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Zeitgeist Films at 20 Years: Building a Boutique Brand

Zeitgeist Films at 20 Years: Building a Boutique Brand

“One thing we didn’t have was a business plan, per se,” recalled Zeitgeist Films co-president Emily Russo, “or deep pockets.” Last week, she was seated alongside co-president Nancy Gerstman on a small sofa inside the compact but quite comfortable Lower Manhattan office where the two women have run the successful film distribution company together. Back in 1991, Gerstman and Russo moved to their Centre St. location — into a space with large desks facing each other — from a Waverly Place spot, and they’ve been there ever since. Zeitgeist’s full-time staff, made up mostly of women, includes another eight people who handle the five or so films that the company releases each year. Most are documentaries these days, some are foreign language films, and a few additional titles are acquired each year for their home video label.

The two women, longtime friends who met while working in theatrical distribution for different companies back in the 1980s, struck early relationships with Todd Haynes, Christine Vachon and Barry Ellsworth‘s Apparatus Productions, as well as bonding with photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber. “We shared a similar desire not to work for anybody else,” Russo recalled, as Gertman chimed in, “It was so much easier then,” noting that the two of them have built the company on a tremendous amount of goodwill and a number of strong strategic relationships. Twenty years later, they are being saluted with a month-long retrospective that begins this week at The Museum of Modern Art.

The MoMA screening schedule spans the life of the company, and will feature a number of special filmmaker appearances. On Thursday and Friday, Guy Maddin will present “The Heart of the World” (2000) and “Careful” (1992), while Bruce Weber will be on hand with “Let’s Get Lost” (1988). And this weekend, Yvonne Rainer will present “Privilege” (1990), while next month Dan Geller, Dayna Goldfine, and dancer Freddie Franklin will present “Ballet Russes” (2005) and Atom Egoyan will be on hand with Russo and Gerstman for “Irma Vep” (1997). Other Zeitgeist films set to screen include Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964), Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s “The Corporation” (2004), Deepa Mehta’s “Fire” (1996), Todd Haynes’ “Poison” (1991) and “Dottie Gets Spanked” (1994), Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Climates” (2006), Agnes Varda’s “The Gleaners and I” (2001), and Raoul Peck’s “Lumumba” (2002).

“We take a lot of pride in the films that we’ve distributed and the careers we’ve been involved in,” noted Emily Russo. Pressed to highlight the turning point moments for their company over the years, Gerstman and Russo both immmediately isolate Caroline Link’s “Nowhere in Africa,” their Oscar winner for best foreign language film in 2003. “The gross on that film was so spectacular [it earned more than $6.1 million in theatrical release], it took us psychologically to another level,” Gerstman noted, “Even though we didn’t do that much.” She continued, “We had a bit more money to spend for period of time, it was a huge psychological boost for us.”

Not wanting to overlook their other nominees, the women singled out subsequent Oscar nods for Marc Rothemund’s “Sophie Scholl” (2005) and Laura Poitras’ “My Country, My Country.” “Within a few years [we had] a few nominations,” Russo boasted, “It felt pretty nice.”

“We get a lot of films that come in because of our reputation,” Emily Russo observed, when asked about how they select the handful of movies they ultimately decide to work on. Gerstman added that there’s been a certain amount of kismet involved with their recent acquisitions (all of which have been documentaries). Last fall, Bob Hawk called them from the lobby of the Arclight Theater in Los Angeles to advocate for Guido Santi and Tina Mascara’s “Chris & Don,” which Zeitgeist opened earlier this month, while a friend from the National Film Board of Canada hyped Yung Chang’s “Up The Yangtze” its IDFA debut (the film later went to Sundance). The women also acquired Gonzalo Arijon’s “Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains” which did the same IDFA – Sundance trajectory. Meanwhile, the deal for Tia Lessin and Carl Deal‘s Sundance hit “Trouble the Water” emerged in New York when “My Country, My Country” director Laura Poitras introduced Gerstman and Russo to the filmmakers at a New Directors, New Films party.

While insiders have bemoaned the theatrical performance of docs of late, Russo and Gerstman are confident. “We are more practical about what these docs can do and what the marketplace is,” noted Emily Russo, “It’s a lot of work.” Continuing, she noted, “Maybe that’s not a model that is suited to other companies who feel it is more about the spending,” she added, “For us, we’re really always very conservative [about spending] if you do so and you have a success, it can be profitable.” Nancy Gerstman added that they focus on niche marketing…identifying makrets and being able to go for it.

Beyond the crisis some see in documentary distribution, there are bigger challenges facing the film business today. “There is a big cloud over the heads of the industry,” offered Emily Russo, “We are all confronted by the uncertainty of the business.” Asked to pinpoint the current challenges, Nancy Gerstman noted that she and Emily have been talking about the situation. “We had decided it’s really the amount of films that are being released every week. It totally overwhelms critics.” Not to mention the dwindling positions for paid critics, many of whom are forced to fend for themselves. “It’s a mess, it really is,” she added, “Having so many films per week is a bit of a disaster.”

While platforms like the Internet have fostered a vast lanscape for criticism, new distribution platforms that may help the business are also emerging, but Gerstman and Russo are approaching the outlets cautiously. They are testing the waters and evaluating a number of options, taking their films to iTunes, while also exploring venues such as Netflix and the Tribeca Film Insitute‘s new Reframe site.

Reflecting on the cinema experience in the future, Russo noted, “I don’t see people not going to the movies anymore. People are always going to want to go the the movies — they will find many new ways to do it. Perhaps technology is going to be different in five years.” Continuing she added, “I do believe that the market for great films and great stories is going to remain and people will still want to participate in that as long as the film are being made that warrant that.”

“I agree that until all the theaters are turned into something else people are going to be going to the movies and they want that group experience,” Nancy Gerstman added, noting that over time, Zeitgeist will evolve just as everyone else does, but she cautioned that her company will not be, “at the front of that change.”

“In terms of the whole industry right now, it’s always good when you can be a lean and mean machine and I think Zeitgeist had maintained its leanness and meanness which has allowed us a little bit of stability,” Emily Russo offered, noting that it also takes, “A little bit of luck.”

“It’s not just that,” chimed in Gerstman, a few minutes later, “It’s luck that you make through hard work to some extent. We work very, very hard on projects and then we hope for lunch. It is important to have some good luck.”

“I think you have to be an optimist in this business,” Gerstman reflected, “You are one film away from success.” Russo concurred, “You always have to feel that way.”

The duo repeatedly discussed that being an optimist is crucial in stomaching the ups and downs of distribution and despite the current storm clouds, expressed confidence about the future. “There are great people still to discover and great films yet to see and people are enthusiastic filmgoers here.” Gerstman then reiterated her earlier assertion, “We never had a business place when we started, and we don’t have a business plan now.”

[Brian Brooks contributed to this article]

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