Distributor FAQ: First Run/Icarus Films, Inc

What is First Run/Icarus?
First Run/Icarus Films is one of the leading distributors of documentary film and video in the U.S. and Canada.

What is First Run/Icarus’ relationship to other arms of First Run?
I would not say that First Run/Icarus Films, Inc. is an arm of First Run Features. It is a separate corporation formed in 1987, when Icarus Films (founded in 1978) and First Run Features (founded in 1979) merged their nontheatrical divisions to create a new company. It is owned by the two companies Icarus Films and First Run Features.

First Run/Icarus Films does all of the nontheatrical distribution for all of First Run Features’ and Icarus Films’ titles. In addition we aggressively acquire films directly; in fact, most of the 700 films and videos that we currently distribute have been acquired for distribution directly by First Run/Icarus Films (and most of our income comes from those titles). Our primary focus remains on the nontheatrical markets, but for all of the films that we acquire directly we distribute to all markets and territories for which we have the rights.

Who is First Run/Icarus?
President: Jonathan Miller; Sales Director: Kari Noren; Acquisitions/Publicity Coordinator: Jennifer Hohlihan; and Sales Coordinator: Tom Hyland

Total number of employees at First Run/Icarus:

Unofficial motto or driving philosophy:
Never enter into a negotiation you are not prepared to walk away from.

What would people be most surprised to learn about First Run/Icarus or its founders and/or key staff?
I have been doing this for over 22 years. At least, that is what I am most surprised to realize! I started working in distribution in 1976 while attending film school at NYU and working on my own documentary film. I started out working for Tricontinental Film Center in 1976, stuffing envelopes for mailings. I was then promoted to cleaning and repairing and shipping 16mm prints (no video in those days).

Films and filmmakers you distribute:
The Vanishing Line, by Maren Monsen, MD; Family Name, by Macky Alston; Travis, by Richard Kotuk; The Battle of Chile and Chile, Obstinate Memory, by Patricio Guzman; Dear Dr. Spencer, by Danielle Renfrew and Beth Seltzer; The Way Things Go, by Peter Fischli and David Weiss; O Amor Natural, by Heddy Honigmann; The Last Bolshevik, by Chris Marker; The Uprising of ’34, by Judith Helfand and George Stoney; and The Last Angel of History and Seven Songs for Malcolm X, by John Akomfrah

Generally speaking, what types of works do you distribute?
We distribute a very broad range of documentary films (as well as a few animated and short films) of any length, format, production date, language, etc. We have many films on international issues, U.S. social and political issues, history, sociology, anthropology, women’s studies, media studies, Jewish studies, and a growing collection of films in health and medical sciences. And, of course, we are also always open to new films on subjects we haven’t thought of.

What drives you to acquire the films you do?
I like well structured and produced films, though not necessarily in any one given form (diary films, narrated archival films, un-narrated observational films, etc). I don’t mind which form, as long as it is well done, interesting, and engaging. Of course, these choices (length, language, form, etc.) may affect “market success,” but not necessarily our decision of whether to take the film or not.

Is First Run/Icarus also involved in co-production or co-financing of works?

Best known title in First Run/Icarus’ collection:
This probably depends on how old the person answering the question is—whether you want films from the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s. Older titles: Americas in Transition (Obie Benz), El Salvador: Another Vietnam (Glenn Silber and Tete Vasconellos), Gods of Metal (Robert Richter), Middletown (Peter Davis), A Veiled Revolution (Elizabeth Fernea), The Wobblies (Deborah Shaffer and Stu Bird), and of course many other important First Run Features titles (The War at Home, Sherman’s March, etc.).

What’s your basic approach to releasing a title?
Direct mail (100,000+ pieces per year of different specialized brochures). Telephone sales (two full-time people). Free previews. Email (postings to different lists every week). Web site (monthly updates). Catalogs. Reviews in specialized journals, magazines, and on-line newsletters. Conferences. Festivals. Markets. Relationships. Reputation.

Where do First Run/Icarus titles generally show (range of theaters, markets, regions, etc.)?
At colleges, universities, film societies and film festivals, public libraries, high schools, government agencies, unions, health care agencies, hospitals and hospices, some television. Our titles are in most major AV collections across the country. We had a major success at the Film Forum theater in New York this past September with The Battle of Chile and Chile, Obstinate Memory, which grossed over $37,000 in two weeks playing only three shows per day, and these films have played in other festival and art venues across the country. Several of our films were on the PBS series P.O.V. this past year: The Vanishing Line and Family Name.

Where do you find your titles and how should filmmakers approach you for consideration?
We have recently attended or plan to attend this year: the National Educational Media Market (Oakland), Hot Docs (Toronto), International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam, MIP or MIPCOM (Cannes), Sunny Side of the Doc (Marseilles), Cinema du Reel (Paris), the Berlin Film Festival, and the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (Japan). We also know people, or they know us. If I don’t know you, call me.

Range of production budgets of titles in your collection:
From virtually nothing to well over $1,000,000.

Biggest change at First Run/Icarus in recent years:
The continuing growth of the number of films we distribute, the subject matters they address, and the markets (as a result) that we are selling them to.

Most important issue facing First Run/Icarus today:
How to maintain strong growth while retaining what is good about what we are and how we do things now. That, and when and how to go digital.

If you weren’t distributing films, what would you be doing?
Producing documentary films in South Africa (it’s a long story!).

Other (domestic or foreign) distributors you admire and why:
Filmakers Library: they’ve been doing this even longer than I have, and they have good taste and a wonderful collection of films, too. Bullfrog Films: Important films, nice people, excellent work, committed and dedicated.

If you could give independent filmmakers only one bit of advice it would be to…?
Watch a lot of films on the topic you are interested in; don’t repeat what you have seen—do something that adds to the discussion, that is new and fresh. Make a well crafted (I don’t mean it has to be “polished” at all) and structured film in a form and format (gauge) demanded by the story (don’t use Hi8 just because it is less expensive).

Upcoming titles to watch for:
Eisenstein: The Master’s House (Russian/German co-production), a great detailed film bio of the director, with stunning clips; Why Men Don’t Iron, a three-part series about just that; The Underground Orchestra, a new film from Heddy Honigmann (O Amor Natural), opening at Film Forum.

Famous last words:
I am still excited about making a space for films that may not fit into the regular “channels” or “brandings” or “formats,” that aren’t necessarily on the list of topics that “work.” I love it when I see a documentary that grabs my interest and holds it and that doesn’t disappoint me in the end intellectually. If I can help get that film to an audience who values it for its craft and who can also use it constructively in what they do, I find that stimulating and rewarding.

About :

Lissa Gibbs was a contributing editor to The Independent and former Film Arts Foundation Fest director.