A few days ago, I announced the long-awaited release of my film “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” (long-awaited by me, anyway). It’s been a protracted journey with many twists. I’ve begun to reflect on the many decisions I made along the way–fortunate and not–and thought some of it might be instructive for others (the teacher comes out in me!)
The project itself was years in the making, and at many points I wondered if it would ever actually add up to anything. I was once told that narrative features are a sprint, but that documentaries are a marathon. Trite but true. There were many times when I thought the film was as good as it could be, only to get feedback that made me take yet another look, leading to yet another version. The process was often frustrating and infuriating, but with each iteration, it seemed to get better. I had work-in-progress screenings for the students at Columbia, at the offices of Kartemquin Films in Chicago, at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, and at the 2019 Art House Convergence. And while audience reactions were very encouraging, I always walked away with more notes—sometimes completely contradictory. Continue reading “A Little Glimpse Behind the Scenes of the Release of My Doc”
Within a month of when I started working at Cinema 5 in 1975, Joan Micklin Silver’s first feature, Hester Street, opened at the Plaza Theater on 58th Street. The Plaza was one of the Cinema 5 theaters and it was located around the corner from our offices. Every night, on the way home from work, I would see the lines of people stretched all the way down the block toward Park Avenue. The film was a huge hit. Around that time, I first met Joan and her husband Ray when they came to our offices to make a deal with us to distribute the film to the non-theatrical market. I learned that my boss, Don Rugoff, had turned the film down for theatrical distribution because he thought (as many others did) that the film was “too niche.” But now that the film was a hit, he wanted in.
My job at the time was as a non-theatrical salesperson, so I was on the phone all day with colleges, libraries and other organizations, trying to get them to book our library of films. Hester Street would not only be a valuable addition, but would be of particular appeal to Jewish organizations, which we were already servicing with such films as Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Sorrow and the Pity, among others. Continue reading “A Tribute to Joan Micklin Silver”
For the next month or perhaps longer, the state of Wisconsin will be one of the most scrutinized parts of the country. It’s an important swing state that could determine the outcome of the election, while simultaneously being one of the worst hotspots for the coronavirus. In the meantime, the good folks at University of Wisconsin in Madison are helping to keep their community sane by having an online film festival.
The Wisconsin Film Festival was meant to be part of the “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” national tour last spring, and of course was cancelled along with the rest due to the pandemic. The festival has now morphed into a series of screenings available virtually, only for the UW community. Not only are they showing my film, but they are also showing “Gimme Shelter,” which was originally released by Don Rugoff through his company Cinema 5. In conjunction with those screenings, I was interviewed for their Cinematalk Podcast. It’s a pretty in depth interview and was a lot of fun to do. You can listen to it below. Thanks to the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque for their interest.
Among the many film festivals that my film “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” was scheduled to play at, most were cancelled. However, some, like Cleveland and Galway in Ireland went on in a virtual form. For you indie film wonks out there, in both cases screenings were geofenced to the immediate area of the festival and tickets limited to the capacity of the theater it would have played in physically. Below is the virtual Q&A that I did with Galway Film Fleadh Programme Director, William Fitzgerald.
Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter just posted his post-Oscars podcast with Neon’s Tom Quinn as a guest. At one point, Tom acknowledges his debt to Don Rugoff’s Oscar campaign for “Z” and they talk about my film. You can hear the excerpt here…
I would also encourage you to listen to the entire episode, which you can do here.
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.
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 “Classics of “New Queer Cinema””
In my speech at the Art House Convergence, I talked a great deal about Don Rugoff, who was a crazy, arrogant, difficult genius, and was my first boss in the movie business. Given the impact the man had on the business, it astounds me that he is almost a forgotten figure at this point. Reid Rosefelt wrote about him back in 2011, and ignited my urge to share more of what I knew about the man. So for those of you who would like to know more about the history of independent film marketing, here is a bunch of material to chew on.
This first piece is an audio recording of a seminar that Don did in 1976. It was moderated by Julian Schlossberg, who at the time was a VP at Paramount and had a radio program called “Movie Talk.” You’ll notice that during the Q&A, some of the questions from the audience were not intelligible, so whoever put this tape together dubbed them in. This is a fascinating glimpse into Don’s way of looking at the distribution business, the exhibition business, and mostly about his unique take on marketing specialized films. This was the school I went to, where I learned just about everything I’ve used throughout my career. Continue reading “More About Don Rugoff and Cinema 5”
Below is the video of the keynote speech I gave this past January at the Art House Convergence, an annual event that brings together many of the independent art houses from all over the U.S. and with some representation from the rest of the world. I used the opportunity to give a kind of personal history lesson about the distribution and marketing of indie films, and to draw some lessons for the world we currently live in. A big thank you to Russ Collins of the Michigan Theater for giving me the opportunity to speak, and to Doug Tirola and his team at 4th Row Films for recording it.
These video originally appeared on Thompson on Hollywood, part of the Indiewire network.