20 Years in, Strand Still Releasing (Prudently) on the Edge
Without the bold film distributor Strand Releasing, provocative work like Jacques Nolot's 2007 bracing hustler-memoir Before I Forget or Lucrecia Martel's upcoming magnificent PTSD oddity The Headless Woman would never have reached these shores. To celebrate the indispensable company's 20th year, MOMA invited co-founders and co-presidents Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans to program six recent titles (including the Nolot and Martel films) from their catalog. I reached Hu and Gerrans in Strand's Culver City, California, office to talk about how Dirty Dancing is to thank for their success and why hot guys in movies are overrated.
How did you start the business?
Marcus Hu: Jon and I were working at a company called Vestron Pictures, whose claim to fame was Dirty Dancing. Shortly after Dirty Dancing, they had sunk their money into a bunch of productions that didn't work, and the company went belly-up.
Jon Gerrans: We both needed a job. [Laughs.] And that's sort of how Strand started.
Who were some of the directors that Strand first championed?
MH: Our first was Lino Brocka, whose Macho Dancer was the very first film that Strand acquired. After my job at Vestron ended, I moved home to San Francisco and started part-time work at the Strand Theater. I'd been looking at a write-up in a festival catalog for Macho Dancer and called the phone listing in the Philippines. I spoke with Mr. Brocka, who said, "We don't really have any way to show the film in the U.S. because we don't know anyone." And I said, "Well, can we show it at the Strand Theater?" He granted us the print, and it made a lot of money at the theater. So then, Mike Thomas, who was running the theater at the time, Jon, and I decided to start a distribution company with that first title.
JG: And not knowing whether it would go beyond that one film or not. [Laughs.] It started, and grew very, very organically. One film at a time, one success or failure at a time.
When so many other distribution companies—and big studios—are failing, how are you succeeding?
JG: I think it's a disciplined approach to the business. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of the attention of wide-release, the big premiere. But we know that if we fell into that trap, we wouldn't be in business. We start off with the hope that every picture is going to surpass that million-dollar box office. But nine out of 10 do not. We release the picture with the hope that, if it succeeds, we'll buy more prints. And if it doesn't, we will do the best we can for it within the budget range that will allow us to then turn around and buy the next film.
MH: I think our longevity is due to the fact that we've forged a real family with our filmmakers; our reputation has done a lot for our business. It's about trust and the fact that we have been fiscally responsible. I'm sure there are some filmmakers we've had disagreements with over the way we decided to do a marketing campaign or a trailer. But I think they will all say that we have been really responsible in handling their films. You can build a rocket, but unless you can launch it, it's no good.
Does Strand make money, or do you operate at a loss?
MH: The company definitely operates at a profit level, otherwise Jon and I would be panhandling. That said, we have movies like The Edge of Heaven and A Secret, which are very profitable. Then, we have other films that we know are difficult endeavors—and definitely ones we stand behind—but are hard ones to define as profitable. In the end, it always seems to work out and we eke out a living.
What are the biggest challenges you face now, as opposed to 10 years ago?
JG: It's staying in front of the curve of the changing distribution [model]—making sure that as the media changes, we change with it and find the best distribution strategy for the film. Sometimes, it's not the 100-city theatrical release; sometimes, it's day-and-date.
What do you do when your tastes clash?
JG: Since we're acquiring 20 to 25 films a year, there's a lot of leeway. So if one of us feels really passionate about one film, then usually that's all it takes. The discussion comes down to what's going to be the financial commitment. If the investment is going to be at a level that's going to force us to not acquire some other titles, then we definitely need to be on the same page. But if it's a smaller film and the risk is more manageable, then it's easy to choose the films that appeal to one or the other rather than both of us being in agreement.
You've made your name partly on your association with the New Queer Cinema movement of the early '90s and your continued commitment to new queer directors. What constitutes a good queer film?
MH: I don't think I would ever say, "Oh, that's a great piece of gay cinema." [Laughs.] I think I would say, "That's a good movie." I would hate to think of categorizing something as a "gay movie."
JG: If it's just a film for gay appeal, we're usually not interested. Because that usually means it's not a very good movie.
MH: We certainly get those movies where people say, "Oh, you've gotta see this great gay movie—the guys in it are so hot." So we look at it and go, "Ugh." First and foremost, it's gotta be a great movie.
'Carte Blanche: Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans' runs at MOMA July 1 through 6
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