As I promised...this year on the Gravity blog I am looking to profile the interesting women of the current cultural landscape! This (hopefully) weekly feature begins....now! With one of the most amazing people I know working in the film industry! (*note: links embedded in interview added by me!)
The story of how the distribution company Zeitgeist Films came into being is nearly unbelievable: 1988, a tiny rented room in the West Village (sharing space with a friend who was starting a gift basket company?!), a shoestring budget ($1,000 & a credit card) and a serious passion for film. These humble beginnings that co-founders and co-presidents Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo began with have since led to a strong business and an ongoing devotion to non-mainstream films & filmmakers. When I first met Nancy Gerstman, apart from looking downright stunning even in the bleakest of winters, it was immediately apparent that her love of what she does could not be stronger. Her desire to share her love of cinema so strong I even walked away with a bag full of Greenaway (swoooOOoon)!
1. Nancy! Hello! Ok: Zeitgeist has been the jumping off point for countless careers (Todd Haynes, Christopher Nolan, Atom Egoyan) I can’t imagine what it feels like to be the starting point/artistic support for fledgling filmmakers…what does it feel like? Especially to see them fly away given your role in that growth?
It's only in retrospect that you can feel like a 'jumping off point' and from that perspective it feels pretty good. We were excited to give filmmakers a chance to show their work in theatrical settings. My business partner and I had both been in the distribution world for a while and we were good marketers and had formed excellent relationships with theatre owners around the U.S. So when we encountered Bruce Weber [trailer below] and Todd Haynes (two of our three first 'fledgling' filmmakers and brilliant artists) we loved using our expertise to get their work 'out there'.
As far as flying away, we were probably a bit naive at first, thinking that filmmakers who had spent their last dime making films would stay with us once their careers took off ("You're kidding! A filmmaker wants more money up front and wants to go with a higher profile distributor??). But there were more than a few that did stay with us, because they knew that they might never get the sort of attention paid to their films from others that we would give them; that they might get a higher m.g. (minimum guarantee or money up front) from someone else but might never see another dime; or they wanted a distributor who was going to be in it for the long haul (virtually hundreds of distribution companies have gone out of business since 1988). But we also grew up and realized that bigger distributors lose films to even bigger distributors, and that is just what our business is about. For us, the worst thing was when a film we loved and felt we could do great business with went to a 'flavor of the year'-type distributor who did a lousy job and was gone within 12 months. Then the film goes into limbo (not a place you want to be).
2. The first time I met you,you said something about your subtle shift of focus away from American fiction (while keeping your strong foreign fiction and non-fiction acquisitions) but moving more into the American documentary realm, leading to Zeitgeist’s recent amazing runs with this genre (Bill Cunningham [trailer at bottom], Trouble The Water, The Horse Boy). What was it that brought about this change? It seems docs have been so embraced lately, why do you think this is?
The success of Poison [trailer at top] and other challenging fiction films made the more mainstream distributors take notice so, starting in the early 1990s the price of American independent features went beyond our means. Our model at the time was to go in the direction the marketplace was NOT going, so we started distributing foreign language films and docs.
We've always distributed documentaries because we love them but it does seem as if there are many more in the marketplace. We've been very lucky to have the opportunity to distribute great ones and it seems as if our documentaries never become irrelevant. The Corporation [trailer below], a good example, couldn't be more important as an in depth exploration of the dangerous organizational model that affects all of our lives. It's a film that improves our minds and our world and so it keeps being booked and bought. These sorts of films are needed and so we're inspired to keep acquiring them. And it's also why people may be so fascinated by documentaries lately.
3. Film has so many different areas of existence and I feel like distro is on the less glamorous more progressive scale: deciding what films to push into the theaters but literally pushing them there by hand. Why did you choose distribution? (Also, now that I think of it, you are one glamorous woman so maybe you are bringing some glamor to the less glitzy arena of the industry!)
Well, if you don't think it's glamorous now you should have seen it when we started. There were very few companies which combined taste and business (like DanTalbot at New Yorker Films and Don Krim at Kino International). But I'm so thrilled you think I'm glamorous (she says with cigar in mouth). First, neither my business partner Emily nor I are artists but we do have taste and we want to bring beauty (as well as enlightened dialogue) into the world. We love film. Independence is important to us so we wanted to work for ourselves. We're not purely businesswomen but we are a hybrid and in our business you can be a manager and go to the Cannes Film Festival. It's an interesting 'best of both worlds' scenario for us.
(more on the importance of going to the movies, progressive book publishing and the everchanging New York film landscape after the jump!)
4. If I remember correctly you moved from a small, forward thinking publishing house and then over into different aspects of film (ranging from ticket taker to working for such legendary companies as Landmark Theaters and First Run Features). What was it that made you take the leap into film? To me it was always such a daunting place, especially for women…
I was an English major so my first job out of college was at New Directions Publishing Co, a small, tightly knit company which distributed just a few books a year by some of the greatest writers of the 20th Century like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Tennessee Williams, etc. etc. etc. This seemed like an ideal company; however the owner was an heir to Bethlehem Steel. That was not the case with Emily or me unfortunately but the fact that in 1988 we had no money and no real responsibility (and very very low rents), made the effect almost the same and allowed us to use ND as our 'model'.
I've loved movies since I was a child. Until I worked at the Bleecker Street Cinema and met distributors I didn't realize you could make a living selling films and that appealed to me. I'm not sure what made Emily make the leap but she did it and I don't think either of us would have leapt if we hadn't done it together.
5. You and your business partner Emily Russo started Zeitgeist in the late 80s. I tend to think of the 80s in NY as a time of endless possibility, mild despair, cheap rent and an overwhelming sense of artistic importance…how do you think the current landscape compares? How do you think the film landscape has changed in NY? (More or less accepting of the underground? More or less outlets for films? Filmmaker friendly?)
There are differences. Many many more films being made (can I say 'many' again?). When we started the company in 1988 people were watching films on vhs and you had to go to the store and rent them. There was a long 'lag' between when films appeared on the screen and on vhs. There was nothing happening electronically (that I remember anyway). So of course things have changed dramatically from the 80s on.
For small distributors everything is much more competitive, especially because of the amount of films in the marketplace. You have to have an 'edge' to keep your film in the theatre, or sell to Netflix, or iTunes or VOD. You have to choose wisely, you have to work harder. For us this is probably less difficult than for a lot of companies. We have a great reputation which is well deserved, a great staff, and we've done this for a long time.
There's a lot going on outside the mainstream in New York film, in all boroughs. I think it's filmmaker-friendly but challenging once the filmmaker goes beyond the film festival stage. And I'm excited to see young audiences for repertory cinema here. But I'm not sure what's going to happen five or ten years from now; no one does. It's no secret that you can watch films on just about any electronic device. But there's nothing like seeing a film with an audience on a screen so it's good to encourage friends, relatives, strangers to support their local theatres, wherever they live.