Dan Talbot’s 2004 Gotham Awards Speech
by Daniel Talbot
[EDITORS NOTE: On December 1st, Dan Talbot of New Yorker Films and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas was honored by IFP/New York with the Gotham Award for Industry Lifetime Achievement. Talbot’s speech, the subject of considerable discussion over the past week, has been praised by many within the independent film community, with a number of people calling upon indieWIRE to publish it in its entirety. Talbot provided the text of his speech to indieWIRE yesterday and we are publishing it as written.]
2004 IFP Gotham Awards Address
by Daniel Talbot, Industry Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
What can we talk about? The IFP is a body of nurturing folks intent upon helping independent filmmakers, so I thought of telling a few mini-tales about those who have had ties with this arcane trade.
We start with James Joyce. Struggling to stay afloat while writing, living in near-poverty in Trieste, someone suggested that he import skyrockets to Trieste, but he found this trade would be too dangerous. He also pursued an old plan of becoming the agent for Irish tweeds, but somehow this didn’t come to pass… then he hit upon the idea of opening a movie theatre in Dublin. The year was 1909 and there were no movie theatres in Ireland. He thought to follow up with a circuit around the country. With the help of several businessmen from Trieste he went about buying a building in Dublin and transforming it into a movie house.
His opening show got a good review, but as the days passed the numbers went south and he abandoned the theatre. Lucky for us that Joyce failed, otherwise we might not be reading “Ulysses” today.
Fassbinder’s “Beware of a Holy Whore” is about the making of a film. Fassbinder himself plays the role of the director. They run out of cash and the production comes to a halt. Fassbinder goes to a pay phone and in a rageful voice shouts at the producer to send some more bread pronto. Likewise when Stanley Kubrick was shooting his first feature, “Fear and Desire,” on Bronx streets he too ran out of money mid-way. So he called his uncle who already had given him money for the film from a phone booth for more cash. The uncle got the call in his pharmacy store and said to Stanley: “Call me back later, I’m waiting on a customer.”
I thought of Ousmane Sembene when he first started making films, bicycling from one African village to another with his films, presenting his work on a makeshift screen… I also think of Bob Shaye when he presented his first New Line Cinema film, Jan Nemec’s “Diamonds in the Night,” a difficult first film. He took an ad in the Village Voice, pleading with audiences to support this poetic gem from Czechoslovakia. This was in 1965 when I began New Yorker Films. Two nutty film buffs eager to share their wares with the folks out there… Years later, when I was opening the Cinema Studio on Broadway and 66th Street, Harvey and Bob Weinstein came to my office to persuade me to show their first acquisition, Ruy Guerra’s “Erendira” with Irene Pappas. Harvey did an Al Jolson number, literally getting on his knees with hands clasped upwards. Another pair of film nuts.
In 1971 New Yorker Film was lodged in one small room in the building attached to the New Yorker Theatre. We were distributing Emile de Antonio’s “Millhouse: A White Comedy,” a clever satire of President Richard Nixon. That got me on Nixon’s Enemies List. All my lefty friends on the Upper West Side were peeved… how come you got on and not us. Anyhow I got a visitor one day… a tall lanky fellow, name of Ullalawicz, formerly a New York City detective, who was one of the Water Gate burglars… He pronounced the word film fil- um. Wanted to talk to me about Millhouse. I told him I couldn’t see him right away but if he wanted he could go downstairs to the New Yorker Theatre and watch the show for an hour and then come by to chat with me. At the time we were showing Robert Bresson’s masterpiece, “Pickpocket.” It was part of a ten week series in which we premiered ten foreign and American independent films. I was bugged by the poor caliber of film reviewing at the time so I held no press screenings and charged one dollar at all times in order to encourage the audience to take a chance on these films, without critical endorsement. The critics had to pay a dollar to see the films and I opened each film on a Sunday in order to avoid opening day reviews. In a full-page ad in the N.Y. Times I attacked the critics. My friend Pauline Kael helped me write the text. So there was the New York City gumshoe watching “Pickpocket.” For those who have not been privileged to see the film, it contains a 10 minute balletic sequence of Algerian pickpockets (these guys were the real McCoy, not actors) working their marks at the train station. Wallets, wrist watches and jewelry flew all over the place. Dozens of New York City pickpockets came to the theatre not to pick pockets but to watch the film, to study the techniques of their colleagues. Guess what? Ullalawicz’ pocket was picked. He ran to my office and shouted: “Hey what kind of place do you run here?”
Don Rugoff who was the greatest exhibitor of fine independent films this city has ever seen, lost control of his company, Cinema V, some time in the 1980’s. Don also distributed films, among them Costa-Gravas’s “Z” and Robert Downey’s “Putney Swope.” After losing his company he and his wife wound up in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard where he rented an abandoned church with 100 wooden seats and ran a film society. He would often call me to book films there… offbeat films at $100 a pop. He addressed everyone as “Tiger”. “Hey, Tiger” he said, “how much are you going to charge me?” Word has it that he’s buried in a pauper’s grave in Edgartown, Mass.
Two other distributor tales. Back in the 1960’s there was a gentleman named ED HARRISON, from the mid-west (a place like Winesburg, Ohio) who came East to work in film. He discovered Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali,” and it altered the path of his life. He became a Ray freak. Operating out of a small office in the Brill Building on Broadway he began selling one Ray film after the other to exhibitors around the country. His mission in life was to educate audiences with the films by one of the greatest artists in film history. His work done after distributing the bulk of Ray’s work, he retired and went to live in India, where he is buried.
The other great distributor of that era was Cy Harvey. He operated at first out of Cambridge, Mass. where he began the Brattle Theatre. This led him to going into film distribution. He founded Janus Films and imported all the great films of Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Ermanno Olmi, among others. He appeared to be successful but as he got deeper into distribution, the costs of making a go of it defeated him. He sold his company to Bill Becker and Saul Turrell, who assumed his debts but gave Harvey no cash. Years later Becker’s and Turrell’s sons became the operators of the Criterion Collection. The good news is that Cy Harvey’s work survives in the land of DVD.
The point of these mini-tales is that our business is not so much a business as a casino. And in this casino the independent filmmaker must spend over 90% of his time looking for money to make his film. Would that they could be as lucky as Wayne Wang, who made “Chan Is Missing” for $20,000 or Jonathan Caouette who assembled “Tarnation” for $231, but this rarely happens. About 10 years ago I wrote an editorial in the N.Y.Times Op.Ed. page suggesting a system of film funding based on the Cinema de Centre operation in France. Simply put, if IFP or some off-shoot of IFP lobbied for a setup that accumulates money out of box office receipts, the boring, stupid and deadening search for independent film financing could appreciably change. If just 10 cents on each ticket sold could go into a pot, sufficiently large, based, for example, on one billion, 500 million tickets sold in 2003, there would be enough money to finance at least 140 films with reasonable budgets. Of course this would not guarantee good films, but it would encourage the filmmaker to think more about his art and not what will work at the box office.
So enough said. I have so many people to thank. I’ll begin with my wife, Toby, who works with me in distribution and exhibition. We screen together in New York and in film festivals abroad and I’m continuously awed by her ability to scope a film within the first few minutes. Her nickname is Rapid Transit. And then there is Jose Lopez, my colleague at New Yorker Films. We’ve been together 40 years. He’s endowed with endless smarts and it’s a pleasure to work with him.. I want to thank every staff member of New Yorker Films. A word of praise for Anna Fung, our devoted office manager. Without these folks my work would be impossible. I want to also mention some of the New Yorker Film alumni who are still in our field of whom I’m mighty proud…Bingham Ray, Jeff Lipsky, Suzanne Fedak, Reid Rosefelt, Amy Heller, Mary Lugo, Mark Lipsky, Harris Dew, John Vanco, Mary Ann Hult, Susan Wrubel, Sasha Berman, Monika Wagenberg… and many others.
There are two other wonderful people I want to mention, Ewnetu Admassu, the house manager of the LINCOLN PLAZA CINEMAS, who runs the theatre as if it were his home… There is nobody like him. And Frank Rowley, who is part of our Lincoln Plaza team, once the brilliant programmer of the Regency Theatre.
Thanks to Jonathan Demme whose films have given me endless pleasure as well as for his joyful friendship. Thanks to Bingham Ray and Michael Barker for putting the Good Housekeeping Seal Of Approval on my being here. I also feel honored to be on the same program with Mike Leigh, whose body of work is awesome. Lastly, thanks to Michelle Byrd for inviting me to this prestigious honor and of course I happily accept the nomination.