Bob Shaye was in the early stages of starting up what became New Line Cinema when Don Rugoff was at the height of his success, and he refers to Rugoff in the film as his nemesis. This outtake clip has Bob telling the story of how he got into the business, which started with his realization that film distribution was not that different from his father’s business–wholesale groceries.
For those of you who don’t know, Bob was my boss when I founded Fine Line Features as a division of New Line.
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””
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 “sex lies and a volunteer driver”
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.
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 “Remembering Jonathan Demme”
Those of you who have watched my Keynote at the Art House Convergence may not have have realized that in the interest of time, I ended up cutting out five pages of the planned speech–an entire decade of my experience founding and running Fine Line Features. Coincidentally, several months later I was asked to speak at the University of Michigan in a class entitled “New Line and New Hollywood Cinema,” taught by Professor Dan Herbert. Here is a video of my guest lecture, which fills in the missing piece of my Art House talk. Thanks to Professor Herbert for providing the tape, and to his class for what was a great session.
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.
It was a Sunday morning, and I was making breakfast for the kids, sipping on a cup of coffee and flipping the french toast. The home phone rang (this was before everyone had a cell phone) and it was Nik Powell, the British producer.
It was surprising to hear from Nik on a weekend, even though we were in the process of working on a film together. I rested the phone on my shoulder and continued making breakfast. The conversation went something like this…
Are you sitting down?
Nope. What’s up?
Nik filled me in on the horrible details. River Phoenix, one of the stars of the film “Dark Blood,” which Nik was producing and my company, Fine Line, had co-financed, had died of a drug overdose. Continue reading “Let River Rest in Peace”
This past Sunday morning, was the memorial service for Marty Zeidman at the Landmark Sunshine Theater in Manhattan. For those of you who didn’t know Marty, he was a very well-liked and respected film distribution guy, who is commonly credited as having helped to bring independent films more into the mainstream.
Back when I was at Fine Line, I was increasingly frustrated by the fact that New Line distribution, which was handling Fine Line’s films, was sacrificing our product in order to placate their big chain customers. In other words, our films were booked into the wrong types of theaters so that New Line could get “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3” on the right screens. I finally convinced the powers that be that we should take distribution in house, and I put out the word out on the street that I was looking for someone to run it. Bert Manzari, then of Landmark Theaters, called me to suggest that I talk to Marty Zeidman, who had recently left Miramax. Continue reading “Marty Zeidman – A Small Tribute”
“Hoop Dreams” is such an important milestone in my life that absorbing the fact that it has been fifteen years since its release makes me feel very old. There are many proud parents of this film, not the least of whom are its subjects, who allowed their lives to be laid bare on the screen; the three filmmakers, who devoted a big chunk of their lives to creating something that they had no idea would ever lead to anything; and the various funders who enabled them to keep going. Then there are John Iltis, Dave Sikich, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. I like to think that I have a claim to a piece of that parentage, as well.
My “Hoop Dreams” connection began at Sundance. Liz Manne, who was my marketing chief at Fine Line, told me that she loved the film. She added the caveat that she was dubious about its commerciality, but that I ought to check out at least the first half hour. About an hour into the film, I ducked out to cancel a meeting, and ran back in to see the rest of it. I was smitten. When it was over, I immediately expressed my interest, but the rumour on the streets was that the asking price was $1 million and that the filmmakers would not consider any cutting. That sounded like a dangerous combination. Continue reading “Memories on the 15th Anniversary of Hoop Dreams”
Thanks to MOMA and indieWIRE, some 60 or so representatives of the “indie” film world got together yesterday to discuss the state of the business. A tip of the cap is due to Eugene Hernandez and Anne Thompson for their valiant attempt to reign in a group of outspoken, opinionated and polarized people arranged around a conference room that was clearly designed for far fewer active participants than were attending this particular event. The very existence of such an event, and the number of notable people who showed up, is both a testament to how hungry we are for this type of discussion, and a reason to be hopeful about the future of the business. In the course of a rambling two plus hours of talking, some deep arguments were addressed, some real insights were made and some of the attendees slipped into the kind of self-serving pitches that we hear on a million panels. But by the end of the day, I felt that all the real issues facing our business had at the very least been thrown on the table. My only frustration was that each of the many topics that came up deserved further exploration. Hopefully this can happen in a series of more focused discussions some time in the future.
One personal frustration was that the format didn’t allow me to get in my two cents on a number of points that I felt needed to be made. So, I’m going to use this space to do that very thing. At the beginning of the conference, Eugene asked that the particulars of who said what should be kept off the record in order to allow people to be as open as possible. I am going to respect that and deal only in the issues that were brought up without naming names. I am also going to take a piece of advice from Ted Hope and make this a list, which he says gets more hits than straight prose. So here goes… Continue reading “10 (9 actually) Responses to the Issues Brought Up at the “Indie Film Summit””