When independent filmmaker Jennie Livingston made Paris Is Burning on a spaghetti-strap budget, she had no idea her documentary about Harlem drag queens would catch fire at the box office. But the film raked in more than half a million dollars during 17 weeks last spring at Film Forum, a Manhattan art house. Now distributor Miramax's Prestige division is gambling that the rest of the country will be just as fascinated by this exotic urban subculture: Paris is opening in 20 cities Aug. 9.
Winning nationwide distribution, however, was no party. Livingston's coproducer, Barry Swimar, spent nine hair-pulling months securing rights to the film's 20 songs from Patti LaBelle's Over the Rainbow to the Jungle Brothers' I'll House You. Negotiations began in October, but when Paris opened, many songs were still unauthorized. (Negotiations ended in June.) ''We were in a catch-22; we couldn't pay any money until we started making money,'' says Swimar.
The film's very success caused some of the problems. ''After it got so much attention, certain people in the music industry began holding out,'' Swimar says. A big obstacle was Sony Music Special Products, which asked $50,000, nearly 20 percent of the film's original $300,000 budget, for use of MFSB's Love Is the Message. (Sony eventually agreed to $25,000 plus a percentage of the video sales.) ''It's very simply about greed,'' adds Livingston.''They could care less if a film like Paris lives or dies.''
Others were more generous. Songwriter Jerry Herman gave them I Am What I Am from La Cage aux Folles, the ultimate Broadway transvestite musical, for a paltry $500. ''They're into the meaning of the film,'' deadpans Swimar.