Now, things couldn't be more different. The retail market has hit its biggest peak which, in turn, means good news for the gay video market, most of whose releases go straight to sell-through. Gay titles are big business, whether feature films, soft pornor the health videos which have sprung up in the past few years: a stroll through the video department of any Virgin Megastore, HMV or Tower Records, where hundreds of gay videos jostle for attention on shelves alongside - gulp - normal films, will tellyou that. HMV now stocks over a 100 titles in its gay section (the most popular are currently My Own Private Idaho and the lesbian comedy Go Fish). The trade magazine Timecode has its own gay pages. And gays aren't even gays anymore, apparently - they're now Slinkies (Seriously Large Incomes, No Kids Ever).
It's Timecode which provides the most telling insight into the way this market is regarded by certain sections of the industry. In last November's issue, an examination of the profitability of gay titles stated, "The trouble with minorities is that they are so extreme. . . Stop imprisoning homosexual men, and they want equal rights. This is all very irritating if you are trying to drive through London while a hundred thousand screaming gays and lesbians are staging the annual Gay Pride march. On the other hand, it is pretty good news if you can build a gay customer base in your store."
This grudging, mercenary attitude belies the eagerness of the major chains to play ball. John Beasley, of the highly successful gay video distributors Dangerous to Know, whose top-selling titles are the BBC coming-out drama The Two of Us and the cult classic Pink Narcissus, has encountered little opposition: "When Dangerous to Know started out two-and-a-half years ago, it was mainly a mail order company. Now we sell the bulk of our titles through the big stores."
With more mainstream films now making inroads into the gay audience (Philadelphia earned a profitable video release late last year, and Denys Arcand's Love and Human Remains is out to rent next month), it's good to find that DTK are still catering for anaudience which doesn't appreciate seeing gay sex glossed over. In the next few weeks, they will be releasing Boys on Film 4, which draws together several short films, and Squaddies, described as a feature about "young army recruits". Rumours that the army are to use it as a recruiting film are, as yet, unsubstantiated.
The straight-to-video tag has long served as a warning, setting off "rent-at-your-peril" alarm bells in any sensible mind. Mostly, this reaction is justified, but, occasionally, video is the only outlet for movies which have flopped Stateside, or are simply deemed unmarketable. Some films which had been assigned this pitiful fate are rescued at the last minute - Mr Jones, starring Richard Gere, Geronimo, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway with Robert Duvall and Richard Harris, and Richard Linklater's comedy Daz ed and Confused are all recent features which were heading for the video shelf before earning limited releases.
Others are not so lucky. The basketball drama Blue Chips was originally on the UIP release schedule, and has already earned fine notices from critics. But now, mysteriously, the film has leapfrogged cinema release and will be appearing in a video store near you from 17 March. According to the distributor, CIC Video, "it wouldn't have stood a chance" against other UIP releases such as Forrest Gump. Clearly, if it doesn't reach No 1, it's not worth bothering about.
So always be on the look out for hidden gems. Aside from the brilliant thriller Blue Tiger from first-time director Norberto Barba, most of the best straight-to-video films of recent months have been the product of once-great directors. The ridiculously titled The Positively True Adventures of the Texas Cheerleading Mom, from Michael Ritchie (The Candidate, Downhill Racer), stars Holly Hunter as a woman who resorts to murder in order to land her daughter a place on the cheerleading team. Spiky and insightful, it's an intelligent take on the media-crime debate, displaying subtlety absent from Natural Born Killers.
Barry Levinson's Jimmy Hollywood had a big budget, big stars (Joe Pesci, Christian Slater), a cover feature in American Premiere and flopped. Watching the film, that's quite understandable. It's a sour jab at the American dream, the story of a budding actor (Pesci) who only finds fame when he and his airhead buddy (Slater) nab a thief and earn a reputation as mysterious vigilantes. How could anyone have believed that the American public would fall for something so dark around the edges?
Nicolas Roeg's version of Conrad's Heart of Darkness marks a simple, unsettling return to the source text after the bombast of Apocalypse Now. It's true that the movie sags somewhat toward the end, but it's an odd little piece, originally made for American TV, which finds Roeg in disciplined yet characteristically probing mood. If his muddled but intriguing 1990 film Cold Heaven ever arrives, it's likely to be on the small screen. Visionary directors don't die, they just go straight to video.