Founder TLA Entertainment Group
by Lawrence Ferber
Philadelphia is well known for the Liberty Bell, cheesesteaks, and, on the LGBT front, the annual, weeklong Equality Forum (www.equalityforum.com). The gay-friendly city is also home to one of the most prolific, important, and enduring names in modern queer cinema—the TLA Entertainment Group (www.tlavideo.com). Headed by president and founder Raymond Murray, TLA is the theatrical and home video distributor of popular LGBT titles including 2003's Latter Days, 2005's Adam & Steve and The Trip, 2006's Another Gay Movie, and 2010's Is it Just Me? and BearCity. They are also presenting sponsor of Philadelphia QFest (www.qfest.com), the third largest film festival of its kind in the USA.
Tall, silver-haired, and good-humored, Murray has dedicated his life to bringing the world—especially the LGBT world—to film-loving audiences and homes since founding the company in 1981. To do so, he constantly travels the globe, taking in five to ten movies a day during international film festivals in places like Cannes, Rotterdam, Sundance, Toronto, and Berlin. Murray estimates that he sees around 500 films per year. "The movie theater is a refuge," the Philly native shares. "Not from unhappiness, but for happiness."
"I'm sounding very tacky," he interjects suddenly, as if catching himself mid-faux pas. Despite an appreciation for sunny, queer, romantic comedies and crowd-pleasers, he's not one for overly sentimental sap, and, in fact, loves the off-kilter, catty, and un-PC edgy—evidenced by many of TLA's acquisitions like recent Brazilian incest drama From Beginning to End, dark British satire 9 Dead Gay Guys, and controversial Danish 70s classic You Are Not Alone. Bitchy witticisms and subversive sensibilities always bring him a smile. "But," he continues, "I love being alone in there, feeling excitement to see other lives, and I expect every single movie I see to be a classic. They don't always live up to it, but every time, I'm optimistic and excited to see a film."
Thousands of films pass through TLA's offices and those of the Philadelphia Cinema Alliance, parent organization of both QFest and its springtime "straight" sibling, Philadelphia Cinefest, which Murray, a staff of programmers, and screening committees review each year. TLA also maintains a successful London-based UK distribution arm and retail website, and, at press time, Murray was preparing for an inaugural London edition of QFest.
"The concept is to take an American-style LGBT fest with parties, guests, and awards to London," he shares. "We're hoping to launch that in late October."
While ambitious, Murray's a reserved schmooze. He regularly makes the rounds with filmmakers and international distributors, yet his public appearances at festivals and events are often brief (he's mastered the "French Exit"). He rarely takes to the QFest stage anymore.
"The festivals bring out the extrovert in so many other people, so I stay in the background and make sure everything is functioning right," he admits.
During warmer months, including July when things are running smoothly at QFest, Murray can frequently be found hanging out with his friends and cat (the distinctly passive-aggressive Miss Kitty) on his townhouse rooftop. Here, he maintains a small fruit and vegetable garden overlooking the city and Philadelphia's youthful South Street strip where his life in film, and for that matter queer identity, first came to be.
TLA began its existence as the Theater of the Living Arts during the 1960s. Run by Andre Gregory of My Dinner With Andre fame, its stable of actors included Anne Ramsey, Morgan Freeman, Sally Kirkland, Judd Hirsch, and Danny DeVito. The theater closed in 1970, but was later re-opened as a repertory movie theater.
At age 17, Murray, one of seven siblings born into an Irish Catholic family, began working there as an apprentice projectionist and saw his first "queer" film, Fellini's Satyricon, in the process. "Almost immediately after that, I saw The Boys in the Band… and I loved it!" he laughs. "I didn't know they were negative [depictions]. I saw all those movies that today aren't considered very pro-gay, but I loved them. Then I met all these gay guys down there [on South Street] so I associated movies with gayness almost from the beginning. It becomes part and parcel of the same thing."
Struggling financially, the TLA cinema closed in 1980, but a year later Murray (and friends-turned-business partners) leased the "TLA" name and a playhouse outside the city limits, in Upper Darby, "and created a cinema in exile called The TLA at the Tower Theater," he recalls. "It had 3,300 seats. Huge. We started showing a mix of art and pop stuff, and it was very successful that summer." Encouraged, Murray re-opened the original TLA space on South Street and, in 1982, a twin screen cinema, the Roxy.
In 1985, as home video began to boom, they opened a small rental shop within the Roxy's second level. "It was a different kind of video store even back then," he notes. "We did a bookstore concept, of getting lost in the stacks."
While the TLA cinemas closed in 1988 and 1992, respectively, more and larger video stores followed, a series of annual film review guides, two editions of Murray's comprehensive, and some would say definitive, tome on queer world cinema and filmmakers/icons, Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video, and in 1997, a Manhattan flagship in the gutted 8th Street Playhouse cinema space, which had hosted the city's legendary Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight screenings for years.
The NYC store won "Best of New York" honors right away for its gigantic, diverse mix of pop and alternative titles, and garnered a loyal following including many celebrities. In 2007, however, the store's lease expired and it shuttered. "It was a nice ten-year run," Murray reflects, "ended only by a giant rent increase and knowing video rental stores were on the way out. It was an opportunity to get out while the getting was good." Indeed, only two TLA locations exist today, both in Philly's Center City district.