by Guest Blogger Peter Belsito
From her official bio –
Nancy Gerstman is co-president and co-founder of the New York-based distribution company Zeitgeist Films. Formed with Emily Russo in 1988, Zeitgeist acquires and distributes independent films from the U.S. and around the world.
Gerstman and Russo have distributed first films by notable directors Todd Haynes, Christopher Nolan, Francois Ozon, the Quay Brothers and Gianni di Gregorio and their catalog also includes films from the world’s finest independent filmmakers including Agnes Varda, Guy Maddin, Olivier Assayas, Jia Zhang-ke, Atom Egoyan, Abbas Kiarostami, Jennifer Baichwal, Derek Jarman, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Peter Greenaway, Philippe Garrel, Yvonne Rainer, Jan Svankmajer, Laura Poitras, Astra Taylor, Raoul Peck, Gonzalo Arijon, Greta Schiller, Sergey Dvortsevoy and Jacques Demy.
Zeitgeist is also renowned for their ground-breaking documentaries which include
Zeitgeist’s films have received international acclaim, including 5 Academy Award nominations and 1 win, for Best Foreign Language Film for Nowhere In Africa.
The Museum of Modern Art honored Zeitgeist with a month-long retrospective of their films in Summer 2008.
Nancy Gerstman has worked in all aspects of film distribution and exhibition including a stint at Landmark Theatre Corp., the largest independent theatre chain in the U. S. She is in demand as a juror, panelist and commentator on issues related to independent and foreign language film and is Permanent Artist-in-Residence in the Master’s Program in Media and Communication Arts at CCNY. She was born in Queens, New York.
(Peter begins blogging here on)
Like me, Nancy is from Queens. She’s from Forest Hills, I grew up in Flushing, Bayside. She graduated from Northeastern University in Boston as a Journalism major and then spent a year taking graduate classes in Cinema Studies at NYU.
She has been a lifelong film buff, starting her ‘career’ at screenings of BAMBI and DUMBO and even SHOCK CORRIDOR (her mother was late picking her up from a kids’ matinee of ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT).
She began ‘in the business’ in NYC by working for a publisher of film books while she was taking tickets at the legendary Bleecker Street Cinema and later assistant managing at the Carnegie Hall Cinema.
She found herself, ‘…becoming part of and drawn to that NYC crowd of straggly strange film people. They certainly all had different life and career arcs. Some got into drugs and partying all the time (not me), others became successful film executives and others became film programmers and curators. They were on the whole very smart people.’
Both the Bleecker and the Carnegie were owned and run by Sid Geffen and Jackie Reynal. ‘I saw a lot of movies, met the former movie stars who used to hang out around the Carnegie and (probably) met some future ‘great’ directors.’ She then went to Mexico for a few months to study Spanish and came back more serious about her career.
When she returned she helped administrate Catherine Wyler’s Short Film Showcase for AIVF. ‘This was a great program, funded by the NEA, which made award-winning 35mm short films available to theatres to play before features’.
When she was reading Variety one day she saw an article about Parallax Theatre Corp. (soon renamed Landmark Theatres) and was riveted. Her great love at the time was still repertory cinema, she was looking to move to the West Coast and their business model seemed imaginative and ground-breaking. She moved to San Francisco and started working in Landmark’s San Francisco office with Gary Meyer (now co-director of the Telluride Film Festival) and Jan Klingelhofer. It was there that she really learned about exhibition and distribution.
After two years there she went back home to NYC where she was offered, ‘…many unsuitable jobs. I now wanted to be a distributor and was actually told ‘women aren’t distributors. And you are far too ethereal to be a distributor’. I still haven’t figured out what that means since the guy only heard my voice over the phone! The only person who really took me seriously was Don Krim at Kino International. And luckily I ended up working at a woman-run theatrical distribution company, First Run Features’.
‘First Run Features was created by filmmakers – both men and women – to distribute their own films (and others’) in an effective way. They hired the veteran booker Fran Spielman (who had owned her own distribution company in the 1940s). I became her assistant booker. Spike Lee cleaned and shipped films while writing scripts. Fran was a ‘character’ and we eventually became very close. But all along I was truly inspired by Fran’s care for the films and especially her honesty — unless something was rectified to the penny she wouldn’t stop!’
‘Gary Meyer and Fran were my most significant influences up to that time’.
When Fran moved on to Circle Releasing in D. C. to raise her granddaughter Yael (who is now a best-selling author and writes on issues related to women in Afghanistan) Nancy became Head of Theatrical Sales at First Run under Seymour Wishman, who is still President.
By mid 1988 she was, ‘…getting a bit tired of working for others’. She met and became friends with Emily Russo who had been Head of Theatrical Sales at Interama Films. Nancy started a consulting business for community groups wanting to initiate film series. Emily was representing films at festivals.
They knew a few filmmakers – including Bruce Weber (Broken Noses) and Todd Haynes (Superstar, the Karen Carpenter Story) – and when Nancy was offered office space – first in Jersey City and then at Waverly Place in Manhattan — they had lunch and tentatively, then decisively, decided to become partners in a joint venture.
They moved into the tiny office (not bigger than a small desk which they shared face to face; they still sit that way but across a larger desk) on Waverly Place, in an apartment shared with a friend in a start-up gift basket business. They each put in a tiny bit of money to buy a fax machine, phones and pay a cheap rent. With a lot of good will from exhibitors and colleagues, they became distributors. Zeitgeist was born.
Two of their first projects were Bruce Weber’s BROKEN NOSES and APPARATUS SHORTS (produced and curated by Todd Haynes, Christine Vachon and Barry Ellsworth). These, and Tony Buba’s ‘Lightning Over Braddock’ (Zeitgeist’s first film to be shown at NYC’s prestigious Film Forum) gave them ‘enough to survive’.
Bruce Weber then offered them ‘Let’s Get Lost’. This was also a ‘service deal’ but a lucrative one. ‘Let’s Get Lost’, commercially speaking, started the company.
‘For us, distribution was and is balance,’ Nancy says. ‘You should know your film. You should spend appropriately.’
Zeitgeist’s next hit was POISON, Todd Haynes’ first feature film. (Note – see bottom, fascinating essay by Nancy and Emily about this experience.) In short, the conservative elements of Congress wanted to stop funding art with any ‘transgressive’ elements. The work of Robert Mappelthorpe, Andreas Serrano, Karen Finley and Todd were all embroiled in this controversy. The publicity over the travails of POISON and the NEA made the film a considerably larger success than a brilliant but basically experimental film would have been. POISON made nearly one million dollars, was booked nationwide and put Zeitgeist ‘on the map’ where it has remained for 23+ years.
Zeitgeist is now a company with 9 employees whose offices are on Centre Street in the Soho/Chinatown area.
Their biggest titles to date have been:
’Nowhere in Africa’ – $6.2 million
‘The Corporation’ – $2 million
‘Bill Cunningham’ – $1.5 million and still going
Nancy sees various changes upcoming in the film business. ‘Delivery systems to theaters have and are still changing. DCP is considered to be the upcoming ‘new universal’ digital format. But the small companies still don’t know which way that wind is blowing for them.’
‘DVD is way down but not out. In 2005 our company sold 110,000 DVDs of THE CORPORATION. THAT won’t happen again but our sales are still decent. Digital platforms are also beginning to show good numbers. Our theatrical business has been very robust these past two years. Our non-theatrical/educational business is excellent. We’ve been a privately owned company for 23 years, we’ve always been in it for the long haul and we’re proud of our success’.
One change she doesn’t see is ‘more women owners. Why are there not more women owned companies? We need more women controlling distribution!’
This next is a fascinating essay from them, Zeitgeist Co-Presidents Nancy Gerstman & Emily Russo, about their experiences in ‘the business’.
DISPENSING “POISON”: A DISTRIBUTION MEMOIR
In 1990 Zeitgeist Films was still very much in its infancy (we opened for business in 1988) and operating out of our original closet-sized office at 200 Waverly Place in New York—with no staff.
We had been releasing the Apparatus Short Film program, which Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes (along with Barry Ellsworth, who shot the black-and-white cinematography on Poison) were producing at the time.
We knew that, in the wake of Superstar’s underground success, Todd had been working on a feature. And in the summer of 1990, we were thrilled to acquire Poison from Todd and Christine (aka Bronze Eye Productions).
Fast forward to January 1991 and the Sundance Film Festival. We did not attend Sundance that year, but did receive a phone call from executive producer James Schamus (now head of Focus Features) with the news that Poison had won the Grand Jury Prize. We were, of course, elated! (Albeit a bit disappointed not to be there.)
Todd McCarthy followed up with a glowing review in Variety—noting the film’s “mood of seething, violent homoeroticism” plus a few other sexual references. He also mentioned that Poison received some public funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. (It had in fact received $25,000; a very small portion of its total budget.)
Working off of this great launch, we proceeded to book Poison in theaters all over the country. The national release would begin in New York on April 5, 1991, at the then brand-new Angelika Film Center.
In late March, Christine called us with the news that Rev. Donald Wildmon—then chairman of the Mississippi-based American Family Association—had seen the Variety review and written letters to members of Congress attacking the arts endowment (already under fire from the Robert Mapplethorpe controversy) and its backing of the film— which he claimed had “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex”. Within days, Republican Senator Jesse Helms had denounced Poison on the Senate floor. Neither Helms nor Wildmon had seen the film before making their public comments.
And that’s when all hell broke loose.
Our publicist Jeff Hill (then just beginning his career in film PR) was bombarded for comments from Todd, Christine, NEA head Frohnmayer, and, in a few cases, us. Newspapers all over the country were reporting on Frohnmayer’s defense against these new charges that the organization was using public money to support pornography.
Monday, April 1, was the first night of Passover. At our respective Seder dinners, we had our TVs tuned to the CBS Evening News, having been tipped off that there would be some coverage of the burgeoning story. But we didn’t expect Dan Rather to begin the newscast withPoison and the NEA. That got our families’ attention!
Todd was immediately barraged with requests to appear on the major talk shows. We accompanied him when he agreed to debate Republican congressman Dick Armey on CNN’s Larry King Live. Todd definitely held his own sparring with the future House Majority Leader and “Godfather” of the current Tea Party movement. Next stop on Todd’s media tour: The Today Show. This time he squared off against the Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed. Somewhat surprisingly, co-anchor Bryant Gumbel outwardly displayed his annoyance with Reed and his agenda. (Years later, Reed would be implicated in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal; he’s still active in conservative Georgia politics).
On Friday, April 5, Poison opened in New York as scheduled—breaking the house record at the Angelika, with a $41,000 first-week take. (It made just over $200,000 in its eleven-week engagement there.) The film went on to gross close to $1 million in the U.S., a huge sum for a semi-experimental indie film at the time.
In 1992, under pressure from the Religious Right, President George H.W. Bush (who had appointed him in 1989) forced John Frohnmayer to resign from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1995 Congress made dramatic cuts to its budget. Many conservative members of Congress continue to call for the complete de-funding of the NEA.
Twenty years on, Zeitgeist Films is still distributing groundbreaking work from around the globe—including four Oscar®-nominated films (and one winner) in the mix. Todd Haynes, of course, has gone on to a glorious career, garnering an Oscar® nod of his own as well as vast critical acclaim for Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, and his most recent project, the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. Poison remains a special film for us both personally and professionally; we are thrilled to be releasing it again two decades later in this new edition.
—Zeitgeist Co-Presidents Nancy Gerstman & Emily Russo, 2011