The Spotlight Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes individuals whose commitment to the theatrical experience and successful track record has made a major contribution to the history of art house cinema. Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo, recipients of this year’s edition of the award, have played a major role in the expanded prominence of independent and art house cinema over the last 30 years. Since founding Zeitgeist Films together in 1988, the pair has introduced over 200 films to art house theaters nationwide. Among their releases are early films from leading voices like Christopher Nolan, François Ozon, Laura Poitras, and Atom Egoyan, and the Quay Brothers. Zeitgeist has also been instrumental in helping established auteurs find screens across the United States, releasing works from directors like Andrey Zvyagintsev, Yvonne Rainer, Agnés Varda, Abbas Kiarostami, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Peter Greenaway, and Raoul Peck. In 2017, Zeitgeist entered into a multiyear agreement with Kino Lorber to co-acquire four to five films per year for theatrical distribution. Boxoffice Pro interviewed Gerstman and Russo via e-mail ahead of Art House Convergence in a conversation that spanned the start of their careers and the opportunities and challenges facing art house cinemas and specialty distributors.
Congratulations on the award and the continued success of Zeitgeist Films. Looking back on the beginning of your careers, how did you first come to work in this industry?
Emily Russo: I graduated from SUNY Binghamton with a degree in cinema studies and knew I wanted to be involved in some way with film. I wrote my senior thesis on the films of Albert and David Maysles. After trial by fire in filmmaking (as a student) and production (early jobs being a P.A.) and internship at the Independent Feature Project, I answered an ad in the New York Times placed by a distribution company and became a booker for classic French films at Interama. It was a small company and I learned all aspects of the business from acquisitions and sales to marketing and accounting. That was the right fit, as it also gave me an appreciation for distinctive films, primarily foreign-language films and documentaries. After a few years there I struck out on my own as an independent rep, working with Bruce Weber on a release of his first documentary, Broken Noses, but soon veered into an enduring partnership with my friend and colleague at the time, Nancy Gerstman, to launch our own company, Zeitgeist Films.
Nancy Gerstman: I was in love with movies since I was a child glued to the TV watching Million Dollar Movies (sort of the TCM of its time, except that it showed the same movie every day and twice on Sunday and did not give you a vast array of genres or any international cinema). Still, it had a big effect on me. But since I was an English major I got into publishing immediately after college. After a few years I got a job with a publisher of film books and at the same time started working taking tickets at the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York, which opened my eyes to every sort of film. I met a group of cinephiles, most of whom worked at the Bleecker and some of whom are in significant positions in the industry now. After the Bleecker (and its sister theater, the Carnegie Hall Cinema, both out of business) I moved to the West Coast and worked in the San Francisco office of Landmark Theatres with Gary Meyer and Jan Klingelhofer. If there were any holes still to be filled in my film knowledge (and there were plenty) Gary and Jan did their best to fill them, and I felt that Landmark was the best film school I ever could have attended. After a few years I returned to New York and met a person who was going to be very important to me, Don Krim at Kino, who Dennis Doros so movingly evoked last year. I didn’t work for Don but I did meet him when I first came to New York, after I had applied to and not heard from dozens of distribution companies, and he encouraged me and remained a fast friend until he died far too young in 2011. Another person who was a huge influence on me was Fran Spielman, with whom I worked for three years as her assistant booker at First Run Features. Fran was a character, to say the least. I can still hear her froggy voice, her cigarette dangling (she stopped smoking eventually); and her deal-making prowess and complete and utter honesty were an inspiration to me. I left First Run in 1987, and Emily and I started Zeitgeist in 1988.
How did you meet each other, and what was behind the decision to create Zeitgeist in 1988?
We met each other through our jobs in the late-ish 1980s and we got to be closer friends when we attended the Telluride Film Festival together in 1987. We had been working as an independent film booker (Emily) and independently working with art houses and media centers on their programming (Nancy) and it just so happened that someone offered some office space in Jersey City which we could share. We went to visit the space, which we didn’t take, but over lunch in Jersey City we ended up deciding to start a distribution company together. We are both very independent people and chafed against working for others, so that was the first catalyst for wanting to be on our own. We also felt that at the time, in 1988, most independent films were not being served particularly well, that there were not many companies that could take a limited number of films and give laser-like attention to creating the best materials, getting the best playdates, and working closely with the filmmakers for their and our mutual satisfaction. We had relationships with a few filmmakers we thought were brilliant and wanted to take a very hands-on approach to releasing their movies. We each pooled the lowest five-figure amount you can imagine and through a friend found a tiny office in a Village apartment house. Another friend custom made us a desk that had a hole on the side to fit around the contour of the steam pipe along the wall. We sat across that desk from each other and started distributing a film from Tony Buba called Lightning over Braddock. Zeitgeist Films was born.
What were the lessons you took from those early years in the business as you were launching Zeitgeist?
We decided from the beginning to only take five or six films a year, so we could really give care and attention to each project and filmmaker. We were always scrupulously honest and developed a reputation that has certainly sustained us over 31 years in a very tough business. Because we never had huge financial resources, in fact most of our first films were “service deals,” we had to be very creative and economical with our campaigns and we learned to spend appropriately. We tried very hard not to lose money on a film, which is really another way of saying “don’t overpay and don’t overspend.”
We also never took a film we didn’t love in some way. This of course led us to sometimes lose a film that could have made us money, although who could really know how things would pan out? But it helped us to keep our eye on what really mattered, working with filmmakers and projects we selected, releasing films that meant something to us. If there is any secret sauce to how we ran our business, this is probably a prime ingredient.
What have been your most notable professional highlights at Zeitgeist?
The most notable of many highlights was our Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award for Nowhere in Africa in 2003. That wonderful movie went on to make $6 million at the box office (the highest-grossing foreign film that year). We had another great success with the Canadian documentary The Corporation, which grossed $2 million in the U.S. In 2010 we released Bill Cunningham New York and broke some house records at Film Forum for opening weekend. That film went on to make $1.5 million. There are many other notable highlights that include the pleasures of working with such cinematic superstars like Todd Haynes, Derek Jarman, The Brothers Quay, Yvonne Rainer, Margarethe von Trotta, Abbas Kiarostami, Agnès Varda, Olivier Assayas, François Ozon, Guy Maddin, and too many others to recount here. A more recent notable highlight came in 2017 when we were invited to join the executive branch of AMPAS. Now we can meld our love of film with our professional experience at a new level.
What is the importance of theatrical and art house exhibition for Zeitgeist Films?
For us theatrical exhibition has always been the way to see films! The atmosphere of the theatrical space, the darkened theater, the shared watching with others, that’s how we fell in love with movies and that’s how we wanted to be involved in the movie business. Of course, other platforms have gained in importance, and the theatrical landscape has radically changed since we started booking films in the 1980s. Mostly, it feels like the tide turns against theatrical exhibition with theaters closing and multiplexes taking over the world so to speak. Not to mention the near extinction of 35 millimeter and advent of digital projection. But, just as Zeitgeist Films has held on for 31 years, scrappy but happy, so too have many theaters done the same, even new ones sprouting up in new locations and looking to share movies in darkened rooms. Nothing can really replace the sight of a line at the box office to make us feel like we have a successful movie!
How can specialty distribution thrive, on a theatrical level, in the coming years?
We think as long as great movies are being made, audiences are going to want to see them in theaters. We see a lot of creativity in programming coming from independent theaters: more one-off or limited runs, more special events and Q&A’s, more amenities at the theater itself. The nonprofit route has also been essential to many theatrical spaces. Maybe we’re old school, but we still don’t see a way to really make a film fully successful without first launching it in the world as a theatrical film. For the films we are drawn too, this is still the model and we think audiences, both older who remember the heyday of exhibition and younger audiences who want to experience what going to the movies is, there will hopefully always be a thriving community of theatrical exhibition.
We were very, very happy [to learn about the award]. While Zeitgeist Films has gotten some nice attention over the years in the press and anniversary retrospectives, including one at MoMA for our 20th anniversary, we, as co-founders and co-presidents personally have really not received this type of recognition. It feels very validating and deserved—to celebrate our passing a true endurance test of staying the course in this business for over 31 years. We do need to share this wonderful honor with those who worked with us during that time, especially our colleague Adrian Curry, who has worked shoulder to shoulder with us for over 28 of those years. We feel deeply appreciative and look forward to our first and admittedly belated visit to Art House Convergence this year, particularly as we accompany our recent partners at Kino Lorber.