Matt Livadary didn’t have high hopes when he premiered his documentary, Queens & Cowboys: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

The Los Angeles-based filmmaker was fretting for a number of reasons. First off, his film had been scheduled for 8 a.m., hardly a choice spot on the film-festival circuit. Second, Santa Barbara is affluent, very conservative and, well, old.

“Everyone who was lined up was silver haired,” said Livadary, after screening his film Sunday at the Calgary International Film Festival. “An old woman had a walker. I was like, ‘This isn’t our audience. This is crazy.’ At one point, this old woman, three-fourths through the movie, stood up  and gets her walker out and gets up to leave. I thought ‘This is it. We’re done.’ Instead of leaving, she stood up and started cheering from her seat. It was just random. I had never seen someone doing that. I started weeping in the crowd. It was just so great to see.”

The response was similar in Calgary during some of the more triumphant moments of Livadary’s documentary, which finds the filmmaker following various characters for one year on North America’s gay rodeo circuit.

Because for all the social issues Queens & Cowboys delves into, it is essentially a sports movie.  Among the characters chronicled is Wade Earp, a distant relative of Wyatt, who struggles to win the top All-Around Cowboy prize on the circuit against his seemingly arrogant rival, chiseled San Diego champ David Renier.

So audiences, including the one Sunday at Eau Claire Cineplex, tend to be firmly invested by the time the final showdown happens in Texas.

“I watched Murderball repeatedly, and King of Kong, which are two of  my favourites, to structure my movie,” Livadary says. “They are underdog stories. I had them on repeat to figure out how to structure this movie because it was such a large, chaotic bit of footage.”

In fact, Livadary spent three years in the editing suite, sculpting a fast-paced, heart-warming tale from hundreds of hours of material. It follows Earp and various others from the gay rodeo circuit — the film includes a brief segment in Strathmore – over a year, chronicling their histories, injuries, dashed hopes and never-say-die resolve.

Still, while the end result certainly has a celebratory feel — on Sunday, members of the Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association were on hand to give lasso lessons and demonstrations —  Queens & Cowboys does travel some dark terrain to get there.

One segment finds Livadary questioning participants of the straight rodeo circuit on their thoughts — we’ll use that word loosely — on gay cowboys. Their knuckle-dragging responses suggest we haven’t progressed nearly as far as we might hope. Queens & Cowboys traces the origins of the gay rodeo circuit, looking at the history of homophobia that marginalized gay kids in rural areas. It also looks at the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic and follows the struggles of Ty Teigen, a gay-rodeo matriarch suffering from cancer.

The film, which will screen again on Tuesday at 7 p.m., also makes it clear that the circuit is struggling with financial woes and an aging membership that threatens its existence.

“We’ve had some really good screenings where people have walked up to our main characters afterward and offered (money),” Livadary said. “We’re hoping it gets more awareness and people who have never heard of gay rodeo get involved with it. But it is a huge challenge. Traditional rodeo is struggling. Rodeo is, unfortunately, a dying sport in general. We’re hoping we can bolster numbers and inspire the younger generations.”

Calgary, Livadary admits, is probably the most “rodeo town” other than Dallas that his film has screened. That makes it a bit more daunting. But its crowd-pleasing qualities are proving to be fairly universal. In fact, the Santa Barbara Film Festival awarded Queens & Cowboys its best documentary prize.

“The highest compliment I think I received was in a test screening where people were like ‘It’s not as gay as we thought it would be’” he said. “Perfect. That’s the whole point of it. It has been very gratifying.”