In 1979, Kathy Wolfe saw the powerful documentary Word is Out at the Frameline Film Festival. After presenting the stories of a group of diverse lesbians and gays, the filmmakers challenged the viewers to make a difference of their own.
“I was completely inspired by seeing that film,” remembers Kathy. “I immediately grasped the importance of bringing our stories to the public.”
Her first approach was to get involved in new emerging video technology. In 1981, Kathy Wolfe produced and directed a twelve-part video series, Fix it Now, featuring women contractors (mostly lesbians) demonstrating the basics of home repair. The series was shown on local public access television in Cupertino, CA, but later was shared throughout the country.
For the next several years, Kathy honed her skills in producing, directing and editing lesbian documentaries, including The Changer and the Changed, an early history of Olivia Records.
But even as Kathy worked on these projects, she realized that there were limited outlets to actually showcase her work – or that of other like minded filmmakers. She decided to shift her focus from making movies to the distribution of them.
Gays and lesbians around the country, in those days often completely closeted, were just realizing that they could watch – and rewatch – gay-themed movies in the privacy of their own home. Thus, in 1985, Kathy launched Wolfe Video, her mail order business to distribute movies to the gay community. Her very first mailer was a modest 8.5 x 14 flyer with ten titles. But over the years the catalogs grew to feature several hundred titles per catalog.
From the outset, however, Kathy’s ultimate goal was wider than mail order. She wanted to spur acceptance of our community by getting these titles seen by both gay and straight audiences.
She began acquiring rights to films, handling everything from the manufacture of the VHS tapes to promoting the titles into the educational market, and developing wholesale distribution to LGBTQ Bookstores.
The obstacles Kathy faced were daunting. Besides the usual hurdles starting a business (financing, etc), there were challenges that arose from homophobia in the business world. Manufacturers refused to replicate the tapes; printing companies didn’t want to print the catalog. Mainstream wholesale distributors were initially reluctant to consider Wolfe titles which they automatically assumed were pornography.
Even as late as 2003, a merchandising company refused to manufacture matchbooks featuring two lesbian vintage “pulp” films, because management objected to the just barely evocative cover art featuring two women.
Initially, Kathy actually faced threats, as the business, located at first in the basement of her home, drew virulent opposition and hate mail. “I worried for the safety of myself and our employees,” she remembers, “but the neighborhood and our local post office stuck by us.”
In spite of the obstacles, Kathy persisted; over time, she found great vendors, most of whom still work with her today. She also started hiring staff; in 1992, she hired Maria Lynn, who for the next 22 years would work beside Kathy to form the core of the executive team. In 2015, Maria would be succeeded by Jim Stephens.
Wolfe Video quickly developed a large group of loyal mail order customers. This was the golden era of lesbian and gay bookstores, who were happy to carry Wolfe titles. Music festivals, pride festivals, gay community centers – all were growing rapidly during the eighties and nineties, and provided a way to spread the word about gay movies and docs.
A key early filmmaker who contributed to Wolfe Video’s success was Nicole Conn, whose lesbian romances Claire of the Moon, Cynara, Elena Undone, and A Perfect Ending, were immediate hits and remain popular to this day.
As distribution grew in LGBTQ spaces, Kathy became more determined to break into the mainstream film rental market.
Key to her success in doing this was her friendship and working relationship with Lily Tomlin. In 1992 Wolfe became the distributor for the VHS of Lily’s play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. This created a huge breakthrough into mainstream distribution and gave Wolfe Video access to the giant players of the time: Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, Tower Records as well as the 27,000 neighborhood video stores. Now, Wolfe had the ability to distribute LGBTQ movies nationally via mainstream channels.
In 2002 Wolfe Video authored their first title on DVD, Big Eden, the biggest commercial hit to date (and the first gay double DVD). Kathy applied to have the film rated PG by the MPAA – a first for a gay film – which brought Big Eden into many more mainstream outlets and prompted fan mail from community members excited to see gay content in their local video store.
Soon, Wolfe Video was releasing 12-16 titles a year on the Wolfe label, plus selling the best of the rest via their mail order arm. The company continued to grow exponentially throughout the 1990s. Another big break came in the early 2000s, when Wolfe inked a deal with Showtime to distribute Queer as Folk, and a few years later, The L Word. “When Queer as Folk came out on VHS and DVD, we were shipping them out as fast as they arrived on our dock. There were days when I took multiple truckloads to the local post office. We were spending thousands of dollars in postage and ultimately saved our historic neighborhood post office.” Kathy remembers.
Kathy developed relationships with U.S. and foreign distribution companies and began offering selected films to other countries. She also brought great foreign films to the U.S. including Oscar submissions Undertow (Peru 2010), Reaching for the Moon (Brazil 2014), and The Circle (Switzerland 2015).
NEW CHALLENGES FOR WOLFE VIDEO
Wolfe Video started six years before the unheralded launching of the World Wide Web (1991), eight years before email seeped into the mainstream (1993), and 12 years before Netflix was founded (1998). Those three developments would completely change the world of film, offering both new avenues to advertise to the gay audience and a whole new way to experience film – streaming.
The web gave Wolfe Video another way to find customers; early on, Kathy started WolfeVideo.com and began an email newsletter. She also started WolfeReleasing.com, a resource for filmmakers, as well as a way to showcase Wolfe films available for festival and theatrical screenings.
Soon after Netflix launched, they became a Wolfe Video customer; first of DVDs and later, when they launched their streaming service, Netflix licensed a large number of Wolfe titles for the channel. To this day, Netflix remains one of Wolfe’s largest customers.
In 2012, Wolfe Video pioneered global access to LGBTQ cinema by launching the first digital LGBTQ platform, WolfeOnDemand.com. Kathy also developed partnerships with a large number of other streaming platforms, including Apple TV, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Showtime, Peacock, Tubi, Kanopy, Vudu, Fandango NOW, Mubi and more.
Kathy is philosophical about the state of the business. “These days our films can be streamed all over the world or purchased on DVD for guaranteed rewatching. I take pride in knowing we helped make a difference for our community. We now see ourselves – and are seen – in a much truer light.”
WOLFE’S HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE
To really get a feel for how revolutionary Wolfe Video is, and the impact Kathy had on bringing out the gay community, consider this: Megahit Philadelphia wasn’t released in theaters until 1993. When Wolfe started shipping LGBTQ titles, television (even the supposedly more open cable channels) had barely dipped their toes into gay programming, Queer as Folk did not air on cable until 2000; The L Word wouldn’t air until 2004.
It is undeniable that Kathy’s determination and vision contributed to making those mainstream titles possible by developing the audience for them. Over the years, the Wolfe Video executive team spent countless hours watching screeners and visiting film festivals around the world to find quality, diverse, representational films – and then many more hours promoting them to as many outlets as possible.
It’s an especially impressive feat given Wolfe Video is located, not in Hollywood or New York City, but in relatively rural, historic New Almaden, CA. In 2018, Kathy added an L.A. office, but basically she still works from home.
Both the LGBTQ and mainstream community recognize her impact and Kathy has received multiple awards over the years including: Cinequest’s “Maverick Spirit Award;” NCLR’s “Community Partner Award;” the San Francisco Board of Supervisors “Certificate of Honor,” and the National Organization of Women’s “Excellence in Media Award.”
As early as 1999 Forbes Magazine recognized Kathy as an “Up and Comer,” and in 2019, her biography was chosen for the Indie Book Award Winner Game Changers, by Robin Lowey.
But perhaps Kathy’s greatest reward was a touching interaction with a young lesbian on the occasion of Wolfe Video’s 25th anniversary in Miami. “You’re the creator of Fix it Now?” the woman asked. “That show saved me when I was a gay teenager. I watched it over and over. THANK YOU.”
Indeed, from all of us, THANK YOU.