The Spotlight Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes an individual whose commitment to the theatrical experience and successful track record has made a major contribution to the history of art house cinema. This year’s recipients, Milestones Films’ co-founders, Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, are an example of the vitality and diversity that the sector brings to the industry at large. Founded in 1990, Milestone is dedicated to releasing cutting-edge films that have been overlooked throughout the years. From auteurist lost treasures to groundbreaking documentaries and restored classics, Doros and Heller have expanded the diversity of offerings at the cinema for nearly 30 years.
Their involvement in the industry, however, dates back further. As alumni of some of the most renowned specialty distributor labels in American cinema—First Run Features, Kino International, New Yorker Films, and Zeitgeist Films to name a few—Doros and Heller’s influence has been felt by several generations of U.S. moviegoers.
Doros and Heller have been awarded the National Society of Film Critics’ first-ever Special Archival Award and its Film Heritage Award (five times), the International Film Seminars’ Leo Award, the NY Film Critics Circle’s Special Award (twice), the LA Film Critics’ first ever Legacy of Cinema Award, and the Film Preservation Honor from Anthology Film Archive. This year, they add the Art House Convergence Spotlight Lifetime Achievement to their list of honors.
How did you come to work in the specialty distribution business?
Dennis Doros: We don’t really see ourselves as repertory distributors. Most films we release have never screened theatrically before, or haven’t for decades. We’ve always seen ourselves as first run. So posters, trailers, publicity—it all comes from that line of thinking, and I think that’s been part of our success: thinking of these titles as first-run movies worthy of playing next door to Batman 14.
Amy Heller: I sort of fell into working in film. I left graduate school and didn’t quite know what to do. A friend suggested I go work at First Run Features, so I did. I just found a community that I thought was amazing—both on the distribution and exhibition side. I had worked in publishing, gone to graduate school, done different things—but I had never been part of a community like this. I was working on small independent films and then later at New Yorker Films on classic film, documentary, and revival. I guess I’ve always been interested in how one builds an audience for great films of all sorts. My first mentor in film was Nancy Gerstman, one of the co-founders of Zeitgeist Films. I wouldn’t be here without her. When I was at New Yorker Films, Dan Talbot and Jose Lopez were tremendous influences on me.
DD: In my case, back in 1979 the head of the Athens Film Society in Ohio showed a trailer for Emmanuelle 4 in front of a family film. They lasted one more day on the job, and the film department was notified they weren’t allowed to choose the next head. Henry Lin, the dean of the art department, asked all the other heads of the art departments to pick a replacement … and I came out of dance history. The head of the dance department chose me to be the head of the film society.
Screening, exhibiting, marketing—I had a blast in Ohio. I stayed there for five years. When I got out of the college, I didn’t know what to do and I sent out 180 letters. I got back 179 rejections—but a year later Don Krim at Kino International asked me to come in. That was also by accident; he had to fire the previous person for, how should I put it? Chicanery. Don Krim was an amazing mentor—as was Bill Sloan, from the Museum of Modern Art, who taught me a lot about how to make a film part of the national discourse. Don put me in charge of the theatrical department, let me do acquisitions in my first or second year on the job. He acquired two incomplete films from the Gloria Swanson estate, so I suggested doing something about it. I knew how to splice 16-millimeter film, and that’s how I ended up becoming an archivist. When VHS came into the picture, I got bored with it and started restoring films on my own. That’s when I met Amy.
How did you two begin working together?
AH: We had these films that Dennis had been acquiring before we met, and we had to figure out what to do with them and who would distribute them. They were these films shot on location in exotic locales from the late-silent to early-sound era from great filmmakers like F.W. Murnau and the makers of King Kong. These were silent, esoteric films, and when I left New Yorker Films I just started working on them.
Was it hard finding screens for these titles?
AH: The landscape of theatrical distribution has changed a great deal since we started in 1990. Dennis and I both came out of the world of non-theatrical film distribution, so we never really had a strong differentiation between the two in our minds. In some cities we’d play at a for-profit theater, at others at nonprofits, and there have always been museums that have played our films—there were all options that we were open to. It was always a mix of venues, and that really allowed us to continue to work on challenging films.
DD: Programmers really welcomed us. We should have been shocked, but back then there were a lot of people that didn’t care about making a lot of money on these films. They just wanted them shown.
AH: It was a very different landscape in every possible way; theater owners could count on the one Sony Pictures Classics or Miramax release that would make them most of their money for the year. Titles like Room with a View or Pelle the Conqueror that could function as tentpoles for the rest of their programming; they could afford to take risks with more diverse programming.
Having experience in both theatrical and home entertainment, what do you believe is the role that art house theaters play in our society?
AH: One of the things that the internet has done to the world, not just to cinema, is that it has fractured us apart from one another. For me, the role of the art house is very much about building community and cinema culture. People who go to the Amherst Cinema, they recognize each other. It’s the same at Film Forum, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, or at Film Streams in Omaha. You’ll find that atmosphere among the regulars of a local Landmark or Alamo Drafthouse location; they seek that experience of being in a place with other human beings. That’s how community is really built. I don’t think you can build community on Facebook; it’s built by human beings interacting with one another in the real world. That’s the most precious thing we do.
DD: In a world where there are dozens of releases every week on streaming, on home video—all these platforms—it is very difficult to achieve a career as a filmmaker with such an abundance of material. A lot of these art houses and specialty distributors help build the filmmakers of tomorrow. Chris Nolan was a Zeitgeist filmmaker before he hit it big. Barry Jenkins, Ava Duvernay, they were art house filmmakers first.
Your work is closely tied to both film preservation and restoration. How has that influenced your engagement with the industry?
AH: The studios have dedicated quite a lot of resources and terrific talent and finances to preserving their holdings—and kudos to them—but studio films are not and have never been the full breadth of cinema. Fortunately there have been other strands in film history, and those strands represent other parts of the world and other kinds of voices and other kinds of experiences. That’s what we want to be part of, making sure that films by black filmmakers, women filmmakers, LGBTQ filmmakers, and filmmakers from other parts of the world are preserved and made accessible.
DD: As the president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, I’m equally concerned that it’s not just film that is being preserved. I am extraordinarily concerned about the films of today that are shot digitally. I can see in the coming years a digital tsunami of films that are lost due to the lack of awareness around digital obsolescence. The silent film recovery rate is at 25 percent; we might lose more than 75 percent of our digitally born films that are currently being made. That’s why AMIA is also involved with educating young filmmakers and the public about preservation. We’re straddling the past and the future. That’s always been what Milestone has been interested in, and most of our films focused on different ways to see films, different ways to make films.
Congratulations again on the award.
AH: We’d just like to thank the community of programmers and distributors who have really supported us and sustained us through some very hard times. And finally, we absolutely need to thank Charlie Tabesh at Turner Classic Movies who has been in our corner for many years. There were moments where without Charlie it would have been hard to keep going.
DD: And the art houses, 28 years they’ve been with us! Every time I think we have gone too far with a film that is too obscure for this world, they’ve followed us.