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Case Study: How Zeitgeist Made $1.5 Million With “Bill Cunningham New York”

Case Study: How Zeitgeist Made $1.5 Million With "Bill Cunningham New York"

IFP’s Independent Film Week closed out with Zeitgeist Film co-Presidents Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo discussing “Bill Cunningham New York,” their hugely successful documentary that has grossed $1.5 million domestically.

Directed by Richard Press, “Bill Cunningham” is a revealing portrait of the massively influential New York Times photographer who’s famous for his photos of fashion-forward New York women. The film broke records at New York’s Film Forum in the spring and, despite being available on DVD, it’s currently playing at New York’s IFC Center and has become its longest-playing film.

Below are highlights from the talk, which was moderated by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Eugene Hernandez (and iW’s co-founder):

Manage Your Expectations

Gerstman: I feel like we’ve learned to modulate our experience over our 20-plus years. I don’t know whether you can have huge expectations for something, no matter how wonderful you think it is. With “Bill,” we tailored our distribution to what we thought it could do. We thought it would do nicely, but $1.5 million was never, in a million years, in our view. We try not to overdo expectations. I think the film was initially seen as somewhat New York-centric. We had no idea it would go over the top the way it has.

Get to Know the Filmmmakers

Russo: We’re a small company, so we need to assess the compatibility with the filmmaker. We always want to have a good meeting to see if there’s good chemistry. We all hit it off great with the ones behind “Bill,” but they wanted to open it during Fashion Week. The way we work, September was like tomorrow. We need six months minimum lead time to prep a release. It was impossible for us to have it ready in the way it needed to be in time for that release. So we parted ways. It was sad.

Gerstman: Maybe two months later, sometime in the fall, they decided that they had changed their minds. Sundance had wanted to buy the broadcast rights, but there would have been no theatrical release. The filmmakers wanted a theatrical release. March is great, weather is getting nice, winter is over: Great time to open a film.

Start Small

Russo: [New York’s] Film Forum is a very safe bet. They’re good for developing the type of audience we needed.

Gerstman: Film Forum gives films the attention they need.

Russo: Our business model is start small. That’s why we go with Film Forum. Even when we go to the IFC or the Lincoln Plaza, we try to open films under six figures and see where we can go from there. Starting with a major six-figure number is not what we do.

Gerstman: It would be so impractical and damaging to our business. We can get a lot done without spending that much. That’s how we’ve survived.

Russo: Our risks are in the types of films we take, but not the way we distribute them.

Big Outlets Are Great, But Always Build Word of Mouth Through Grassroots Initiatives

Gerstman: To some extent, The Times is it in New York, which is why you have to make sure you do grassroots publicity and promotion. We actually found out the main writers [at The New York Times] didn’t like the film very much [LA Times film critic Carina Chocano reviewed the film favorably for the Times].

[Update: Gerstman later clarified to iW that her impression was incorrect. According to the filmmakers, the film was well liked by the Times. However, Chocano reviewed the film due to the its inherent conflict of interest.]

In every city, people really look to the Times’ reviews. Unless you’ve really done your homework, The Times can kill off your movie. I think that the reviewers there now really love independent films. They’re much more open to experimental films, so we’re very lucky to have them as critics. But there are still films they don’t like and that will have repercussions in different places. We really had enough going for us with “Bill Cunningham” that even if we didn’t get a good review, we would have done well.

NYT Film Club is a Godsend

Russo: We did have a meeting the Times folks. The one thing that ended up being fruitful is that they started up a film series, called the NYT Film Club. They would offer screenings to people that had joined before it came out. “Bill” was screened in the early days of this initiative. The one thing that came with it was a big ad in the Times, which is bigger than the sum of the most ads we’ve ever had in the Times. It’s a lot of money and it’s hard to justify doing these huge ads. But for this film, we were able to land a 1/3-page ad in the Times a week prior to the film’s release.

Social Networking is Great, But Word of Mouth is Better

Russo: In the case of “Bill,” New York was an unqualified success. The film opened on a Wednesday at Film Forum. People were lined up around the block and it went on to break all their house records that weekend. That was really enormous; we were just over the moon. People were going back, bringing their friends, and that wasn’t because of Twitter or Facebook, but because people loved the movie.

Right away after that first week, we were going crazy because we only had two weeks at Film Forum. It had to go out, so we found three new homes for the film. It’s now the IFC’s longest-playing film.

Older Audiences Are a Great Niche

Russo: Older audiences are really a good audience for a film. Young people are watching things in all different ways. Older ones will seek things out. They don’t need babysitters, they have the money to go. I think “Bill” captured older audiences in markets we don’t hit otherwise.

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