Tonight is opening night for an annual film extravaganza that is the third largest of its kind in the United States.
An estimated 27,000 ticket holders are expected to attend the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, a 12-day event that includes 54 feature films, 12 documentaries, eight short programs and five special presentations.
No wonder Ray Murray has been leading a hectic life lately. The festival’s artistic director is also president and CEO of TLA Entertainment Group Inc., which founded the film fest nine years ago.
Murray, 48, has taken on those roles and others while building his local company into a virtual film empire.
TLA Video stores are the most familiar part of this success story, which began modestly with one location on South Street in l985. But this wide-ranging company now encompasses six video stores, including one in New York City, plus an Internet retail site (tlavideo.com) and a mail-order division. Its newest project, TLA Releasing, distributes gay, lesbian, foreign and independent feature films to theaters and to the consumer on DVD/VHS.
And then there are the film festivals. Besides this month’s event, TLA also presents the Philadelphia Film Festival each April; this year’s fair drew an audience of more than 57,000. Last year, TLA launched a nonprofit organization, the Philadelphia Film Society, to manage the two film festivals, with Murray as chairman of the board.
But his most appropriate title could well be King of Film. And Murray wears the crown modestly. In his offices at 234 Market St. — not far from his home on Kater Street — his style is informal and unpretentious. Colleagues walk in to ask questions; when the phone rings, he answers it himself.
On the wall is a poster with a monthly film release schedule, with one movie already scheduled for release in July 2004.
"We’ve got to plan way ahead," says Murray.
His immediate focus has been preparing for the gay and lesbian film festival. As artistic director, Murray helps select the movies by attending film festivals, screening films submitted by mail and keeping track of films on his computerized database, which lists thousands of possibilities worldwide.
"I’m always worried that there are gems I haven’t seen," he confesses.
Murray personally screened almost all of the 54 feature films to be shown at this year’s festival — and he watched twice as many that weren’t selected.
His research took him to international film festivals in Milan, Berlin, Cannes and Los Angeles. During each festival, Murray will watch 30 or 35 films. "You have to love this — otherwise you can really burn out," he says.
The artistic director often knows right away whether he wants a film. Then he springs into action as a master negotiator. At the Sundance festival in January, he saw a film titled Party Monster.
"We immediately went up to the filmmakers and made a pitch," Murray says. A month later, the deal was closed — and Party Monster will be the closing film for the festival.
Sorting through the films mailed to the TLA offices by hopeful directors is a bit more of a crapshoot.
"The quality ranges from horrible to great," Murray says. "For every 10 that we see, we find one good one."
Although decisions about films are made by a committee, Murray is often the first to screen a film. Usually, he watches them at home on an 8-foot-wide motorized screen that descends from the ceiling.
"I have this rule — no fast forward for the first 20 minutes at least," he explains. "I always want to give it a chance."
Even if he loves a film right away, Murray checks with colleagues before making any decision. For instance, he recently watched a film that he immediately wanted to book for the gay and lesbian festival.
"I thought it was hilarious, and I loved it," he says. But then, to get a second opinion, Murray gave it to his colleague and fellow South Philly resident Scott Cranin, who edits the TLA Web site. "And he hated it!" says Murray. A third colleague also was negative, so the film didn’t make the cut.
After watching all those movies — and writing and compiling the 120-page festival program — Murray is finally ready for the event. He’ll greet the directors and filmmakers, and show up at virtually every venue to make sure the reel gets started smoothly.
Murray never imagined a career like this when he was growing up in Nicetown. Then at age 17, he took a job at the Milgram Theater, 16th and Market, as a projectionist. He was hooked.
He heard about a "hippie movie theater on South Street," and went to visit Theatre of the Living Arts, an art-film movie house at 332 South. Soon he was working as a projectionist at TLA, but still not really thinking of film as a career.
Instead, he majored in political science at Temple. "My grandfather was a lawyer, my father was an engineer — I thought you’re supposed to choose a career like that," he says.
While still at Temple, he became a manager at TLA, and continued to work there after graduation. When the theater closed in l980, Murray’s future took a definitive direction.
He rounded up three former TLA employees to set up a company and offered to rent the theater from the owners. "We had to jump through hoops, but we finally got the lease," says Murray, who by then was living one block from the theater. Then in l982, the partners bought the theater, using government loans.
Meanwhile, video was on the rise, and the resourceful partners opened their first video store in l985, using their old offices above the TLA lobby.
"We opened it without even going into a video store," says Murray. But they had innovative ideas, including using film categories and starting a catalog detailing every video.
Within two years, TLA Video was doing more business than the theater. So the partners closed the theater and focused on TLA Video. TLA Entertainment Group now also operates four Web sites and has more than 150 employees.
Along the way, Murray became an author. In l994, his book, Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, was published by St. Martin’s Press.
"There was no book on gay films and I thought there should be," says the openly gay Murray. Working on the book, he also realized there was no gay film festival in Philadelphia. "That also seemed a big lack," he says. "So I said to my partners, ‘Let’s try to set one up.’"
His four TLA partners — all of them straight — readily agreed. The first festival opened in l995 and drew 10,000 attendees.
Three years ago, TLA took on the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema. "We totally revamped it to make it bigger and more popular, with many more themes," says Murray. This April, the Philadelphia Film Festival — as it’s now called — included a feast of 300 films of every variety and theme.
It’s enough to fulfill even the most discriminating movie fans — Murray included.
"For me, film is totally satisfying," he says. "I’ll never get tired of it. I sort of knew this at 17, and by now, I’m positive."
For information about the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which begins tonight and continues through July 22, visit www.phillyfests.com (this includes program guide, ticket options and online sales) or call 215-733-0608.