tello Perspectives: Christin Baker and the History and Future of tello Films and Queer Representation

by Karen Frost

Christin Baker, CEO and President of tello Films, and I meet the day before ClexaCon 2018. She’s driving the four hours from L.A. and she’s got so much on her plate that she’s temporarily forgotten we’re even meeting. “Sorry, who is this?” She replies when I text to confirm our meeting time. I don’t blame her. This is such a major event she must be booked solid. She apologizes again. It wasn’t in her calendar, but she does want to meet. She gives a time and place. I figure I’ll easily be able to spot her on the convention floor because I’ve seen her photo several times. It’s the one in which she’s wearing a gray V-neck t-shirt and posing in a way that makes me think touch football or hiking. Something sporty. I’ve recently seen a newer photo, too, but her shoulder length blonde hair and bright eyes are distinctive regardless.

I easily find her setting up the tello Films table in the vendor area. Christin is short, like me, but more wiry, I think. She’s in plaid. I briefly try to guess what sport she played, but give up quickly. Basketball? Whatever it is, she has an athlete’s intensity. It’s already 2 pm, but she hasn’t eaten, so she suggests a late lunch. As we chat, she’s passionate and animated about the current state of lesbian representation and lesbians as a consumer bloc. She has a lot of ideas, but she’s consultative. She asks my opinion and I know she’s interested in the answer: she’s checking her own analysis and assumptions. Her mind is always thinking, planning, calculating. She has to be two steps ahead financially, and three steps ahead creatively. “Lesbians aren’t like gay men,” she tells me. “They don’t party the same way. They don’t go to bars the same way. That’s why there are no lesbian bars anymore. But as consumers, they’re loyal. Once you get them, they stay. But you have to meet them where they are.” So she’s trying to meet them, and there’s no better place than ClexaCon, which is why tello is a sponsor.  

I’m here to pitch a business proposal to her: add written content to the tello website. The idea was hers, but the roadmap for its implementation is a shared endeavor. I tell her I think tello has a unique perspective into how Hollywood works, one that other LGBT sites don’t necessarily have, and I think there are stories to be told that might otherwise not see the light. We can talk to directors, actresses, and producers, I say, and find out what life is like behind the camera. As a reader, I would eat that sort of information up, but I can’t promise that adding any written content will increase site traffic. It’s a gamble. Christin has already made a decision as we part ways. We’ll give it a try, she says. I immediately begin thinking of all the questions that I’ll ask her, because whether she realizes it or not, she’s going to be one of the first interviewees.

A month later, I get the chance to ask my questions. Christin is always on the go, so I pin her down by email with the first tranche of questions in what will probably take several iterations. She responds quickly. 

What is your background in the entertainment industry? 

Christin: I went to school for radio and TV production and learned about editing and camera stuff there.  Then I worked as a Production Assistant (PA) in Nashville on some music videos and a movie.  I heard Hollywood calling and moved there about a year after college.  I worked in the studio system for Regency Productions in their Story Department.  I thought I wanted to go the studio route, but realized that wasn't for me.  I learned a lot about how scripts funnel through a studio and I read a lot of scripts and did coverage on them.  It was great learning, but not for me.  I then tried my hand at a few small projects but couldn't make money, so I ended up going to work for the Writer's Guild of America, where I learned a lot about protection of writers and how that side works, too.  I ended up leaving the industry and moving away and working for a non-profit for 10 years before starting tello.  I never left storytelling though.  I was making little fundraising videos and couldn't shake the bug. 

You had the idea to create tello Films after realizing that there wasn’t enough queer female content that was easily accessible to viewers, but how did you translate vision to reality and go about creating a streaming content service?

Christin: I did have someone who co-founded tello with me.  We started asking questions and meeting with people about starting a video service.  I knew I could make the content, but I didn't know how to build a site.  So I started asking anyone I could about it and then I was really lucky and had a few angel investors who gave me funds to build the site and get early content up, which at the time were interviews.  Nowadays, I would have been able to monetize in so many ways with pay services, but at the time no one was doing that.  In fact, people would say, “No one will pay for content.”  That has clearly changed a lot.  So we had to figure it out for ourselves.

Where is tello now, and where do you want it to be in five years? 

Christin: We have changed our model now to have more content.  We have non-exclusive content, exclusive content and even some free content.  At first, I wanted to be an option for people who wanted lesbian content they couldn't get anywhere else, but now I want to be a one stop shop for lesbian content.  In five years, I'd like to have as much lesbian content as possible on the site and able to fund web series and two movies a year.

What is tello doing that no one else is doing right now? 

Christin: We are hyper niche, and we have rules about our content.  I had to decline a movie the other day because the bisexual girl ends up with the guy and not the girl. That's an acceptable ending, but not what we’re looking for here.  We also have a rule not to kill the lesbian in the end.  So we have very specific rules about content that other sites don't have. 

What are your goals as a director, as a producer, and as the CEO of tello?  

Christin: More content.  More awesome content.  I want to direct more stuff and more lesbian content. As the CEO of tello, I also want to fund more webseries from lesbian and queer filmmakers. 

How are you finding new content to add to the site and what incentive do you offer filmmakers to stream their content with tello? 

Christin: I am active on Twitter and I have a Director of Acquisitions and we both are on the lookout for content all the time.  We reached out to the ClexaCon film festival winners, for example.  I have some titles I love and would love to go after, too.  It is more difficult than you’d think to tell someone, “I'd like to give you money to put your content on my site.”  We offer .26 cents per view, and depending on if it is exclusive to tello, we take a platform fee that's a percentage. 

What do you view as the best LGBT movies/TV/etc. and why?

Christin: Short answer is: the ones people will pay to see.  I love the ones that have badass chicks and a romantic element to them.  Those are my favorite.  I think a lot of people do love a good slow burn romance. 

What does Hollywood get right and wrong about the experience of being LGBT?

Christin: I could write a thesis on this, I think.  I think the biggest thing they get wrong is how much being a lesbian influences the way we navigate the world.  I think Hollywood wants to say, "This is just a small part of who you are so we won't focus on it as much," when really it is part of who we are, but a bigger part of who we are than they credit.  As a lesbian in a work group or social group, if I'm the only person who is a lesbian, I know I'm navigating it completely differently. It’s in very subtle ways, but differently than anyone else in that room.  They don't quite get that.  I think they do get the love part right though, like how a woman can ache for another woman and be heart broken. 

As the entertainment industry adds more queer characters to mainstream TV and movies, how does this change the role of queer women in that creation process? Do we integrate into the mainstream, or do we continue to have queer-specific spaces?

Christin: I think it's both.  I think there is a need and a place for both. 

What makes queer female audiences different from heterosexual audiences?  

Christin: We are sooooo picky!  And I know I'm one of them.  We don't get to see our stories as often as straight people do, so when we do get them, we love them, but we also have a lot to say about it.  And we are also a young audience or young fandom.  Think about sci-fi fans: they have been around for years, but lesbian fans haven't been around as a collective as much, so we are still learning what it means to be a fandom, and at the same time we are so hungry for content and want our voices to be heard. 

What is the legacy you want to create?

Christin: That lesbians have money and will spend it on content, and that we deserve it.

Who are your role models in the entertainment industry?  

Christin: Oprah, Ava Duverney, Lucille Ball (the first female head of a studio and an innovator in storytelling), and Ellen.

What are three movies (LGBT or not) everyone should see?

Christin: “Toy Story” or “Monsters Inc.,” “Desert Hearts,” and “Tootsie.” 

Who is an up and coming queer lady that everyone should keep an eye on? 

Christin: Amanda Holland.

What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers? 

Christin: Make content anyway you can: use your phone, write, etc.  Find the people to help you make stuff, and make it.

What motivates you?

Christin: There are some mornings that I feel like I need to do something else.  Something less emotional.  But then, I can't think of anything that would allow me to connect with the amazing people I've been able to connect with, so I shake off that feeling.  I was so hungry for seeing myself represented and I want people to have a place they can go and see stories they like or where they see themselves. 

“Soccer,” she tells me later. “I played through college.”