DECADE: Reid Rosefelt, Publicizing Passion from Jarmusch to Almodovar, Part 1
by Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz
[Part two of this interview is linked at the bottom of the page.]
Errol Morris once said, "If publicity was a religion, and I believe it is, Reid Rosefelt would be the High Priest." And walking into Rosefelt's office is like entering some sacred film temple. Photographs of everyone from Hal Hartley, Errol Morris, and Jim Jarmusch to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jeanne Moreau and Gerard Depardieu cover the back wall. (There's even an autographed portrait of silent film star Louise Brooks and a snapshot of Reid next to Lillian Gish.)
Forget the last decade -- Rosefelt has been in publicity since the 70's, starting out at Samuel Goldwyn, moving on to PMK, New Yorker Films, DDA, establishing his own company, spending an 8-year stint doing unit publicity, and finally establishing Magic Lantern Inc., one of the preeminent specialty publicity and marketing firms where Rosefelt continues his relationships with such directors as Hartley and Morris, and has begun new ones with the likes of David Mamet and Pedro Almodovar.
From Jarmusch's breakthrough in 1984 with "Stranger than Paradise," Rosefelt has seen the rise of independent film from the trenches -- and he's got a lot to say about it. Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz recently spoke with Rosefelt in the star-studded offices of Magic Lantern in midtown Manhattan about Jim, Sundance, Miramax, marketing, and magazines. [Anthony Kaufman]
"Sundance has completely changed everything, because it
gives everything a calendar, it gives everything that people do within
the world of independent film momentum. And Sundance means that when you
make a film, if you can get it done in time and they can pick you, the
whole world is going to come in and look at you."
indieWIRE : In regard to the past 10 years, everyone's been talking
about how these films -- independent films, specialty films, art films
-- are marketed. People keep focusing on how that's changed, spending
more money or striving for larger results. What is your take on the way
movies are marketed now and to what do you attribute those changes?
Reid Rosefelt: Well, in the 70's when I started working in the specialty
film business, most of the distributors were exhibitors, Talbot, [Don] Rugoff
who had the Cinema 5 Theaters, there was Walter Reade who had the
Walter Reade theaters, and Landmark did distribution. People all over
the country who had theaters were people who wanted to bring out movies
that they wanted to play in their theaters. But I'm speaking of
specialty films, and there are exceptions to this. But generally, a
good portion of these people, Meyer Ackerman who had the 68th Street
Playhouse, had a distribution company. And guess what, we played the
films in his theater. And a lot of the New Yorker films would play at
the Cinema Studio and later on, as now, they open at the Lincoln Plaza.
So the business was a certain kind of business which for the most part
was very restrained. They opened on the cheap and waited for reviews.
There were certain companies that were more marketing intensive than
others, but in general, low key. Not too different from almost a museum
type of approach. They just wanted to see "Before the Revolution" shown
around the country, and no one was picking it up after the New York Film
Festival, so Dan [Talbot] picked it up, and other theaters with interest
got prints from him.
Then the first big change I think were the classic divisions. And so you
had UA Classics and later other companies like that; they were part of a
major studio. They had more money and they had a major studio attitude.
They were not afraid to put a little more muscle behind the marketing of
films. And that was a first step. But a much more dramatic change was
the arrival of Miramax. These people were real showmen, and I believe I
was the first publicist to ever work for Harvey and Bob [Weinstein] on a foreign
film, and it was a movie called "Erendira,"  a Gabriel Garcia
Marquez short story. They did the ad for this film and they airbrushed
the cleavage on the girl's chest, and I had never seen anything like
that. I had been in the business for a long time and I had never seen
anyone I'd worked with at any of the companies I'd worked at, no one had
done anything that was that aggressive. And I was like, "Oh, my God," these
guys are different. And that wasn't the only thing.
So they pushed every angle and they never stopped. And I started on that
film and I worked for practically a year on that film, whereas with
anybody else, the movie would have come and that would have been that.
And so the message of that experience to me was, you shouldn't start
with the idea that these films have limitations. You should assume that
anything could be possible. That was the approach that they had. And I
think that everyone in the business took note of that, and it changed
everything. All of a sudden, the idea was something big could happen,
and of course, something big did happen, I don't know, ten years ago at
Sundance, "sex, lies and videotape." And that made what, a $23 million
gross, it was a big gross and a lot more than what people expected from
a specialty film. And that rewrote the rules, and since then, many other
films have come along which have changed it again.
So I would say for the big impact, there are three things. One is, the
classic divisions, one is Miramax, and the third one is Sundance.
Sundance has completely changed everything, because it gives everything
a calendar, it gives everything that people do within the world of
independent film momentum. There's something to aim at. And Sundance
means that when you make a film, if you can get it done in time and they
can pick you, the whole world is going to come in and look at you and
you're going to be written about in all these magazines, because
Sundance gives us a focus, just like in the past, national moviemaking
movements gave us a focus.
Maybe I can paint a little picture for you of the film scene in the 70's
and show you what it was like before Sundance. There were people in New
York making movies that would have gone to Sundance if there were a
Sundance. And in the downtown film community, you had artists like Keith
Haring and Kenny Scharf who were getting tremendous attention, and you
had musicians, the Talking Heads and The Ramones, and all these people
were getting worldwide attention. And then you also had the film
community which was getting nothing outside of showing films in the
clubs. Amos Poe was making films, Eric Mitchell, The B's [Scott and Beth], a lot of
people were making films, some in 16mm, some in Super 8, some on video.
There was a scene, but the difference was, it didn't go anywhere. Major
magazines were not writing about it. They were certainly written about
in local magazines like The Village Voice and SoHo Weekly News, but it
didn't go out. And the attention in the media was going to Europe, to
the New German Cinema; they weren't talking about the films being made
in town. And largely, maybe one can say, well, the films weren't good
enough, but I could make the same statement about many films I've seen
at Sundance, and they got written about.
I think the first American independent filmmaker who really started to
get some attention was [John] Sayles. "The Return of the Secaucus Seven" is a
landmark moment. I worked on "Stranger Than Paradise" which was another
moment. I think the perspective that Jim Jarmusch had: he was very
influenced by Europe, he had spent time in Paris. For Jim, he would have
been quite happy when he headed out to Cannes in 1984, if he had been
able to keep making movies and have them play in festivals, that would
have been great. I think to a certain extent, all the marketing
pyrotechnics that I put into selling "Stranger Than Paradise"
embarrassed Jim. But then, the success unleashed him to go on and become
maybe a slightly different kind of artist, working on a bigger canvas. I
think he would have been discovered no matter what. I don't think I had
anything to do with it, but it was fun to be around and it was fun to
talk to journalists and be talking to them about something and have them
imagine something that hadn't been imagined yet, which was that some of
these films made in America by an American director could be as good as
the films they like from Europe, and could actually play. And I think a
big moment for me is when it won the National Society of Film Critics'
award for best film. I don't know if that ever happened before to an
American Independent film. And that was a moment, and that was a moment
"We should pay people not to make movies, and get Vanity
Fair to donate a big spread where they'll do all these pictures of
people in really cool clothes, and that'll be the prize they get if we
could just get them to stop."
There would be filmmakers who were Hollywood guys; they would make
movies which would launch them to be able to become studio filmmakers.
But that's a very different kind of person and expression than the kind
of thing we have with Todd Haynes or Hal Hartley or Jim Jarmusch, people
who really I think were largely influenced by watching a lot of auteurist
films from Europe -- a certain kind of personal expression -- it's not
about trying to get into Hollywood by making a film by hook or crook.
And Sundance takes all these kinds of things. You make a movie and it
can get put in there, and it gets described as an American Independent
film. And the category is quite useful to all the people who are part of
this industry that has grown up around it. You guys are in it, I'm in
it, Sundance is in it, a lot of people are making money off of it,
except of course the filmmakers, who are all broke.
I feel like maybe the only place where there's real money in American
independent film is if you are selling booze or clothes and you can sell
the image of rock and roll filmmaking, garage band filmmaking that
American independent film might represent. That's a very lustrous and
very exciting image, but if you're actually doing it, you're pretty
pathetic, you're pretty sad. And if you want to see what it's like, just
look at "Living in Oblivion." I think Tom DiCillo told it like it was.
Pretty rough. And you only do it, not because it's fun, you do it
because you have to. Because if you're Jim Jarmusch or you're Hal
Hartley, you have to. You have to express yourself in this way, you've
got things that have to be done. I've sat with a lot of these people in
the middle of the night, and they need to make these films. And then
there's this whole other category of people, and I say God bless the
people who want to make films in Hollywood, because I love Hollywood
films and if they can get discovered and make a film that's going to
entertain me, great. And if there's somebody who's going to become Hal
Hartley, great. But then there's this other group that doesn't really
have anything to say, or anything really interesting to express -- they
just want to be written about.
iW : Or make money...
Rosefelt: Yes. But I think it's fame, really. I think they want to have
an article written about them in Vanity Fair, or Premiere. And John
Pierson did that kind of "Amongst Friends" chapter in his book, and I
think a lot of people read that and said, "That's for me! I want to make
up a story and build up some kind of myth of myself." I've actually come
up with this idea, which is that we should pay people not to make
movies, and get Vanity Fair to donate a big spread where they'll do all
these pictures of people in really cool clothes, and that'll be the
prize they get if we could just get them to stop. We would then be able
to get some more attention in the media for people who have talent.
Because there are so many movies.
Fill in the exact number for Sundance of the exact number of films that
were submitted for the dramatic competition. I think it was something
like 850 for the 16 slots, and then there are certainly hundreds more
films that do not make it at that time that go to other festivals, go to
other independent festivals, go to Cannes. So I think a conservative
estimate would be 1,300 to 1,500 American independent films right now,
which will probably explode in the next few years because of digital
film. But let's just say we're talking 1,500 films a year, which is
going to be low. If there's 365 days in a year, then you've got to
watch five of these a day. Who's going to stop this endless flow, it's
getting kind of rough to keep up with this, and it seems like it's a bit
much. I think it's out of hand. The costs of making films and the
technology of making films used to slow people down and it doesn't
anymore because video technology and AVID has made it possible to make a
film without a lot of expense.
iW : John Pierson estimated that 175 of these films will be released in
New York this year.
Rosefelt: And the percentage never seems to change each year. 5% of the
market is specialty film, which includes everything from Merchant Ivory
to Pedro Almodovar to everything that plays at Sundance, and films like
"Happiness" that don't play at Sundance and come out and do quite well
later. 5% of the market is what we're fighting over. And if you think
that of that 5%, it might be "Life is Beautiful" taking up a few of
those percentage points, then you really are fighting over a very, very
little bit of the marketplace.
Now, Pierson always explains to me the errors of my ways and tells me
it's not really about people actually seeing the films. Somebody goes
to Sundance with a movie and then gets attention for that, and then the
next film gets attention so they can make another movie, which is really
good. So it's about promise, giving people opportunities. It doesn't
necessarily have to mean that the films that play at Sundance
necessarily are the greatest. First films rarely are. Who watches the
first films of Bergman and other directors? It takes time for
filmmakers to develop. But if Sundance can provide encouragement, then
that's a beautiful thing. It can get people started, and it doesn't have
to be about all the movies at Sundance actually being all the things we
think of, but maybe what it will be is the directors we like, a lot of
them will be linked in one way or another to Sundance.
iW : It's the whole idea of, "We'll take this film, but we want your next
two films." When Miramax was buying more films, they would give people two
three picture deals because they wanted to see what else the filmmaker
Rosefelt: I think they liked the films too. And they saw the potential
that they could get even more out of the guy in the future. I read an
interview in FILMMAKER with James Schamus, where he was talking about
the importance of marketing. That you can talk about all these movies,
but the important thing is how do you get them out to people? And I
really see tremendous room for improvement in that area. I think that
percentage point should be going up. I don't think it should just be
sitting at 5. I think we've got to find more interesting ways to reach
people. "The Blair Witch Project" is an interesting splash of water for
everybody, the wake-up call. As "Pulp Fiction" did its year. And there'll
be others. Personally, I don't think every film has to do $8 million or
whatever in order to be a success. If you pay off the cost of making the
movie, and you please audiences intensely, if you can provide an experience
that really, really is great for people, that's success. It's a bigger
success in my mind than if you make something that the people who made
it didn't like and the people who watched it didn't like, but everyone
got rich one way or another. How do you judge success, and what is it,
and what is success in America versus success in other places?
The conversation continues on page 2...