In Zeitgeist Films’ second-floor office on Centre Street, which it’s inhabited since 1991, founders Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo are throwing a sushi party for their eight-person staff. It may be the respected art-house distributor’s 20th anniversary, with requisite write-ups (like this one) and retros (MOMA’s “Zeitgeist: The Films of Our Time,” running June 26 through July 23). But today, Gerstman and Russo are celebrating just another small victory in their two-decade battle inside the indie trenches: their acquisition of Trouble the Water, which won this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary.
“We have been negotiating for Trouble the Water for quite awhile,” says Gerstman. “It’s a fantastic film that has the potential to do extremely well.”
What constitutes “extremely well” for a small operation such as Zeitgeist, however, is inconceivable for many of today’s “specialized” distribution companies. Zeitgeist’s top-grossing film, Nowhere in Africa, earned $6.2 million, much of it after winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2003. Compare that to the $50 million to $100 million returns that studio divisions aim for, and it’s easy to see the wide gulf that exists between Zeitgeist’s business model and that of its larger rivals. “We don’t need to be the biggest kid on the block,” says Russo. “This company is big enough.”
Gerstman and Russo, veterans of indie distribs First Run Pictures and Interama, respectively, joined forces in 1988, working in an elevator-sized apartment in the West Village for $175 per month. “We started the company with $1,000 each and $900 on a credit card,” recalls Gerstman. Their first release was Bruce Weber’s nonfiction boxing portrait, Broken Noses, followed by a collection of shorts from Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon’s Apparatus Productions. Soon after, they released Haynes’s feature debut, Poison, along with a bevy of work from budding auteurs, such as Guy Maddin’s Archangel, Atom Egoyan’s Speaking Parts, and The Films of the Brothers Quay.
“We’ve accepted the fact that the filmmakers we’ve introduced will move on,” admits Russo. “We recognized that very quickly when we didn’t get [Haynes’s] Safe.”
But less in it for the win than the art, the duo has gained respect from their filmmakers. “Zeitgeist has always had the most eclectic and discriminating catalog, and I’ve never been quite able to believe my good fortune in being part of it,” says Maddin (who will be on hand at MOMA to introduce his 1992 mountaintop melodrama, Careful). “Their company is by far the most personal, passionate, and character-driven of all the distributors.”
Gerstman and Russo credit their longevity to a highly cautious approach— much like the characters in Maddin’s Alpine-set fever-dream, who live with fears of a looming avalanche if they don’t tread carefully. Indeed, the independent-film sector has never been more perilous. With distribution companies consolidating (Paramount Vantage), closing down (Warner Independent, Picturehouse), or facing a fiscal crunch (ThinkFilm), Zeitgeist continues unchanged and unhindered, consistently releasing roughly five to six films annually.
“It is harder,” admits Gerstman. “Because when we started, we had competition, but not the intense competition that exists now. There weren’t 14 to 15 films released per week; there weren’t critics dropping like flies. Now, it’s very hard to get attention for your release.”
Because they put out only a small handful of movies, “each release is so important to the survival of our company,” Gerstman says. While they share duties and sensibilities, Russo works more with the numbers (“which is not my particular strength,” she deadpans), while Gerstman focuses more on marketing and negotiating acquisitions. They rarely disagree on a film, with the exception of Takashi Miike’s ultra-violent Audition. (Gerstman wanted it; Russo didn’t. Russo won.)
In 1994, the duo faced their “first real speed bump,” says Gerstman, with Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh’s phone-sex two-hander, 1-900. “We invested a lot into it,” says Russo of the arthouse flop, “but it didn’t work. That was a moment where we looked at each other and thought: ‘What do we do now?’ “
By chance, however, 1-900 led the Zeitgeist team to acquire theatrical rights to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which was a substantial success. “It was lucky,” admits Gerstman. “These strange coincidences—fate, luck, or whatever you call it—help keep a business going.” Who would have expected, for instance, that a nearly three-hour movie about French monks (Into Great Silence) would make nearly a million dollars in 2007?
While other distributors are experimenting with video-on-demand and Internet distribution, Gerstman and Russo, in their typically tentative style, aren’t leaping headlong into the new-media arena. “Big transformations are really not our thing,” says Gerstman. “We’re theatrical distributors. We’re not looking to become producers. We’re not looking to be aggregators of something or other. Zeitgeist is distribution. That’s what we are. And that’s not going to change. And as long as there are theaters, and people want to go to them, there should always be a theatrical release.”