In the history of American independent film, Joan Micklin Silver is a seminal figure. Her body of work as a director is impressive on its own terms, but even more so given the obstacles that women faced—and continue to face—in the film business in the United States. She and her husband Ray, by refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer, set the stage for the independent film boom of the ‘80s by working entirely outside the Hollywood system, pioneering equity investment structures, using their lack of resources to create a unique and personal esthetic, and ultimately, marketing and distributing their own films.
I became aware of Joan’s work upon the release of her first feature, “Hester Street,” which opened in 1976 at the Plaza Theater in New York—a theater that was operated by Cinema 5, the company I was working for at the time. The film was a huge success, grossing over $6 million at the box office and garnering an Oscar nomination for its star, Carol Kane. I got to know Joan and Ray because Cinema 5 bought the non-theatrical rights to the film, and I was in charge of selling it to Jewish groups across the country.
Years later, when I was working for United Artists Classics, one of our mandates was to go through the films in the vast U.A. catalog and find additional value. We became a bit of the thorn in the side of our parent company, re-releasing films that they had buried for one reason or another and having a fair amount of success. One of those films was “Chilly Scenes of Winter,“ Joan Micklin Silver’s first studio film, which was based on the novel by Anne Beattie. The film was produced by a new company, Triple Play Productions, formed by three actors who were trying to take more control of their own careers—Griffin Dunne, Mark Metcalf and Amy Robinson. It featured a great ensemble cast that not only included the three producers, but also John Heard, Mary Beth Hurt and Peter Reigert.
When the film was finished, U.A. insisted on changing not only the title, to the more generic “Head Over Heels,” but also the ending, to make the film more “upbeat.” Box office was tepid and the film was more or less forgotten.
Three years later, the U.A. Classics team heard about a successful revival of the film in a Boston theater, and decided to take the film on as one of our missions. We restored the original title and the original “downbeat” ending, and the result was an arthouse hit.
The film is now revered as the arthouse classic it always should have been, rather than a studio failure. I might add that we released “Chilly Scenes of Winter” in the dead of summer, using the copy line “the coolest film in town.”
The film will be shown at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for the Arts on Saturday September 15th at 5:45pm. There will be a Q&A with Joan Micklin Silver, Griffin Dunne, Mark Metcalf, Amy Robinson, and actors Peter Riegert and Mary Beth Hurt. Grab your tickets before they sell out at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe/10320564.
Also, you should try and see as much of Joan’s work as possible. Other seminal titles include the aforementioned “Hester Street” as well as “Between the Lines” and “Crossing Delancey” among many others.