Sweet Release

Distributing the Art-House Wealth on the Cheap

Bowles has been in the distribution game since the late '70s. Noah Cowan and John Vanco, copresidents of Cowboy Booking International, are babies by comparison. Cowan was a programmer for the Toronto Film Festival. He became a distributor, he says, because he got frustrated watching films die after their festival screenings. Vanco, inspired by hearing Sarah Eaton (now of the Sundance Channel) talk about the difficulty marketing Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, went to work at New Yorker Films, moved to Fine Line, and then Miramax before starting Cowboy with Cowan.

"We conceive of ourselves as distribution partners rather than distributors. In our first year, we worked closely with Rolling Thunder, Quentin Tarantino's imprint at Miramax," says Cowan. "He wanted to rescue movies. We did Jack Hill, Takeshi Kitano. It was fun to work with someone who had so little concern for the economics of the industry," adds Vanco.

Cowboy also programs the Screening Room's second theater. "We told them that the way to make a mark was to have a calendar [i.e., repertory] screen like Film Forum or the Castro in San Francisco," says Cowan. Cowboy opened Benjamin Smoke, a film that it also distributed, at the Screening Room, but it doesn't monopolize the schedule with its own releases. And its big film of the year, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, opened at Film Forum.

Cowboy started small, with only three prints of Hank Greenberg. It didn't follow the pattern of the usual art-house movie. "We didn't begin to make money until we expanded to the suburbs and found an older Jewish audience. We ran six months in one Boston theater. Florida will be our biggest state," explains Vanco.

Cowboy's latest project is Code Red, financed by Jeff Levy-Hinte of the downtown postproduction house Post 391. Code Red will release packages of 10 movies a year. It's aimed at the ancillary markets—cable and home video—that find packages of films more attractive than one-offs. Like the majority of distributors, Cowboy operates on the principle that you have to be crazy to depend on theatrical distribution to make a living.

Unlike their Hollywood counterparts, indie distributors seem more like film enthusiasts than business types. "I had wanted to be a film critic," says Vanco, "but when I was working for New Yorker I realized that this 10-person office had affected film culture in a big way. I can't imagine anything better than being Dan Talbot and Peter Bogdanovich programming the New Yorker Theater in 1962."

Talbot, who runs the 35-year-old company New Yorker Films, backed unwillingly into distribution. He fell in love with Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution, but the film's producer refused to allow him to play it at the New Yorker (the '60s mecca for film buffs on Broadway at 88th Street) unless he also agreed to distribute it in the States. Operating out of a tiny room above the theater, New Yorker Films built its reputation on its collection of Western European art films (it brought Godard and Fassbinder to American audiences), as well as films from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

In the '60s and '70s, Talbot says, he scooped films up for relatively little money. When the studios began their classics divisions, however, Talbot, who refers to himself as "the last of the cheapskates," was priced out of the market. Since he always made money from exhibition—first at the New Yorker, then at the Cinema Studio theaters, and now at the Lincoln Plaza multiplex—he's perfectly happy to play films from New Yorker competitors such as Sony Classics and Strand. (He would rather call them colleagues.) "We have a loyal audience at the Lincolns. They trust us and come to almost anything we program. I just bought the new Oshima film that's going to be at the New York Film Festival. I don't know how well it's going to do in distribution. I belong to the Saul Steinberg school: Whatever happens beyond the Upper West Side is of no use whatsoever." But Talbot also admits that what has kept New Yorker Films going for the past decade is its in-house video label, nurtured into being by José López, who's been with the company since the '60s.

Longtime indie distributors Don Krim of Kino and Seymour Wishman of First Run, as well as Wendy Lidell of the new company Winstar and Amy Heller and Dennis Doros of the more specialized Milestone (which thrives on the rediscovery and restoration of classic films), agree that their in-house video lines provide financial stability. Wishman says that he wouldn't know how to start a distribution company today; he's dependent on revenue from the 350 titles in First Run's extremely diversified video library. "I try to make money theatrically, but it's difficult," he says.

Sande Zeig of the tiny company Artistic License explains that theatrical release is the essential prologue to a film having a successful life in the ancillary markets; it's also the only way to get the critical response on which a director builds a career. Artistic License is considered the class act among distributors that do service deals. (In a service deal, a film's producer pays to have the film released. The distributor provides labor, contacts, and creativity.) Because Artistic License had a breakout success with Kore-Eda Hirokazu's After Life—it made $800,000 theatrically—Zeig now has room to operate in more-ambitious ways. In partnership with the start-up company Offline Releasing, she'll distribute Agnès Jaoui's The Taste of Others (a New York Film Festival selection) in the fall.

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