Now Streaming on Demand
Director of The Queens Tells All about the Film’s Nine-Year Journey to Worldwide Release
When The Reporters Inc. began shooting The Queens in the spring of 2011, no one involved ever imagined it would take nine years to launch the documentary into worldwide distribution. But that’s what happened, for reasons our Executive Director Mark Saxenmeyer is now eager and ready to share in detail.
After 12 film festival appearances in five countries, three nominations for Best Documentary, and screenings at theaters, events and universities in an additional 13 American cities, The Queens received offers from six Hollywood film distribution companies. However, after careful consideration, The Reporters Inc. ultimately decided that self-distribution was the best and most efficient way to simultaneously release the film both nationally and internationally, given the increasingly fragmented and volatile film distribution industry. Bottom line: you can now stream rentals and purchases of The Queens right here on www.thereporters.org.
Part documentary classic Paris is Burning, part current FX hit drama Pose, part reality show phenom RuPaul’s Drag Race, and part traditional beauty pageant like Miss America, The Queens explores the transgender subculture of competitive female impersonation. The film chronicles the journeys of beauty queen hopefuls Sunny Dee-Lite, Tiffany T. Hunter, Naysha Lopez and Alexis Gabrielle “Gabby” Sherrington as they pursue their dreams of becoming the next Miss Continental.
A Miss Continental contestant reacts when she makes the pageant’s top 12, during a scene from The Queens.
Miss Continental is considered to be the most prestigious—if not most cut-throat—international pageant of its kind, and The Queens takes viewers inside this little-known world of glamour and illusion that attracts thousands of competitors from around the globe. Misunderstood or dismissed by some in mainstream society, the contestants are vying for the crown, but also for acceptance, validation and respect.
Saxenmeyer wore many hats during production; he’s also the documentary’s executive producer and director, and he’s thrilled to finally be able to share the film with the world. He recently sat down with Reporters Inc. Board Member and fellow writer Kim Whiting, to discuss all things The Queens.
KIM: All of us connected with The Reporters Inc. and The Queens are equally excited that the film is being released. This has been a labor of love—and sometimes just a labor—of yours for so long. What’s going through your mind right now?
MARK: I always knew we’d get this film released, and I always knew I’d never give up until it was released, but the process has been so complex we could make a documentary on the making of this documentary! We never anticipated the many, many hoops we’d have to jump through to take the finished product to a mass audience.
KIM: We’ll get to some of those hoops in a moment but first tell us what inspired you to make a feature-length documentary about this subject, and how it all began.
MARK: The idea actually started germinating way back in the early 1990s when I moved to Chicago. A co-worker suggested we head over to The Baton Show Lounge after work one night, to check out a show. I responded with something like “I’m not really into drag.” My friend explained, “Oh, no, this is much more than that. These are female impersonators, most of whom live their lives as women when they’re not on stage.” I was intrigued, and then mesmerized, once the show started. There was an elegance and a mystique about the performers that I had never seen anywhere else and, to this today, have still never seen anywhere else.
Performers at The Baton rehearse a routine in The Queens.
Janet Jackson posed with performers at The Baton when she attended a show in the 2000s.
Over the years I reported and produced a couple stories about The Baton and some of its performers, but it wasn’t until I left WFLD-TV in 2011 (Mark was the special projects reporter at the FOX affiliate for 17 years) that I really gave a lot of thought about doing something more in-depth with, and about, The Baton. At the time, I thought we could create a kind of so-called “sizzle reel” showcasing the talent there and try to sell it as a reality television show. Most of the Baton cast was interested, so we made a mini-pilot that we pitched to several networks.
There was plenty of interest but no one would actually commission it. Our sizzle reel was a semi-finalist in the New York Television Film Festival as well, but still no takers in terms of coughing up the money necessary to proceed. At the same time, I met with half a dozen Hollywood production company heads and film studio producers who would watch the reel and dismissively say things like, “Oh, this one is too fat” or “That one is too old” and “They can’t be in the show.” It was pretty disgusting and made me realize that reality TV isn’t where my heart and soul and future were meant to be. We then refocused our energies into making something authentically journalistic about this subject—a documentary.
Associate Producer Marin Kolev and Director Mark Saxenmeyer present a “sizzle reel” of The Queens at the New York Television Film Festival in the fall of 2011.
KIM: I know The Baton is definitely a part of the film but the real focus is on the Miss Continental pageant. How are the two connected?
MARK: All my years living and working in Chicago, I’d never been to a Miss Continental pageant. I’d heard of it, but it just didn’t interest me because, well, the Miss America and Miss Universe pageants didn’t really interest me either. After talking with Jim Flint (who opened The Baton in 1969, and who created the Miss Continental pageant in 1980), I realized that it would be insufficient to just focus on The Baton without delving into the spectacle of Miss Continental. (Many former Miss Continental winners perform at The Baton.)
In the spring of 2011, we filmed a Miss Continental Plus pageant—the Continental pageant for competitors who don’t wear a size 2 or 4 or 6, etc.—and I realized I’d truly been missing out on something extraordinary. We later filmed the main, original Miss Continental pageant and one of our cinematographers, Larry Collins, said, “THIS should be our focus.” And so, it is.
A contestant performs with her dancers at the 2011 Miss Continental Plus Pageant.
KIM: How does the content of this film fit with the mission of The Reporters Inc.?
MARK: The Reporters Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit journalistic production house and our mission has always been to focus on subject matter that’s either overlooked, ignored, avoided, underrepresented or misrepresented by other media. Towards the end of my TV news career, it became exhausting trying to get story ideas and subjects that I deemed to be important—but that were out of the mainstream—approved. The Reporters Inc. also emphasizes topics that promote social awareness, encourage social justice and champion social change. I don’t think the transgender subculture of competitive female impersonation is widely known or understood by most outside that world and, therefore, it’s a perfect subject to investigate via a documentary. It’s intriguing. It’s colorful. It’s entertaining. And beneath the surface of the glitz and glamor there are serious and significant issues to be explored.
KIM: Who is the intended audience?
MARK: We don’t make films for targeted audiences. We make them because the subject matter is interesting and compelling and substantive. It shouldn’t matter if you identify as transgender or cisgender, whether you’re gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor, conservative or liberal, etc.—The Queens is meant for anyone who enjoys a good, true, real-life story that involves the trials and tribulations of hard-working people trying to achieve their dreams. I’ve had many folks come up to me after seeing the film at a screening saying something along the lines of “I was just blown away. This really opened my eyes. I had no idea this world even existed.” That, to me, means the film is a success.
The Queens features (top) Sunny Dee-Lite, Mimi Marks, Alexis Gabrielle “Gabby” Sherrington (Middle) Ginger Grant, Jim Flint, Naysha Lopez (Bottom) Maya Douglas, Sheri Payne and Tiffany T. Hunter.
KIM: Do you have a favorite scene in The Queens?
MARK: I have a couple actually. I love the part where contestant Naysha Lopez (who went on to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race) is getting ready for the pageant, two hours before it begins. She’s in the house of one of her friends and about half a dozen people are doting on her, doing her hair, make up, etc. Sitting quietly in the background is her boyfriend. Of the main performers featured in The Queens, only two identify as male off stage. Naysha is one of them, and her boyfriend clearly prefers it when Naysha isn’t dressed as a woman. There’s a subtle tension in their interactions and the scene segues into other performers talking about how difficult it can sometimes be for them to maintain healthy romantic relationships.
Another part that still gets to me is when the top five contestants are named and the remaining seven return to their dressing rooms in defeat. It’s sad, it’s heartbreaking, it’s emotional—and the viewer realizes just how much winning this pageant means to them.
KIM: In addition to Naysha Lopez, The Queens focuses on three other competitors: Tiffany T. Hunter, Sunny Dee-Lite and Alexis Gabrielle “Gabby” Sherrington. Why did you decide to put them in the spotlight?
MARK: I asked Jim Flint (the creator of the Miss Continental Pageant) for some suggestions prior to filming and he gave me a list of six or eight names who he felt were either “contenders” that year, or would simply be interesting entertainers to follow. After speaking or meeting with most of them, we chose to hone in on those four because of their diverse backgrounds, personalities and, ultimately, availability and willingness to participate. They were all definitely contenders.
KIM: What surprised you the most during filming of The Queens?
MARK: I was really astonished by how much time, energy and money the contestants spend to win this title. Some raise and spend thousands of dollars on their gowns and jewelry, on choreography and production. And unlike, say, Miss America or Miss Universe, they’re allowed to compete year after year until they win or give up. So, they raise and spend thousands year after year. Some of them have competed more than a dozen times in an attempt to win. That takes dedication, commitment, and again, money. And, of course, while this is a crown and a title that is revered among those who follow or engage in the LGBTQ+ pageant world, outside of this community it’s a competition that most folks have never even heard of, or knew existed. That’s another reason why the subject matter is a perfect fit for the mission of The Reporters Inc.
Miss Continental hopeful Alexis Gabrielle “Gabby” Sherrington rehearses her talent number with her choreographer, Eddy Ocampo, and her hired dancers, in The Queens.
KIM: You cite the 1990 documentary classic Paris is Burning as a reference when describing the content and subject matter of The Queens. Why?
MARK: For those who haven’t seen this amazing, groundbreaking film, Paris is Burning explores the New York City “Balls” –essentially underground gatherings/galas/parties during which (primarily LGBTQ+) people create visual spectacles, performing in musical fantasies. More importantly, the Balls serve as a haven for those who’ve been rejected by their families and ostracized by society—a place where they can band together with their “chosen” families and find love and acceptance.
I was in my early twenties when Paris is Burning was released and I can remember sitting in the theater thinking, “Wow, THIS is the kind of journalism I want to be doing. I want to make a film like THIS one day.” So, The Queens is kind of my version of Paris. It takes uninitiated viewers into a fascinating world that, like the Balls of Paris, was previously unknown and undiscovered by most people. Oh, and by the way, the hit TV show Pose, on the FX cable network, is based on Paris is Burning. And one of the stars of Pose, Dominique Jackson, competed several times in Miss Continental (as Tyra Allure Ross). Small world!
KIM: So, now to the nagging question, “Why did it take so darn long to get this film done and released!?”
MARK: That’s a question that requires multi-part answers! We started filming in 2011 and then didn’t do much for a couple of years because the Great Recession put a damper on our donations and budget. I took a new reporting job in Minneapolis, my hometown, and had to put the project on hold. The process of procuring original music took more than a year. We then did some pick-up interviews and shot some additional B-roll in 2014 or so. Then we had to raise money for editing.
KIM: When was the film ready for viewing?
MARK: We previewed the first cut of the documentary at an LGBTQ+ filmmaker’s workshop in early 2017. Some of the folks there indicated that the film would have far more impact if it better explored the pageant’s decades of colorful history. So, I went back to Jim Flint and he graciously provided us with copies of almost every Miss Continental pageant dating back to the pageant’s inception in 1980. Hours and hours and hours of amazing content that we poured through, some of it transferred from old VHS tapes. We then re-edited the film with the archival footage and that added a great deal of perspective and depth.
At that same workshop, I was surprised by some of the reactions the film received from a few transgender filmmakers. Despite the longevity and prestige of Miss Continental, there are those who think this pageant world is regressive and archaic—just as many straight people think the same thing about Miss America, etc.—and that it’s a stereotypical and offensive representation of the transgender community. They also felt that too many of these performers base their self-esteem or self-worth on how well they’re able to transform themselves into mainstream society’s sexualized perceptions of femininity and female beauty.
Additionally, because transgender awareness, understanding and acceptance have come a long way since we started work on this film in 2011, there are some in the transgender community who believe that the rules involving anatomy that guided The Baton and Miss Continental—defining what being female is or isn’t—are unacceptable.
Transgender awareness and acceptance grew tremendously in the nine years since The Reporters Inc. began The Queens project.
And then they asked, “If one truly identifies as transgender, and is living one’s life off stage as a woman, is it still appropriate to perform as a female impersonator?
We listened to the feedback and made some adjustments but, in the end, we still chose to make a film that celebrates this pageant community as it is, as opposed to one that criticizes or condemns it. As a documentary filmmaker, I’m an observer and chronicler. I’m not here to pass judgment; I just report and synthesize what we capture on film. With that said, The Queens does indeed delve into the darker side of The Baton and Miss Continental’s history. As Mimi Marks (Miss Continental 1993 and a performer at The Baton for close to 25 years) says in the film, “I tell my family about how many people I know, how many people in this community, have died or been killed, and they just can’t believe it.”
KIM: Can you elaborate on the controversy involving these anatomical “rules” that performers supposedly have to abide by?
MARK: In the nine years since we started work on this film, the complexities of transitioning, or being transgender, have evolved swiftly and enormously. There are all kinds of terms and phrases and perceptions that weren’t widely deemed to be offensive or ignorant in 2011 that are most definitely problematic today. To adjust with the times, Jim Flint has thrown out his old rules involving who could and couldn’t perform and compete, and we felt it was important to incorporate that update. In one of the Bonus Features that we make available with the premium streaming purchase of the film there’s an interview with Jim about how and why his thinking has evolved and changed.
KIM: What are the other Bonus Features available in the premium streaming purchase package?
MARK: The Baton Show Lounge has moved to a new location since we originally filmed so we take you inside the new club and you meet some of the new cast members, as well as the current reigning Miss Continental, Vanessa Van Cartier. Another Bonus contains some of the raw, unedited backstage interviews with Miss Continental contestants as they’re preparing to take the stage. We only touch on the Miss Continental Plus pageant in the documentary briefly, so another Bonus Feature shows highlights from that pageant. The final Bonus is a music video of one of the songs featured in the film, “Pretty Kitty” by Courtney Yasmineh, featuring scenes with Naysha Lopez, Mimi Marks and Tiffany T. Hunter. All told, theses extras total more than 20 additional minutes of content.
Jacky Couture performs at the new Baton Show Lounge, as seen in one of The Queens’ Bonus Features.
KIM: So, back to the long and winding road to release. What were some of the other hurdles?
MARK: We premiered the film at a Chicago fundraiser in January 2018, followed by another one in Minneapolis the next month. Funding from these events enabled us to enter film festivals, and The Queens was accepted into some great ones—including fests in New York (Festival of Cinema NYC, where the film was nominated for Best Documentary) Australia (Melbourne Documentary Film Festival), and Chicago (Reeling, which named The Queens as the festival’s “Documentary Centerpiece”).
Hosts of a Chicago newscast discuss The Queens with entertainer Naysha Lopez and Director Mark Saxenmeyer during the Reeling Film Festival in the fall of 2018.
These appearances garnered the attention of a film sales agent who we then paid to reach out to distributors. Again, more money we had to raise. To our delight and excitement, we ultimately received six offers from distributors and settled on one in particular. When this happens, and the interest in your film is coming from several directions, you truly feel validated—like all of the years of hard work is finally paying off.
But then, the distribution company we planned to sign with presented us with an enormous contract that listed dozens of “deliverables” that the film had to meet; some of them technical, many of them legal.
As someone who has spent most of his career broadcasting television news stories to tens of thousands of people on a nightly basis, often airing stories with absolutely no legal review whatsoever, this legal approval process we were required to endeavor was daunting. But it’s also essential, because you won’t qualify for certain types of insurance without this review. And you can’t release a film without the required insurance.
After the legal process ended, then came more fundraising to pay for closed captioning, post-production audio and video adjustments, copyright protections, and that necessary insurance. Making a movie ain’t cheap, and releasing a movie costs almost as much!
KIM: It’s crazy how much is involved! Despite the multiple offers from film distribution companies, we finally concluded that self-distribution was the way to go. Why this route?
MARK: The film distribution industry has vastly changed over the last couple of years, and continues to do so every single day. What we came to realize is that there’s simply no need for a middle-man in 2020.
The distributor we had planned to sign a contract with promised us a theatrical release of the film. We were thrilled because every filmmaker wants to see their movie up in lights on a theater marquee—more validation, right? In fact, we already had that thrill when the film screened independently at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon in 2018.
The Queens screened at the historic Hollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon in May 2018.
But the problem is that many people just don’t go out to the movies anymore—even before the current pandemic. In fact, with Covid-19 shutting down theaters, who knows how many will survive. The vast majority of people now watch films at home on TV or on devices like tablets, laptops, phones, etc. And they access films in a form of “Video on Demand” or VOD.
All of the distribution companies interested in The Queens explained that they were going to have to spend a significant amount of their own money to distribute and market the film to VOD platforms, and that they would recoup those costs from the film’s initial profits. Then they would also take between 15 and 30 percent off the top after that. And the sales agent would take another five percent, and each VOD platform would get a cut as well.
KIM: All that before The Reporters Inc. would ever start to recoup our investment?
MARK: Correct. Plus, we’d have little say in the marketing plans, and they were unable to guarantee what VOD platforms they would get us on—I mean it’s one thing to be on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, Showtime, Comcast, Direct TV, etc. But those are long shots for an independent documentary like ours, at least right out of the gate, and more than likely the distributors would end up placing The Queens on platforms we could probably get on all by ourselves, like iTunes and Amazon Video on Demand.
Each company we talked with also wanted us to essentially sign away our licensing rights to the film for 10 to 15 years. When you think about it, it really makes no sense to have worked this hard and this long on this project and then turn it over to an unknown third-party entity and hope for the best. Yes, it’s a risk in some ways to turn down the potential reach and benefit of going with a distributor. But it’s also a risk to trust them. Too many independent filmmakers have told us they’ve never seen a dime from their distribution deals.
It’s also always important to point out that The Reporters Inc. is a nonprofit, so regardless of how much money this film makes, or doesn’t make, any proceeds will be routed directly into our next project, to fund the completion of the wrongful convictions documentary series we’ve been working on for the past few years.
KIM: And now, the exciting news is that people can actually watch the film right here through The Reporters Inc.’s own website. Explain to everyone how that works.
MARK: In the end, we’ve made it as simple as possible. All you have to do is go to www.thereporters.org and the home page gives you three buttons to click on, to stream the film on demand. You can either rent, buy, or buy the film with bonus features. We’ve partnered with Vimeo on Demand and they’ll be handling the technical and transaction facets.
Vimeo is a great direct-to-consumer platform, where filmmakers control their own rights, and retain complete control of their films. Another great aspect is that, through Vimeo, we launch the film worldwide, not just in the U.S. People in 240 countries can access the film, right through our website. It’s truly amazing when you think about it.
Former Miss Continental Mimi Marks prepares to take the stage in a scene from The Queens.
Contestant Sunny Dee-Lite competes in the evening gown category of Miss Continental, in a scene from The Queens.
KIM: Could The Queens still eventually end up on Netflix or some of those other premium platforms as well?
MARK: Potentially. It just depends on how well it does through this initial release.
KIM: What about a DVD release? I know some people still prefer DVDs.
MARK: DVD sales have definitely declined but, yes, some people definitely want to watch movies on DVD. So, we’ll be working on that next.
KIM: I know that releasing this film has been quite a journey for you, and all of us with The Reporters Inc. I remember when we screened it in Tulsa, where I live, and the great reception it received. Everyone connected with The Reporters Inc. is excited for the entire world to now get a chance to watch it for themselves. Anything else you want to add?
MARK: I think we’ve covered it—nine years encapsulated in one big interview! I had mostly brown hair when we started production and I have mostly grey hair today. That alone tells you a lot about the process! Of course, if anyone has any further questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d be happy to answer them. We’re also looking forward to feedback about the film. With distribution finalized, it’s now really all about what audiences think. Hopefully, people will really enjoy the film, and even learn a thing or two from it. It’s been an honor and a privilege to bring this community to the screen and, more than anything, I hope the performers we profile in The Queens gain new fans and more of the applause and recognition they richly deserve.
As we say in the film’s tagline, “Who will wear the crown?” Well, it’s now time to find out!
Streaming rentals and purchases of The Queens are available NOW at www.thereporters.org. And for additional info about the documentary, including film clips, press coverage, reviews, photos and more, go to www.thereporters.org/project/the-queens/.
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