Guys We Love: Queer Filmmaker AJ Mattioli

Photo by Tom Roper

“We can either continue to push ourselves into something that doesn’t want us, or we can create our own utopia.”

One of his proudest works, filmmaker AJ Mattioli tells me, is his documentary “Words.” The film, which Mattioli made during his own gender transition, features a host of New York City artists, activists, and personalities in intimate conversations regarding their own identities and garnered praise from audiences and critics alike. Then, some time after the film’s release, Mattioli received a quarterly report of his earnings from the distribution company he’d worked with: In three months, he’d earned a total of $0.07.

“I made seven cents in three months,” Mattioli says. “And I was like, that’s it. I’m done. I can’t take it anymore.” 

Fortunately, Mattioli wasn’t actually done, but the incident did inspire him to do something about the distribution options afforded to queer artists and filmmakers. Mattioli Productions, which the NYC-based filmmaker founded in 2010, recently launched a distribution arm, giving queer artists a better chance to connect to queer audiences using both mainstream and queer-owned and operated viewing platforms. 

The idea occurred to Mattioli not long after the disastrous quarterly report. On a whim, he made contact with Tony Clemente, another queer filmmaker who had two shorts, “How to Fold a Fitted Sheet” and “Hopelessly”, which weren’t yet connected to a distributor. Clemente agreed to let Mattioli shop the films around, “and within two months, I had it on, like, seven different platforms,” Mattioli tells me. “They might not be Netflix and Hulu, but they are queer-owned and operated platforms, keeping the money rainbow — which is amazing.” Between the two shorts, Mattioli managed to earn around $700 for Clemente in just three months, which was more than Mattioli had previously made for any of his own films. 

Mattioli’s decision to go into distribution runs parallel to the very reasons he opened his own production company. His 16+ years in the filmmaking industry has taken Mattioli through many roles, including in art direction, production design, and casting   — all areas required for the successful completion of a film. Then, on one project, Mattioli had to work with “this extremely racist, misogynist, cis straight white man from Jersey. And I saw how he treated his cast. And I saw how he treated his crew. And I said, no, I can do this better.”   

Now as a director and producer himself, this ability to wear different hats has given Mattioli an appreciation and understanding for the conditions under which his own crew operates (grip work, he tells me, is especially difficult, since “they work the entire time” doing intensive manual labor). He still works in these departments throughout productions, although he doesn’t give himself credit in the films. “I’m in every department when I’m producing to make sure things go smoother,” he says. “And also, it helps with that, and helps you be able to facilitate and then work within the department.” 

Mattioli takes other measures to make his company different from others — and more queer-friendly. He estimates that around 90% of his crew is from the New York queer community, with the remaining 10% made up of allies. With distribution, he doesn’t charge overhead, aka additional costs for advertising and promotion that, he tells me, often keep filmmakers from seeing any profits. Instead, he lets filmmakers decide when and how to promote their movies, as well as which promotion platforms they want to pay for. And while he does work with larger companies like Amazon, he shops films first to queer-owned and operated platforms like Lesflicks, TLAvideo, and Revry so that the largest portion of profits — which happen early in a film’s distribution — stay within the queer community. 

Distribution, so far, has seen positive effects. “It’s growing,” he tells me. “I would say pretty much every three weeks we have a new movie out through that, which is great.” The company recently distributed “We Are Here,” a documentary about the queer nuns, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Upcoming projects include “A Single Evening,” which imagines what would happen if dating apps came to life and could sing, along with the series “Bombshell,” which Mattioli produced. He is also in post-production with a #MeToo-inspired women-revenge thriller “Guys At Parties Like It,” starring Monica Garcia. “It is essentially if ‘American Pie’ went horribly, horribly wrong — or horribly, horribly right,” he says. 

As a queer filmmaker who works predominantly with queer artists on queer films, I ask Mattioli what he would like to see more of in terms of LGBTQ+ representation onscreen. “I’m tired of trauma porn,” he says. “Queer stories don’t start and end with our parents not loving us. Those stories are very important to tell, but they’re not our only story. And sometimes, you just want to watch a romantic comedy that has two boys in it and just, you know, a fun fluffer or even a sad drama that isn’t about being unloved or being bashed, you know. Some more stories of us being us.” 

Audiences and lovers of film can also help by supporting queer filmmakers in a few ways, Mattioli says. If you can, donate to queer filmmakers when you see their projects on fundraising sites like Kickstart or GoFundMe. Leaving reviews of movies you’ve watched on media platforms also helps push algorithms that will increase the film’s online presence. You can also subscribe to queer-owned and operated platforms that specialize in queer-made films. Unlike larger outlets, like Netflix or Hulu, which pay artists less and categorize queer films under the LGBTQ+ genre, these platforms curate queer films by genre and provide more income to the filmmakers. “When you go to Lesflicks, they’re all going to be lesbian movies,” Mattioli says. “They actually have the genres. They’re like, do you want to watch a horror? Do you want to watch a drama? Do you want to watch a comedy?”

“The biggest way to support [queer film] is really to buy it through these companies,” he says, noting that on a platform like Amazon, a filmmaker might only make six cents for each hour of streaming — a total of $6 if 100 viewers were to stream their movie for one hour each. “But if you buy-in from the smaller companies, they’re more honest. They’re more communicative. They care about the community, so look into the smaller outlets and support. Keep your money rainbow.” 

Given the distinction between how queer films are received and distributed by the major platforms, I was curious to know what Mattioli felt about the ultimate goal for queer film: Do we support queer films now to help make them more popular for the mainstream? Or do we reimagine a new way to produce and distribute film entirely? “For me, it’s more about creating a new style of industry,” he says. 

“I like to be able to go to a queer bar. I know that everyone in there is queer, or at least the majority, and anyone that isn’t knows how to act around queer people. And I want the same thing for the [film] industry. I want people to know that if they’re on my set, it’s a safe space, it’s going to be mostly queer. And if it’s not all queer, it’s going to have allies.”

“The fact is, people, on the whole, are never going to see eye to eye,” he says. “So we can either continue to push ourselves into something that doesn’t want us, or we can create our own utopia.”

We both agree that should this utopia ever exist, it would probably be a really fabulous place, and certainly, one to envy. As Mattioli says, “I don’t think I’ve ever taken a straight person to a queer bar and had them not have a good time.”  

For more information on AJ Mattioli, his production company, and queer-owned viewing platforms, you can visit Mattioli Productions online or on Instagram @mattiolipro

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