On the left is the black and white striped top of a clapperboard. Beside it is a Pride rainbow ribbon. They are both sat on a wooden table.

‘No paying audience’: How Lesflicks brings films to fans who don’t exist.

Stories come from everywhere and everyone, so why are some more seen and heard than others? This has been a frustration long felt in the lesbian community, whose lives, loves and joys and successes have been under or misrepresented in TV and cinema for, well … ever. And even though more and more content is coming through from LGBTQ+ filmmakers, it is still less common for authentic sapphic stories to break through. Why might this be?

Naomi Bennett, the CEO and founder of Lesflicks, has a unique insight into the reasons. Lesflicks is a streaming platform for lesbian and bisexual film, but more than that, it’s an entire ecosystem that aims to “improve the distribution, awareness and access to authentic sapphic stories on screen”. A lifestyle blogger and event organiser, she grew frustrated that she and her community had little access to films that did not “heterosexualise or sexualise” lesbian lives, yet she knew that, with considerable effort, they were out there to be found. In the process of seeking out access to such content, she spoke to plenty of figures in the industry and made some interesting discoveries. Firstly, she was told that the films available didn’t meet the standards, requirements and style for selection to broadcast (“but if we don’t support early filmmakers, then how do they get there?”) and secondly, that filmmakers were really struggling to get distribution because they had limited time, resources and understanding of the process. “When you’re making a film as an independent filmmaker, first of all you’re not a marketing expert,” she explains. “But you’ve also probably put all your money and time into making that film and you’ve probably got to go back to your day job.”

Two women sat in the cinema laugh together. One points towards the screen. They are holding red and white popcorn buckets and there are other cinemagoers around them. The chairs they sit on are red.
Naomi knew that the data didn’t tell the entire story, and when she publicised screenings herself, she brought together a paying audience that far surpassed what she had been told existed.

However, probably the most exasperating discovery was that funding for lesbian filmmakers was the biggest obstacle of all. “Apparently there’s no paying audience for lesbian films and that every time a cinema shows one, seats remain empty,” she says. However, Naomi knew there was a huge appetite for these films in her immediate community and was spurred on to scrutinise the numbers more closely. “For example, [a cinema] showed Tell It To The Bees and sold only 20 tickets. What they won’t say is that the timing sucked, because they didn’t believe in the audience,” she explains. “Also, if you don’t know the name of the film, you can’t search for it and the cinemas don’t market beyond their newsletter mailing lists.” She took action. For nine months, every time she found a cinema in London, Manchester or Birmingham that was showing a lesbian film, she organised a film club and took women to it. “We did 36 events, supported 76 short and feature films and filled 830 seats with ‘no paying audience’,” she laughs.

At the same time, she began collecting numbers and feedback from the community to address the absence of data in this demographic. The next step was to fill the breach, and that was how Lesflicks was born. However, as we all know, in March 2020 – just a few months after the launch of the beta site – the world shut down. At this point, Lesflicks only had 20 titles, so Naomi had to ramp up the operation in a big way and build a new online team (“we’re run by a 100% part-time, flexible working, volunteer and internship group”). Today it hosts the largest selection of sapphic content of any indie streaming platform, but more than that, it encompasses an editorial site, film database, events programme, safe community space, networking service and, crucially, an investment programme. Plus, “we’re adding new titles all the time and growing that audience,” says Naomi.

Left: a quote that reads “We did 36 events, supported 76 short and feature films and filled 830 seats with ‘no paying audience’.” Right: A head and shoulders shot of Naomi Bennett. She has long brown hair, wears glasses, a pearl necklace and a black dress patterned with white flowers.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Lesflicks’ work lies in the extraordinary amount of networking, research and simple hard graft that goes into getting the kinds of fresh features and short films onto the site that the audience is looking for. However, there has been a significant shift in lesbian filmmaking since the late 1990s/early 2000s. “Films like Imagine Me and You and I Can’t Think Straight were being made with one-to-three-million-pound budgets. And they’re the films that have been really successful. Today, that part of the industry has gone,” she laments. “We now have thousands of low or no budget films, but they’re not necessarily getting distribution or being marketed properly either.” Again, the “lack of paying audience” is cited as the reason for an absence of funding for these filmmakers and this has spurred Naomi to try and change that. “It’s about building on what we’ve got already and taking funding to films, connecting with investors and content creators,” she explains. “We’ve already identified a couple of projects – there’s one big budget project in Canada that looks fantastic called Between Action and Cut. Sheila’s [the filmmaker] has quite a lot of her funding already and a great initial cast, and we’re working with her on both additional investment and also key people. We’ve also just funded a small web series in Australia with a bit of older representation which will be out later this year.”

Lesflicks is also a social enterprise and committed to paying filmmakers a fair rate, while educating the audience on the value of film and being completely transparent in their running costs. It’s these core values that have seen filmmakers start to head directly to the platform instead of other, less certain, channels. “We are disrupting a broken model and the values we have in place have really helped in our success.” This is reflected in a loyal community whose recommendations keep the platform busy. And this is important because the audience is actually quite hard to reach. “We don’t all go to the same venues. We don’t all have the same lived experience. We are mums, students, unemployed, disabled, Black, white. We are diverse.”

So, what makes the cut for Lesflicks? “It needs to be a lesbian or bisexual, woman-loving-woman story. If it’s a supporting character, they must be shown in a positive light. We have a couple of films in the Love Actually style, where you have an ensemble cast and there are four different storylines, but only one of them is queer women. In those instances, positive representation is first, foremost and key. The good news is that there are thousands out there, but it’s just getting hold of them, getting the rights and getting them in front of the audience.

You can’t underestimate the power of authentic stories on screen.”

The Lesflicks streaming platform is open to submissions. Discover more about the network, editorial, community and investment opportunities.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard