The Current State of Documentary Distribution

Decades after helping him with his landmark study of the economics of the indie film biz, Peter Hamilton recently had me on his podcast to discuss today’s documentary distribution landscape. Check it out.

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A Gamble in 1970 Set the Stage for a Win in 2020

Throughout this Oscar season, as I watched the smart and aggressive campaign that the folks at Neon were mounting for “Parasite,” I couldn’t help but think about the campaign that Don Rugoff orchestrated for Costa-Gavras’ film “Z” in 1970.

Before Rugoff, no one had attempted to get a foreign language film into any of the main categories, and Rugoff pulled it off by doing some things that Oscar marketers are emulating to this day–touring the filmmaker to theaters all over the country, spending lavishly on trade ads, holding private screenings for Academy members and most effectively, getting enormous amounts of press to position the film as the long shot people could root for. The end result was a literal bombshell in its time. “Z” was the first film ever nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, and also received nominations for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing. It walked away with two wins–Foreign Language and Editing.

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West Coast Premiere of “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” Scheduled for the Palm Springs Film Festival

After the amazing premiere we had at DOC NYC, I’m pleased to announce that the next stop on the festival tour for “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” will be at the 2020 Palm Spring Film Festival, which will serve as the film’s West Coast Premiere. I’ve heard from so many of you that you wished you could have been at the first showings in New York, so here is your chance to participate in the celebrations. The screenings are as follows:

January 3
10:30 am
Camelot Theaters at the Palm Springs Cultural Center

January 8
6:45 pm
Regal Cinemas

January 9
2:00 pm
Palm Canyon Theater

Looking forward to sharing it with all of you.

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Conversation with Charlie

Check out this conversation about my career and the influences that led to my making “Searching for Mr. Rugoff.” It’s also available wherever on whatever is your favorite podcast app.

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World Premiere of “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” Slated for DOCNYC

Big news in my personal universe today! I’m pleased to announce that the documentary film that I’ve been working on for the last five years is completed and will be having its World Premiere at DOCNYC. The title is Searching for Mr. Rugoff and it’s the story of art film maverick Donald Rugoff, the legend behind the mid-century film exhibition/distribution company Cinema 5 and a notoriously difficult (some would say crazy) person. He was my first boss in the film business and the movie is about my search for the truth about the man who had such a major impact on my life and on the history of art films in America.

I’ve also just launched the official website for the film at http://mrrugoff.com. Check it out, and get tickets for the premiere. Here’s the info:

World Premiere – DOC NYC

Friday November 8, 7:00 pm
IFC Center
Tickets

Tuesday, November 12, 12:30 pm
Cinepolis Chelsea Cinema
Tickets

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Traverse City Film Festival Panels Take On Big Issues

For the last 11 years, I’ve been attending Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan, sometimes as a panelist, sometimes as a juror, but mostly as a moderator. In addition to being a very pleasant place to visit, the festival is always well-curated and screenings take place in theaters with state-of-the-art projection and enthusiastic audiences. In other words, it’s a great event.

Every year, Michael has panel discussions that deal with issues that are on his mind, taking advantage of the availability of guests who are at the festival. I was asked to be on two panels this year, both of which are posted below, courtesy of Interlochen Public Radio. I think you’ll the discussions to be pretty interesting.

And the Future of Film…

Moderator: Michael Moore, Panelists: Andrew Ahn, Bob Byington, Ira Deutchman, Rachel Mason

Cinema Saves the World

Moderator: Ira Deutchman, Panelists: Karim Amer, Darren Dean, Christina Ibara, Jehane Noujaim, Lije Sarki

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Classics of “New Queer Cinema”

In 1992, Fine Line had five films at Sundance, but by complete accident, two of those films put us in the middle of the conversation about what had just been dubbed “New Queer Cinema” by film historian and critic Ruby Rich.

Ruby moderated a panel on the subject at Sundance that year. The two Fine Line Films, which were Tom Kalin’s “Swoon” and Derek Jarman’s “Edward II,” were both considered difficult films, and the fact that both of them were being distributed by Fine Line garnered us a lot of public praise.

I had already handled a number of gay-themed films earlier in my distribution career, so I was aware that gay audiences were a loyal part of the art film audience. That didn’t mean that anything with gay subject matter would get an audience…but the right films—the  ones that didn’t pander, that didn’t reduce gay culture to stereotypes, and especially the ones in which gay life was treated as a given—these films stood out and the audience would be there.

My first professional encounter with a gay-themed film was with the movie “Outrageous!,” a Canadian film that was released in 1977 by Cinema 5. My job was a combination of co-op advertising, media buying and promotion. My boss, Don Rugoff, had taught us how to zoom in on niche audiences, mainly by use of radio. One of the biggest radio formats at that time was disco, which definitely had a huge chunk of the gay audience as regular listeners, so we set up promotions and word-of-mouth screenings through these stations all over the country. The ad campaign was simply the word “Outrageous!” in bold type, with no graphic image whatsoever. The entire campaign was built on the fact that audiences just loved this film, and all we had to do was tease them into the theater. Word-of-mouth was incredible and the film was a genuine art house hit. Continue reading

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Rediscovering “Waterland”

In 1991, Fine Line was humming on all cylinders. In our first year, we had already hit gold both commercially (My Own Private Idaho) and critically (Angel at My Table), and had a solid slate of upcoming releases. Looking forward, however, it seemed like there weren’t a whole lot of promising potential acquisitions.

A script came across my desk called “Waterland.” Nicholas Roeg was attached to direct, and the script, which was based on a beloved British novel, was long and unwieldy. The book it was based was commonly deemed to be “unfilmable.” Initially, we—and I’m guessing all the other specialized distributors—passed on it.

Later that year, the project came back with a new script, with a new director (Stephen Gyllenhaal) and with Jeremy Irons attached to star. The cast also included Ethan Hawke, Cara Buono, John Heard and the debut of future “Game of Thrones” star Lena Headey. Compared to the original version, it seemed that the script had wrestled the density of the novel down to a very personal story—one that we thought would touch people. The price tag to pre-buy the North American rights was reasonable, and we were hungry for product. We made the deal; it was Fine Line’s first investment in production. Continue reading

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“Diva,” The Unexpected Hit

When people in the movie business talk about unexpected results, they are usually talking about sure-fire hits that ended up not working. Every once in a while the opposite is true. Such was the case with “Diva.”

The first time I saw “Diva” was in a small screening room in the United Artists building at 729 Seventh Ave. It had been brought to the U.A. Classics team by Norbert Auerbach, who was running U.A.’s international division at the time, and if I’m remembering correctly, it was his wife who had recommended the film. While we found it enjoyable, we passed on it. It just seemed too pop and too mainstream for the art film audience we were used to catering to. It had already opened and flopped in France.

Several months later, I was at the Toronto Film Festival. The moment I arrived I was accosted by David Overbey, a prominent film critic and programmer for the festival, who tried to convince me to see “Diva,” which was emerging as the hit of the festival. I told him we’d seen it and already passed. At that point, the film’s director, Jean-Jacques Beineix, began to stalk me. Every party I went to, he was there and in my face. He told me of the incredible reaction the film was getting, the fact that the festival had already scheduled additional screenings, pleading with me to see it again with an audience. So finally, I gave in and went to a screening. And yes, the audience response was electric.

We ended up making a deal to acquire the film for a $30,000 advance. Continue reading

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sex lies and a volunteer driver

It was 1989. I had recently set up shop as a marketing and distribution consultant, having parted ways with Cinecom and was heading to Sundance. In those days, the festival paid for film execs to attend; in return I would appear on a panel or two, ski a few days and go to some movies.

On my way from the airport, the volunteer driver mentioned he’d heard great buzz about a film called “sex and lies,” or “something like that.” I looked it up in the catalog that he had conveniently placed in the back of the van, and noticed there was a screening I could make if the driver brought me directly to the theater. I got to the Prospector Square just as the lights were going down and sat on the floor in the back of a packed house.. The crowd reaction was amazing; clearly, even before even checking in to my hotel room, I had seen one of the hits of the festival. Continue reading

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