Sweet Release

Distributing the Art-House Wealth on the Cheap

Although they make ancillary deals, Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo of the 12-year-old Zeitgeist Films are dedicated to theatrical distribution and insist that you can make money on the art-film circuit. Zeitgeist is currently having what promises to be one of its most profitable releases with Aimée and Jaguar, which recently moved uptown from the Quad to Lincoln Plaza. "It's attracting the gay and lesbian audience, the Jewish audience, and the art audience," says Russo.

Winstar's Lidell takes the least romantic position, bluntly stating that "theatrical release is a loss leader." Lidell used to run International Film Circuit, which distributed touring packages of films that were considered difficult even for the art-film market. Two years ago, the IFC collection was acquired by the indie video and TV company Fox Lorber, which in turn was acquired by Winstar New Media. Winstar's theatrical division has recently released six films by Hou Hsiao-hsien and two late films by Kurosawa: Ran and Madadayo. The first foreign-language film to play the Loews Union Square multiplex, Ran is also Winstar Video's current bestseller.

The new kid on the block is Lot 47, run by antsy, ambitious Jeff Lipsky. "While some intensely talented distributors are content to live hand-to-mouth," he says, "I think of my competitors as Lions Gate and, to a certain degree, Artisan." Lipsky started out in 1974, helping John Cassavetes self-distribute his great A Woman Under the Influence, and stayed with him through The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night. After that, he ran theatrical distribution for New Yorker, went on to Samuel Goldwyn (where he released Jarmusch's Amerindie landmark Stranger Than Paradise), and then went to Skouras Films. When he couldn't interest Skouras in Mike Leigh's Life Is Sweet—a film that he decided he had to be a part of when he saw it in rough cut—he called up an old friend, Bingham Ray, and that was the beginning of October Films. In the mid '90s, Lipsky left October to write and direct a feature of his own, Childhood's End, which he maintains was the best experience of his life, despite the fact that the film had little critical and no commercial success.

Coup de Croupier: The Shooting Gallery’s Eamonn Bowles
photo: Robin Holland
Coup de Croupier: The Shooting Gallery’s Eamonn Bowles

Two years ago, Lipsky became intense about another film, Tim Roth's agonizing incest drama, The War Zone. He got his brother, Scott Lipsky, a honcho in Seattle's new media and technology community, to raise the money to distribute it. Even though The War Zone—which went out unrated—didn't turn a profit, Scott got interested in the film business. "In two months, he found the money to finance Lot 47, more money than Bingham and I could raise for October in two years," says Lipsky. Lot 47 has already bought over a half-dozen films, including New York Film Festival entry Chunhyang and The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, which is currently in theaters. "I haven't had this good a time," says Lipsky, "since I was working with Cassavetes."

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