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. Continue reading →
Sarah Kernochan’s “All I Wanna Do” (as it is currently known) is a movie that I’m incredibly proud of, for all the reasons that attracted me to the project to begin with. It was a very personal story, from an accomplished, Oscar-winning filmmaker, who had yet to be given the opportunity to direct a fiction feature. The script was funny and entertaining, geared toward an underserved audience (young women) and dealt with a moment in history (the birth of feminism) that would be enlightening to the target audience.
The trials and tribulations of getting this film released have been well documented in Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures, but suffice it to say that it had something to do with the myth that young women were not a sufficiently large audience to support a substantial theatrical release–this, in spite of having an amazing cast of well-known stars that included Kirsten Dunst, Gaby Hoffmann, Rachael Leigh Cook, Heather Matarazzo, Merritt Weaver, Monica Keena, Vincent Kartheiser and Matthew Lawrence, and for the grownups, Lynn Redgrave. Ironically, the film was a hit in Canada, where it was released broadly, and the film is considered somewhat of a cult classic by Canadian women who were 12-15 years old when it was released. Continue reading →
In my Business of Film class at Columbia, I’ve talked for many years about how unforeseeable events can affect the success or failure of a film in the marketplace. I’ve seen and worked on many films that would be examples of this, but no film I’ve ever been involved with had such a dramatic date with fate as Tanya Wexler’s second feature, “Ball in the House.”
My first collaboration with Tanya, an alum of the Columbia MFA Film Program, was as Producer’s Rep on her first feature, “Finding North.” The film was modest in scope, but beautifully acted and directed, and packed an emotional wallop at the end. It premiered to much acclaim at SXSW, ending up with a theatrical release through Cowboy Booking. I was eager to work with Tanya again.
John Cassavetes is commonly referred to as the Godfather of Independent Film. While independent filmmakers existed from the moment the medium was invented, Cassavetes pioneered the inside/outside model that became more common in later years—that model being, he made money by working within the Hollywood system and then used his own money to make films that experimented with form and catered to a more discerning audience.
By the time he had made “A Woman Under the Influence,” Cassavetes decided that he would go one step further and distribute his own films. He created a company called Faces International, and hired a small team of young, ambitious cinephiles to get the film out to audiences. Continue reading →
The following is a panel I moderated at this year’s Traverse City Film Festival about the impact that social issue documentaries can have on society, as well as the responsibilities that come with it. The panelists were Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis, Pau Faus, and Zaradasht Ahmed. The panel was recorded on July 26th and broadcast on the local NPR station in Northern Michigan.
Last week, I tweeted out that I had been asked to give a keynote speech at the Cannes Film Festival. In an attempt at humor, I made it sound as if it had been a last minute thing, when in fact I’ve known about it for months. The truth is that I had been approached to help set the stage for a full day event–one in which the MEDIA Program of the European Union would take stock of trends in the film business, with the goal of setting priorities for the future of the program. In any case, here it is. Thanks are due to Tara Roy, one of my Columbia students, who taped it for me.
I heard the devastating news today that Jonathan Demme is no longer with us. I knew he had been ill, but the last time I saw him he looked like he was back to his normal self and seemed to be in quite good spirits. But then again, Jonathan always gave off the vibe of being in good spirits. I had the pleasure of working with him on two of his films, and then peripherally on two others, and in all that time he never treated me with anything but the utmost respect.
Jonathan Demme (bottom) and me (top) at Sundance in the ’80s. I have no recollection who the other folks are.
I first met Jonathan shortly after the Cinecom team screened “Stop Making Sense” and we immediately decided we wanted to distribute it. The film had been financed by Warner Brother Records; from their perspective, it was merely a promotional film intended to broaden the appeal of Talking Heads. We saw the film differently, as Demme was already on our radar as someone we would love to work with. Yes, it was a great concert film, but the simplicity with which it captured a live performance and made it feel as immediate and exciting as if you were in the room–this was something new. This was pure cinema.
Jonathan was coming off of a few films that, while well received critically, had not exactly set the world on fire. Worse yet, he had just finished “Swing Shift,” a fairly big budget Hollywood movie he wasn’t all that pleased with, that tanked at the box office. The experience of “Stop Making Sense” seemed to him like a breath of fresh air at a time when his Hollywood stock was not exactly rising. Perhaps it was his publicity background kicking in, but he was unusually respectful of the work being done to market and distribute the film, and showered us with public praise when the film outperformed expectations. Continue reading →
In yesterday’s New York Times, the showrunners of several current political TV dramas discuss how the outrageousness of current political reality has affected the plotlines of their shows. Some of them talk about how they had to change the direction of the current season to take into account the real-life headlines that, in some cases, might make a plot twist dated or moot. Reading this, I couldn’t help but feel that there’s another side to this—one that these showrunners might not want to face: that these fictional television series have unwittingly aided and abetted a climate of mistrust for government and the rise of “fake news.”
Fictional TV has always had a side that was “ripped from the headlines.” Famously, the “Law and Order” series would take actual tabloid stories and fictionalize them just enough to pass muster without needing the rights to anyone’s particular story.
In recent years, there has been a spate of series that have one underlying theme—cynicism about our government. This list of shows is long, and includes everything from “Madam Secretary” to “The Good Wife” to “House of Cards” to “Homeland” to “Designated Survivor” to “Scandal”—even to “Game of Thrones.” Continue reading →