Cinema Guild's short film "Sari's Mother" has been nominated for an Academy Award.
Much has changed since 1968 when Philip and Mary-Ann Hobel created The Cinema Guild and television was the niche market for all things educational. As award-winning producers of documentary and feature films, including the highly acclaimed Tender Mercies, which was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, the Hobels originally created the company to distribute their own work. Yet, as a natural progression, they began acquiring documentaries from other filmmakers seeking distribution.
Now celebrating 40 years in business, The Cinema Guild is one of the leading distributors of film and video, including documentary, narrative features, and shorts. The Independent recently sat down with Ryan Krivoshey, Cinema Guild’s director of distribution for the past six years, to discuss the industry’s new realities, a distributor’s gut instinct, and how “documentary” was once a dirty word.
So, now after 40 years, what does Cinema Guild’s collection look like?
We now have just over one thousand documentaries in our collection and take on anywhere between 40 and 60 titles per year. The core of the company, as founded by Philip and Mary-Ann, is rooted in the educational market and we only launched a theatrical division about seven years ago. We’ll generally take up to 30 to 50 documentaries for the educational market and release anywhere between four and six films theatrically. But there is some overlap—this year we have three documentaries in theatrical release.
Over the years how have you seen independent cinema and the distribution of it change?
Just in the six years that I’ve been here, there has been a noticeable change in the business. Not too long ago, distributors had to look for creative ways to say documentary without actually saying it—as if “documentary” was a four-letter word. But in the past several years there’s been a documentary boom. It’s been great for us. It’s great for everyone.
What are some of the factors you attribute to this “boom”?
There are always moments when people become more interested in the world around them, whether it was the state of our presidency, or other world events. In the same way that, one of the consequences with 9-11 became people’s increased attention to the Middle East. When things spark a fire in people they develop the interest in becoming more aware.
Given some of these changes in the industry, how has Cinema Guild adapted its approach to distribution?
The core of the company has always been documentary, which has left us well positioned. Now, we’re able to move beyond what I call the “old-fashioned” documentary towards the films that are winning at festivals like Sundance or Full Frame. We’re finding markets for those films now so they can have a life beyond the festival circuit, a life that can maintain even when the Internet takes over.
When the Internet takes over?
Yes, when the Internet takes over, we’re all waiting for it to. There is a lot of pessimism going around about the industry—and I don’t think it’s fully unwarranted—but it’s also a really interesting time. Things are changing. The bedrock of distribution is changing. It’s a challenge, and any good—any smart—company should be ready to evolve. We’ve been able to strike strategic partnerships with Internet providers like Netflix, iTunes, Indieflix… so there are additional revenue streams that are opening up. As the theatrical is shrinking, the Internet will balance some things out. But in the near future, theatrical will be around and despite what many people are saying it’s still a viable thing—a viable revenue stream with money to pass along to filmmakers.
Talk about the role of festivals in the evolution of independent film.
It’s amazing what has happened with festivals—and if we’re talking about changes in the past few years—the festivals been absolutely great. In a sense it’s made it easier for us to acquire films because now there is so much scouring ground out there. It’s also an additional thread of revenue once we’ve acquired films we can rent them to festivals generating more for our filmmakers. The bottom line is that it’s a great platform and a film can have an amazing run strictly in the festival circuit alone.
What are some advantages of being represented by a distributor like Cinema Guild?
We are good at finding creative marketing opportunities and initiatives for the projects we pick up. We’d never simply choose a film, throw it on screen in New York and call it a day if reviews aren’t great. Given our access to the various markets, we are able to get a film into theaters and then pursue additional revenue for filmmakers by way of the non-theatrical market, through the universities, the libraries, film festivals, and community organizations. We offer many possibilities.
For a company that receives hundreds of submissions a year, talk a bit about your selection process.
We have a very tailored approach and every film we pick up we truly believe in. When you can only take on 50 or 60 a year and you receive hundreds and hundreds of submissions, it has to be a tough selection process. Philip and I watch all of the films. Many of our submissions are cold, unsolicited. Every time a festival opens, no matter how large or small, we have someone scour the websites for potential films and request screeners. Most of our theatrical films we’ll pick up from Toronto, Sundance—any of the larger fests we attend each year.
How do you work with filmmakers when preparing their films for release?
We work as closely with filmmakers as possible. As a small company we have certain advantages as opposed to the larger players. Distributors are often associated with a bad connotation in filmmakers’ minds, so we always try to maintain as open and transparent a relationship as possible, consulting on everything from the beginning of a theatrical release to the selection of what bonus features end up on the DVD. It’s proven to be one of our strong suits. Some of the highlights from our 2008 catalogue are include a handful of new films from previous filmmakers we have worked with. We nurture these relationships.
How do you weigh in on the rise in filmmakers turning towards self-distribution as a means of navigating the industry?
The one issue with self-distribution—it’s a very costly and time-consuming process. Of course if a filmmaker has the time and money to invest in becoming their own distributor, then it’s a great option and with the Internet and other outlets, it’s certainly more doable now than ever before.
Of course I carry a biased perspective here. Ideally, I think the idea of self-distribution can work best in tandem with the work of a distributor. A distributor can bring a lot to the process, just with established contacts alone. There is a perception that once a filmmaker hands the film to a distributor, they relinquish their work and walk away. But we’re at the opposite end of that spectrum. The filmmakers we work with are integrally involved in the whole process. If a filmmaker and the distributor can each bring input to the table, I see that as the best option.
How does a film or a filmmaker grab your attention?
First and foremost there has to be a gut reaction to a film. You can belabor the points about market potential all you want, but you have to initially respond to a film on an instinctual level. Once you get that—which can be rare—then we get into questioning market potential, whether there is educational value, if it will appeal to the senses of a general audience… But as a general rule, every film that inspires that gut reaction we’ll go after. If it’s good, we want to work on it.
What’s in store for the next 40 years?
We’re having a good run right now and hopefully it will just keep going. Theatrical and non-theatrical are growing, television is great, and we’re launching our home video line next year. And, of course, there’s the Internet… it’s a wide-open plain.
For more information on The Cinema Guild, visit www.cinemaguild.com.