Surviving and successfully navigating two decades as an independent distributor of international cinema that might never have been seen a big screen is no small feat. So, indie producers, executives, programmers and critics have been saluting two individuals this year on just that achievement.
Wednesday night in New York City's Chinatown, a small group of about twenty industry insiders gathered in the basement dining room of a popular restaurant to casually raise another toast to Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans, the co-presidents of Strand Releasing. Six months of saluting Hu and Gerrans on their twenty years in business together began with a dinner at the Sundance Film Festival in January, was picked up recently in Provincetown, MA and continued with the start of this weekend's tribute to the duo at MoMA. (The series of tributes will conclude later this month at OUTFEST in Los Angeles).
Amidst the highs and lows of specialty film distribution over the past two decades, Strand Releasing has stayed small, taking an occasional bow in public, but mostly focusing attention on the many films and filmmakers they've worked with over the years. And, as many have said over the past few months, their impact on independent and international cinema has been significant. In their first two decades, they've brought films from Claire Denis, Gaspar Noe, Gregg Araki, Ira Sachs, Lukas Moodysson, Tsai Ming-Liang, and many others to theaters. And, of course they were crucial in nurturing the New Queer Cinema movement.
Looking back at their 20 years together, it's striking to think that, while the studio speciality divisions rose and fell, a small company has had such a big impact. Its life spans a generation of films, filmmakers and others.
At dinner on Wednesday night, someone recalled young Village Voice critic Manohla Dargis biking to a New York City theater for a screening of Everett Lewis's "The Natural History of Parking Lots." Of course, now she's one of the most important critics in the country, writing for The New York Times. Nearly two decades later Dargis was among the many who saluted Strand at the Sundance dinner in January. So, was John Cooper, now director of the Sundance Film Festival, who was just getting his start with the fest when Strand was formed.
"They've really helped define the independent film world," praised Cooper last month at the Provincetown fest, touting their passion for cinema. "They take risks that no one else would take in the world. Most important for them is they're survivors." He concluded, "We owe a huge debt to them. I think that debt is deep."
Killer Films' Christine Vachon, who also honored Hu and Gerrans last month in Provincetown and was at dinner the other night in New York City, began her producing career alongside the Strand guys. She was pounding the pavement with Todd Haynes' "Poison" at the same time that Hu was out there with his production of Gregg Araki's "The Living End."
"Those were amazing times," recalled Vachon, at the Ptown tribute. "We really felt like we were reinventing the wheel. We really thought that independent film was something brand new that just belonged to us."
That sense of ownership feels like an important part of the story. Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans met while working at Vestron Pictures, the failing film production offshoot of the pioneering home video distributor company that eventually hit hard times in the mid-'90s. They eventually left when the company went south but one day Hu, who was then working part-time at San Francisco's Strand Theater, called Gerrans and suggested that they start a distribution company together with theater owner Mike Thomas. Their first film was Lino Brocka's "Macho Dancer," acquired when Hu called the director and secured a deal to debut the film at the venue. Chatting at dinner the other night, Mike Thomas recalled that the film made three times more money in a short run at the theater than an average title. Strand was out of the gate.
indieWIRE spoke with Marcu Hu and Jon Gerrans about the challenges of staying indie through thick and thin, at their ten year mark. A comment from Hu is as timely then as it was now. "I think everyone goes out and they think they're going to be noble, and they're going to face the world and be supportive of an incredibly daring kind of cinema," Hu said in 1999, "And then ultimately, at the end of the day, they see that they didn't make much money on that movie, all of a sudden the profiles change and there are changes."
"Without the bold film distributor Strand Releasing, provocative work like Jacques Nolot's 2007 bracing hustler-memoir 'Before I Forget' or Lucrecia Martel's upcoming magnificent PTSD oddity 'The Headless Woman' would never have reached these shores," praised film critic Melissa Anderson in a piece about Strand in last week's Village Voice, "To celebrate the indispensable company's 20th year, MOMA invited co-founders and co-presidents Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans to program six recent titles (including the Nolot and Martel films) from their catalog."
Even at their twenty year mark, good friend James Schamus, the acclaimed writer and producer who is now CEO of Focus Features, still calls Hu and Gerrans "the future of independent film." As he said during the January dinner at Sundance, "They always go to the voices that nobody else will listen to and make them appear naturally in the culture, often on the margins. But those margins, as we know, often become central to how we define ourselves."
On Wednesday in NYC, Schamus hosted the dinner and saluted the Hu and Gerrans once more, seated at a table with his former Good Machine partner Ted Hope. Schamus praised Hu and Gerrans for their focus on supporting independent cinema adding that their work is a gift to industry and audiences and their accomplishments at Strand offer "real hope for what we do."
"I hope that in another twenty years I am standing up here, I'm at the Museum of Modern Art, or wherever, and I'm handing these guys an award for their passion and committment, because [Sundance festival director John Cooper] is right, it really has changed independent film. [Strand] really made a difference, it's made it so much better," Christine Vachon said last month at the Provincetown fest. "And I hope they can keep going - I hope we all can - but I think one of the ways that we will all be able to do so is if Strand keeps finding those movies and sticking to their vision because it keeps reminding people what good movies are and what challenging work is."