03/06/2013 11:49 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Australia Censors Gay Film: What Gay Filmmaking Can Learn From Porn

I've worked in the gay porn industry for over a decade -- producing, distributing, and making hardcore sex films. Two years ago, an unusual proposal came across my desk. A young filmmaker named Travis Mathews was looking to direct his first feature, a frank meditation on gay life in San Francisco called I Want Your Love, and he thought I might be able to help. He was looking for backers. It turned out, I could do a lot more.

We took on the project because we liked it. And because we were familiar with the gay market. But we also knew that we could give something to I Want Your Love that another, more traditional distributor couldn't: freedom.

From its early days, gay filmmaking has faced constraints when finding an audience that straight filmmakers don't. Earlier gay filmmakers, like Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger faced obscenity prosecution for even broaching the subject of sexuality. In the late '60s, even featuring someone in drag could result in an X rating. The culture has changed dramatically since then, but in some ways gay filmmakers still face challenges in bringing their movies to a market. Just this week, Australian censors banned I Want Your Love from screening at all in the country -- even at festivals.

It's too bad for them. I Want Your Love is a tremendous film, part meditation on gay identity, part love letter to San Francisco. It also happens to include segments with explicit gay sex. Watching the film evolve it struck me as to the difference between gay film and straight films. Unlike straight filmmakers that tend to play up the heat, gay filmmakers tend to de-sensationalize the sex, to make it seamless within a story, to play it down. Sex is an integral part of our lives, but that doesn't stop outsiders -- or traditional distributors -- from labeling it obscene or pornographic.

I Want Your Love has much in common with those early gay filmmakers -- and I think it also offers a way forward. Part of the reason I was so intrigued by the film as a producer was because I don't shy away from sex. And I knew that unlike mainstream distributors, we could help allow Travis to produce a version of the film that wasn't compromised by outdated ratings codes or theatrical discomfort. I Want Your Love screened at festivals across the country last year -- including a packed house at Lincoln Center, but when it's released this Monday, it's main distribution platform will be VOD -- video-on-demand.

Video-on-demand, a platform pioneered by porn companies like NakedSword, holds the possibility of a new era of gay filmmaking. Gay film festivals in places like New York, San Francisco and Provincetown will remain cultural events, but distribution -- the lifeblood of filmmaking -- will be increasingly virtual, allowing them to reach a larger and more targeted audience, and hopefully to finance their next project.

You see, porn hasn't had a theatrical revenue base for almost forty years. And what we've done in the meantime has been to build up email lists, to learn audience behaviors, and find ways to bypass the gatekeepers. We've always been the insurgents of the film community, with more in common with Roger Corman than any Burbank studio exec.

What does this mean for gay film? It means that our lives can be told in more varied, complex stories -- and still be profitable. It's like the difference between CBS and Netflix. To make a program successful, CBS needs to reach a broadest possible audience. Netflix, on the other hand, can create a successful production just by targeting a very specific segment of a larger audience. In many ways, this is what porn has been doing for years.

We're eager to help I Want Your Love find that audience, so that more stories like it can be told. People always ask me about the unlikely partnership between an indie filmmaker and a porn company. After all, if it were just about the money we could have made a more explicit film much more cheaply. So I tell them that it's not so much about the sex as it is the love -- for the audience, for the community, for the future of gay filmmaking.