Columbia University film professor and Emerging Pictures Co-Founder Ira Deutchman has a new role: Broadway producer. The veteran producer recently announced plans to develop Joan Micklin Silver’s 1975 indie hit “Hester Street” for Broadway alongside co-producer Michael Rabinowitz. Silver, who wrote and directed the film that earned Carol Kane an Oscar nomination, will consult on the project. “Hester Street” tells the story of a young Jewish woman who arrives in America to reunite with her husband, only to discover he’s abandoned his past existence and started a new life on the Lower East Side. Deutchman, who previously worked at companies ranging from United Artists Classics to Fine Line Features, spoke to IndieWire this week about his transition from indie film distributor to stage producer.
What made you want to produce this play?
It was definitely Michael’s brainchild. He was the one who had this idea that it would make a really good Broadway production. He brought it initially to Joan Silver and she asked me to step in. I immediately leapt on it because I just think it’s an absolutely brilliant idea and perfect material for the stage.
What makes it relevant now?
It’s a story about immigration and assimilation. It couldn’t be more timely! That was the other thing that was on my mind, other than the fact that the piece itself is timeless. It’s historically significant simply because I can’t think of another example of a woman writer-director in the ’70s actually making a film that had the impact that “Hester Street” did. And then on top of that, it was a hit in the completely independent realm outside of the studio system.
The movie only cost something like $400,000 to make and ended up with $6 million at the box office, which is pretty significant. I have no idea what a $6 million gross translates into in today’s dollars, but I have to believe it would still be among the biggest independent films of the year.
You have something of a personal history with the film, don’t you?
When Joan’s husband was looking for distribution for the film, I had just started in the business and was working for Don Rugoff at Cinema 5. Don booked the film at the Plaza Theater, which was one of the theaters that he controlled, and that was right around the corner from our office. Everyday, coming to and from work, I would see lines of people around the block to get into this movie.
At the time, I was actually a non-theatrical sales person at the company whose job was to sell films to colleges and libraries and special interest groups. We ended up getting the non-theatrical rights to “Hester Street” and got bookings for the film on college campuses and also Jewish groups all over the U.S. The film had a very long successful life beyond its theatrical showings in those kinds of venues.
Does the title still have name recognition today?
I think among people of a certain age, there’s enormous name recognition. With younger people not so much, so there is going to be some challenge to cross it over, but I think the themes are universal enough and it’s timely enough that if we do our jobs and it’s done with the kind of integrity and quality that we want, I have no doubt that those people will show up as well.
Is there any evidence that millennials are going to Broadway shows these days?
That’s shifting a little bit. “Hamilton” has opened up the doors to a lot of new audiences discovering the pleasures of going to see a theatrical piece.
How has the transition from independent film to Broadway been so far?
It’s not that different in terms of deal structures and the kind of financing necessary for raising money for an independent film, so it’s not an enormous leap. There are differences that I’ve been learning along the way, although I’m not a complete novice in that I’ve been involved with two other projects that have been proposed as Broadway shows. One was a film I executive produced at Fine Line Features called “The Ballad of Little Joe” that was adapted into a musical. It never made it to Broadway, but it did in fact did have showcase productions in various places.