Tom Abell chats to me in a bustling artisan cafe in St Leonards. He’s quietly spoken , urbane and matter-of-fact in his conversation. Yet he’s helped to spearhead the rise of LGBTQ+ film production and distribution and is now at the forefront of a worldwide business.
He’s always been in the movie business. After studying 3-D design, Tom went to work for Rank Video . His first job was loading cassettes into mass duplication banks and then quality controlling their output. In the early 80’s Tom was involved in the mastering of all director Stanley Kubrick’ s films for the movie legend. “ They had to be graded one frame at a time ,” he says wearily.
He soon moved onto editing for MGMM, mainly pop music promotional videos for acts like Duran Duran and Siouxsie and the Banshees. After travelling he had the idea of starting a film distribution company, and in 1992 Dangerous to Know was created – named after the famous line from a Byron poem – “ mad, bad and dangerous to know “ – circulating features, shorts and documentaries . “ LGBTQ+ films we’re being made but not distributed except by small independent companies,” he tells me.
Their pioneering work for BBC Schools in a series called Two of Us was to fall foul of the infamous Section 28 legislation banning the promotion of homosexual material . It was a story of teenage gay love and eventually found a slot after midnight .” They altered the ending so the boys separated – one boy was digitally removed,” he recalls.
In the 90’s he started a series, which continues, called Boys On Film – “ we researched archives – there was nothing online then, and we went through film festival catalogues, and later attended the festivals, in Rotterdam, Berlin and San Francisco , building up relationships with sales companies , and paying a licence fee for the UK rights, and then we would negotiate screenings in cinemas.”
Because of his design training Tom created his own original art work for the videos on demand – and his illustrations were often bought by other companies. When a group of films got held up by the censor, Tom moved on to work for Millilivres the multi-media company , which was set up in 1997. When the emphasis in the company turned to pornography , as the law relaxed , Tom moved on again.
“I wanted to call my new company Piccadilly Pictures, but the name was already in use so a friend suggested Peccadillo – which literally means little sins. We were more art house – not fluffy stuff.” An early major success was the French road movie Drole de Felix which follows a French/Arab gay man with HIV searching for the father he never knew. The distinctive Peccadillo logo by the way is of Bam Bam, Tom’s cat who lived for 23 years – my longest relationship’” he tells me
Tom clearly has a nose for what sells and is distinctive or important. “ Lots of trans films are coming through right now, and lesbian period drama .”
December should see the release of Cocoon , a lesbian coming of age movie but a release for Two of Us a French film about two female neighbours who have been secret lovers for decades, has been put back into 2021 . One victim of lockdown was the highly acclaimed And Then We Danced -( reviewed in Gscene ) an achingly beautiful film about a gay dancer in repressive Georgia , which was on release for just a week before cinemas closed.
Lockdown created a huge move to Netflix, iTunes and Amazon , and HMV closed . “ We set up our own shop online – it’s doing ok with a steady revenue .” He believes Netflix’s position is actually precarious – “ They are a streaming platform – they don’t have the back catalogue of a Disney . Some cinemas hope to re-open in December, but I worry about the small independent ones. Eventually we’ll all go back to the big cinemas but it’ll maybe take a couple of years . In the meantime our sources of new films may dry up. “
Another lockdown initiative was the Peccadillo Sofa Club – a podcast with question and answer sessions with film makers – an online event on YouTube which has been really successful with views in the thousands. It provides no income but it keeps Peccadillo in touch with its audience , and has even seen the re-release of some old popular titles .
Asked to choose a favourite film from his catalogue Tom tells me “ I don’t have a favourite but the award-winning Weekend in 2011 was a big turning point .” In it two guys meet for a weekend after a one-night stand with far-reaching consequences .
Peccadillo was 20 years old this year but celebrations are on hold till its 21st, “it’s a good age “ says Tom. He now runs the company with his husband Kahloon Loke , whom he met in 1997. “ In 2009 I became very ill and stopped working for a while and Kahloon took over and has stayed in charge , and I work on marketing and artwork .”
I ask my usual question – what advice would you give to a 15-year-old Tom? “ Trust your instincts ; be yourself ,” he says.
Looking forward Peccadillo has the launch of the Australian queer coming of age film Sequin In a Blue Room , which deals with the world of hook-up apps. Tom says about today’s films: “ There’s not as much restriction on subject matter; there’s much more freedom today and diversity of content .”
Tom’s achievements were recognised last year with the award of the first Iris Prize Fellowship – Iris being the global LGBTQ+ film festival . “ British audiences would be starved of LGBTQ+ content if it were not for the work of this amazing, kind man,” said the organisers.