keeping it there. Literally, in some cases: A few years back, when the U.S. Postal Service was eliminating small, rural offices, the local postmaster asked Wolfe to help keep their office open. In a move practically unheard of, the multimillion-dollar company stopped using UPS and FedEx and switched all their shipping to the good ol’ USPS. It worked, ingratiating the company to Wolfe’s neighbors of 30 years.
Although the locals may enjoy having Wolfe Video headquartered in their small town, the location has raised a few eyebrows in Hollywood.
“We had the VP from Columbia TriStar, the area rep, and the director of sales all come to visit us one day,” recalls Wolfe’s president, Maria Lynn, “because they wanted to find out, who is this company that’s selling this incredible amount of gay product?”
The vice president of Columbia TriStar did what I do on the way to Wolfe’s headquarters. He got lost.
“They went to the mailbox and pulled in, and they were sitting in their car, looking at the barn, going, ‘I can’t believe it’s in a barn,’” she laughs. “I could just see them all going, ‘Huh.’”
Wolfe Video is, in fact, in a barn. That is, one of the complex’s five buildings is a renovated barn — but it’s not the antiquated shack next to their mailbox that confuses so many visitors. The story of the lesbian company’s early days and its burgeoning corporate headquarters in New Almaden sounds just like that other Silicon Valley success story — Hewlett Packard — except in this case, the women began their operation in Kathy Wolfe’s not-quite-finished basement. The garage came later, as I learn when Wolfe, Lynn and the company’s VP of sales and marketing, Linda Voutour, give me the grand tour during my visit, pointing out the closet-sized nooks where they used to work.
Kathy Wolfe was running a graphics firm with 13 offices in the early ’80s when she first studied filmmaking by producing public-access shows for a local community college. Because she was making video documentaries (West Coast Crones) long before most people had VCRs in their homes, she could envision the impact video would have on American culture, and decided she wanted to provide something nobody had before: a record of the lives of women, feminists and lesbians. When she realized there was no outlet for dyke films, Wolfe dove into the distribution arena.
Wolfe’s big break came when the company acquired actress Lily Tomlin’s catalog of performance videos, including The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. The catalog, which was “a gift from Lily,” Lynn says, garnered Wolfe a loyal following.
To fulfill her vision, Kathy developed an extended Wolfe family. By 1993, the company occupied nearly every corner of Wolfe’s home, basement and garage. The latter, an old chicken house, was Lynn’s office when she came on board 11 years ago after convincing Kathy that Wolfe couldn’t afford not to hire her.
Leaving software development behind was a no-brainer for Lynn. It was simply “the prospect of doing something that had more meaning to it, that was more interesting,” she recalls. “I could care less if the company I was working for ever developed another computer platform … [but] to create a gay company is a completely different idea.”
Voutour had similar reasons for leaving the computer industry to join Wolfe nine years ago. Since then, the two women have bonded, both with each other — Voutour and Lynn are partners and live a few doors down from the Wolfe office in another historic adobe — and with Kathy Wolfe, whom they describe as far more than a boss and a CEO.
“I would describe my relationship with Kathy as mentor, friend, family,” Voutour says, as Wolfe beams at the compliment.
“This is tough work,” Lynn adds. “We work really hard here. It’s important to us to have fun with what we do, and that was something we discussed when we first started working together: that we either ought to really love it or be making a lot of money, and hopefully both. And now I think I would say it’s not so simple just to choose between the two. Because there are certain things — like porn — that we could do that would make a lot more money, but that we would just hate doing. And that’s not worth it. While it seems like there are a lot of people here, there is a ton of work to do, and everybody works really hard. We can’t have a place where people don’t like each other.”
The genuine fondness the women feel for one another helped when employees and volunteers were stacked in close quarters in Wolfe’s historic home.
“We really did not want to move into downtown San Jose, an industrial tilt-up park,” Wolfe says. “We like walking to work. We wanted to stay out here.”
The women did just that: Four years ago, they bought a vacant, spider-ridden former museum (once a Wells Fargo stop) and spent years bringing it up to state-of-the-art standards without compromising the integrity of the building’s original character. That meant an earthquake retrofit for the main building and for the barn (now the company’s busy distribution hub) and the addition of electricity, telephone lines, computer hookups and simple insulation.
Now the building houses Wolfe’s private office, replete with old museum relics, like a wooden mine air duct (“They stacked these on top of each other to bring air down 934 feet,” Wolfe marvels). On her walls are a photo of her longtime partner, Barb, several Old West artifacts (including stuff she brought back from her recent trip to Arizona’s Cowgirl College) and a black-and-white portrait of the old Wells Fargo agent for the area.
Though the women watch yellow orioles flutter across the windowsill at lunch, judge local parades during holidays and host women’s camp outs on the modest parcel that houses Wolfe’s collection of vintage Air Streams, when it comes to business they can play ball with Hollywood’s finest.
“Sales have grown so much over the years,” Lynn says. Wolfe’s last reported sales were 6 million, though today that’s estimated to be in the seven-digit range. “Sales today are a hundred times what they were when I started 10 years ago. One of the things we have really focused on over the years is making gay and lesbian film accessible. There are a lot of different places in the world these titles can be, and I like to think we’ve had a big part in changing that.” Wolfe, in fact, has been hailed as almost single-handedly responsible for mainstreaming lesbian films. They’ve set up lesbian and gay sections and gotten lesbian films into numerous chains, including Blockbuster, Wherehouse, Hollywood Video and Virgin Megastores, and have films going out to Amazon and Netflix. When it comes to queer films, Wolfe has also been a resource for major movie studios.
“Well, at some point I’d like to think we’d be competition for the studios on some level,” Lynn admits. “But you know, one thing that really has defined the corporate culture of this company for many years is that we work very hard to develop cooperative relationships where traditionally competitive ones would have existed.”
Sometimes studios with their own distribution arm will choose Wolfe instead because the lesbian-owned company’s employees are considered the leading experts in reaching the lesbian market and mainstreaming films with a queer element. That cooperative spirit has helped the company build lasting industry relationships and land prime accounts — as the sole queer distributor of Queer as Folk and The L Word DVD sets, for example — that make larger companies go green with envy.
“We’re capable of being experts … because we’ve had the mail-order catalog for so many years. We have a way to market-test every title that comes out. We had the opportunity to set up a lesbian and gay section in a video store in Denver. There’s a straight owner or manager, but they see the need, and they want to do it, but my goodness, they are just completely lost, they don’t know what to do. They come to us and we set up a section that we know is going to work for them based upon our testing it in our catalog.”
Voutour chimes in: “Also, based on the demographics of our mailing list, we can say, ‘This is a good area for this product,’ and talk about how loyal this customer base is.”
Given their relationships with chains and stores like Amazon, it’s a bit awkward for Lynn to talk freely about one of the company’s main qualms.
“In some ways, I want to tell consumers that women filmmakers and lesbian filmmakers make more money if customers buy their films directly from Wolfe,” she says. “Because they are not going through Amazon and all that. Now, it’s awkward for us to say that in print, because we serve Amazon, we serve the video stores.”
But consumers can also support lesbian filmmakers by purchasing DVDs and videos directly from Wolfe.
“It’s interesting that when people want support, they give us a call,” says Lynn of Wolfe’s extensive community programs and sponsorships. “It’s important for them to know that when they buy their videos directly from us, there’s a lot more profit for us to give back to the community. Even though I don’t want to discourage people from buying from Amazon, if they bought from us, it would be far better.”
“It’s a connection that’s hard to make,” Wolfe admits. “It’s hard to ask for, hard to talk about. If these people who call us about supporting their womyn’s fest, if you said, ‘Well, why don’t you go ask Amazon for some money,’ it would just be a joke.”
One thing Wolfe has done for the community is something few companies its size have managed: They’ve made all their DVDs accessible to the hearing-impaired. These days, Lynn hopes consumers will see what Wolfe has done and stick with them. She also has a vested interest in getting lesbians — who are notorious for skipping the cineplex and waiting for home video — out to the theater. Wolfe recently launched a theatrical arm that will buy and release lesbian and gay films directly to movie theaters, much like the mainstream companies do.
“In terms of growth [of lesbian films] in the future,” she says, “one of the biggest things consumers can do is to go out to the movies.”
Though the mainstream studios are buying films that are simply out of Wolfe’s buying realm, as the company grows, Lynn is confident that will change. “It has changed dramatically just in the past year,” she says. “We’re spending 10 times what we did last year on acquisitions. I’m traveling to international markets … Cannes, Milan and Toronto … before [films] come to U.S. festivals and we have the opportunity to buy them then. The company made a commitment to doing that, and, what the heck, I’ve become an acquisition specialist.”
It’s an admittedly risky venture for Wolfe, since lesbians aren’t going to the theater.
“What they need to know is that the theatrical release fuels the whole machine,” Lynn argues. “It makes the video more accessible ultimately; it sells better to TV; it makes that filmmaker some money so she can make another film. We get a lot of, ‘Why aren’t there more lesbian films?’ — a big part of it would change if women knew that it made a difference if they went to theaters.”
Wolfe concurs: “I think we’ve gotten — and when I say ‘we,’ I’m including myself as part of the audience — it can be very easy for us to say, ‘I’m going to wait and see it on video.’ But, ultimately, that becomes the fatal decision. That’s why we are trying to put out the word about how the public at large can make a difference. Without that level of support, it falls to the shoulders of filmmakers and investors to try to make it happen.”
Voutour agrees: “It’s true that if we can get the support on a particular film, that filmmaker can go off and make another film — another lesbian film.”
Are there lesbian films that would have benefited from Wolfe’s theatrical arm?
Absolutely, says Lynn, though she won’t name names. “There’s no other company in the world where lesbian cinema is more important than here. This company is woman-owned, and it always has been, and while we’ll always be looking for good films about both gays and lesbians, lesbian film is where our hearts are, to a great extent.”
That means they invest themselves in films that wildly exceed expectations, like Treading Water, and those that fail to live up to their promise, like the indie gender buddy flick By Hook or By Crook. Lynn says Hook was difficult to market, even though they viewed the company’s commitment to it as a matter of social change.
“I really had higher hopes for By Hook or By Crook,” she says. “Like I said, these films are very personal to us, and we don’t often miscalculate. … We were so disappointed by it not taking off. I think it’s just as painful for us as it is for the producers.”
Today, Wolfe Video boasts well over 500 home videos (over 60 exclusives), a handful of theatrical releases (including the new lesbian favorite Goldfish Memory), and the recognition of being credited with moving queer films into the mainstream. Did Kathy Wolfe imagine all this 20 years ago?
“Absolutely,” she says. “I always wanted to be a company that would make a huge difference. And when we began, not many people even owned VCRs, so I think we were true pioneers in lesbian and gay visibility. And I think that we continue to keep pushing that envelope.”
“Kathy’s vision is very unique as a business owner,” Lynn chimes in. “And [it] certainly drives us to be constantly thinking of the next thing. How could we be doing this better, how could we be doing this bigger, and what else could we take on?”
Wolfe has a few ideas for the next two decades, but says it’s sometimes hard for Lynn and Voutour to keep up.
“You know, I do have a few ideas that I haven’t even told these guys about,” she laughs. “I hate to overwhelm them all today. That’s sort of like my daily thing: ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea!’ And they’re like, ‘Thanks, I still have that list from last night!’”
Wolfe says the company will certainly be involved in streaming video and has high hopes for the new emerging technology dubbed “exploding DVDs” — movies on DVD that are viewable only for a limited amount of time. And Lynn and Wolfe agree that digital filmmaking will help them get a wider audience for newer lesbian filmmakers.
“The consumer tends to be overly critical of these emerging filmmakers when, really, these are our resources for the future. We need to be like, ‘Well, OK, this was just her first film; let’s just give her a chance to make her mistakes and get better at it,’ because, ultimately, these will be the filmmakers who bring us the films that we are longing for. … We’re looking for new ways to bridge the gap between emerging filmmakers who aren’t making things that are going to be shown in the theaters and finding an audience that appreciates and supports them, even though it may not be the best movie you ever saw. I feel a sort of a responsibility now that we’ve created this entity that’s hopefully the home for lesbian films. We have to be inclusive. We have to find a way to hear everyone’s voice.”
The Wolfe pack — now 16 strong — is still rapidly growing, says Wolfe, as is the company’s customer base. Newest addition? Young women.
“There was a time when we thought, young women don’t have money, don’t market to them,” Lynn recalls of a recent promotion in New Orleans where teen and twentysomethings were agog over Wolfe. “Some were like, ‘Oh, my God, I never knew a catalog like this existed.’ It never occurred to them that there could be a catalog for gays.”
For Wolfe — the woman and the company — this is a heady moment in lesbian history.
“It’s astonishing to see how far we’ve come,” she says. “But I’m looking to build a company that outlasts me.”
New Girls on the Block
A handful of queer video distributors are clamoring for Wolfe’s vaunted industry position. Two gay-run distribs — Picture This! (www.picturethisent.com) and Ariztical (www.ariztical.com) — have expanded into nongay films, but still presented a handful of engaging lesbian titles this year, including the amazing Same-Sex Parents and the reliable Maggie and Annie, while steadfast TLA Releasing (www.tlareleasing.com) continued to grow with gay thrillers like End Game and innovative nongay titles like Moon Child.
But Passion Fruit Video (www.passionfruitvideo.com), a relatively unknown dyke upstart in Austin, Texas, might just surpass them all. Passion Fruit has released a sprinkling of lesbian films, including the teen violence flick Never Again (whose young lead, Bryher Gray, is destined to be a star), the unintentionally funny documentary What Can 2 Girls Do Together? and their latest crowd-pleaser, How to Pick Up Girls: A Guide for the Dating Impaired. The latter recently won the QCinema award for Best Debut Lesbian Film and has led to the production of a TV pilot based on the flick’s bad-date premise.
Passion Fruit was founded almost five years ago by a documentarian named Alpha (a one-moniker filmmaker who looks more like Betsey Johnson than Jodie Foster). Though the company has grown exponentially during that time, Alpha says that there remains a “wonderful core group of crew that are all gay or bisexual.” The company’s location may have something to do with that.
“Austin … is the San Francisco of the South. Austin is very liberal, very, very gay-friendly, a liberal oasis in Texas with a huge film community centered here,” says Alpha. “We’re aware that much of Texas is hyperconservative, but if people have a problem with lesbians in Austin, they move away. Gay and lesbian folk are everywhere in this town. Being in Austin has given us an advantage in that we have access to a huge supply of talented actresses, some of them the most beautiful lesbians you can find in the industry.”
A fan of edgy innovators like Richard Linklater, Christopher Guest and Evie Leder, Alpha also teaches guerilla filmmaking at the local college, where students pick up a camera and shoot from day one. She employs the same philosophy at Passion Fruit. On two of their recent films (including How to Pick Up Girls), the company placed new lesbian camerapeople behind the lens and let them create.
“Hollywood, and many of the gay distributors of film, have some difficulty thinking outside the box,” Alpha argues, adding that lesbian filmmakers from the streets who offer a less one-dimensional view of lesbian life are rarely rewarded for doing so.
“This past two years, there were three major films about lesbian serial killers … but where are the budgets for lesbian filmmakers who want to do more realistic films on themes that resonate more with us? Lesbian serial killing is not a big problem in my neighborhood, but the more negative themes get bigger budgets.”
Since Passion Fruit banked on the lesbian comedy How to Pick Up Girls — against industry advice — the film has been selling out theaters wherever it’s played.
“And tickets get scalped on the street where it’s showing, but we still hear from distributors that lesbians don’t buy tickets!” says Alpha. “I think they’ve lost touch sometimes with real lesbian life, and certainly the market that’s there with everyday women.”