Distributor Profile: Shadow Distribution

What is Shadow Distribution?
Shadow is a small distribution company specializing in hand-crafted releases of specialized films.

Who is Shadow?
Ken Eisen, president; Alan Sanborn, vice president; Sam Sanborn, vice president, Promotion & Publicity.

Total number of employees: Six.

How, when, and why did Shadow come into being?
Shadow was founded by the co-directors of Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, Maine, originally in 1986, with a reorganization and expansion in 1994. We started the company to make available great films that weren’t reaching their potentially receptive audiences in this country.

Unofficial motto:
Size does matter: smaller is better.

Why are you based in Maine? Is this a rural community?
Yes, all of Maine is a rural community. We’re based here because this is where we live. We chose to live here because we love being here. The woods, the waters, and the beauty of Maine provide us with as much nourishment as a great movie does. And in these days of electronic communication, there’s no longer any reason why the personnel of a distribution company needs to be located in a major city.

How many works are in your collection?
Exactly eight.

Best known title:
Latcho Drom.

Films you distribute:
Tony Gatlif’s Latcho Drom and Mondo, Rocky Collins’ Pants on Fire, Paul Wagner’s Windhorse, Ken Loach’s Carla’s Song, Eric Heumann’s Port Djema, Ildiko Enyedi’s Magic Hunter, and Bill Mason’s Waterwalker.

What types of works do you distribute?
We distribute exclusively feature-length films in 35 mm (handling and/or sub-distributing video, TV, and nontheatrical rights). Many of Shadow’s films have had a “political” or “ethnographic” content, but the only real requirement for our taking on a film is that we love it.

What drives you to acquire the films you do?
See above. There are fabulous films that we’ve passed on simply because we didn’t know how to help them reach an audience. That’s painful, but some pragmatism is unfortunately necessary.

Is Shadow also involved in co-production or co-financing of works?

Is there such a thing as a “Shadow” film?
It’s a fabulous film with a real vision that resists easy categorization. And, though we don’t require it, we’re not specialists in “hip” or “edgy” films—we’re interested in films with heart and vision, which is very different than films with sentimentality and saccharine phoniness.

What’s your basic approach to releasing a title?
Find the situation or situations that will best find the film the audience it deserves.

Where do Shadow titles generally show?
Shadow’s films play across the country and across a range of markets, but as independent theater owners ourselves, our greatest strength is with the independent theaters and those rare committed chains across the country. They are theaters that show films because, like us, they care about them. For whatever reason, however, Shadow’s films have often played astonishingly strongly in San Francisco and Northern California, as well as in Maine and New Mexico.

Where do you find your titles, and how should filmmakers approach you for consideration?
We rarely look at works-in-progress tapes because we do not offer completion funding. But we do welcome submissions of completed films. We attend many of the festivals—Toronto and Montreal being two (consecutive) yearly rituals. Most of our films now come to us through those makers who have worked with Shadow before, through our theaters (Railroad Square Cinema) and through our annual film festival (the Maine International Film Festival), which we hold every July.

Range of production budgets of titles in your collection:
We never ask this question. This is, simply, not a concern for us one way or the other. It’s also our least favorite question in Q/A sessions with filmmakers at festivals.
Biggest change at Shadow in recent years:
Probably the biggest change has been the way our film festival has worked hand-in-hand with our distribution arm. The festival has given us a venue to observe first-hand how an audience responds to certain of the films we’re considering picking up. Can you get that at other festivals? Yes, but first, we know our audience, since we see them year round, not just at festival time, and can judge the strength and depth of their response. Second, our festival exists outside of the hype and “buzz” of the big ticket festivals; we feel that this gives us an opportunity to see how well a film is received, not just how well a buzz is received.

Most important issue facing Shadow today:
Figuring out how to keep reaching the audiences that would be most interested in our films in an era of increasing costs and conservatism.

Where will Shadow be 10 years from now?
In Maine, in the woods.

You knew Shadow had made it as a company
when . . .
our first major release, Latcho Drom, excited audiences around the country as much as it did us, staying on screen for literally years.

Best distribution experience you’ve had lately:
Seeing our current release, Windhorse, reach large audiences in small towns across the country.

If you weren’t distributing films, what would you be doing?
When I’m not distributing movies, I’m watching them, selling tickets to others to watch them, listening to jazz, or watching New York Knicks games on satellite TV (you don’t even have to be in New York for that!).

Other distributors you admire:
Amy Heller and Dennis Doros of Milestone Films have been distributing fabulous movies with even more fabulous integrity and friendliness for far longer than we have. Dan Talbot and New Yorker Films, who have more great films in their archives than the rest of the country combined.

The best film you’ve seen lately was . . .
Jos Stelling’s new film No Trains No Planes, another masterpiece by perhaps the most criminally under- recognized director in the world.

The difference between Shadow and other distributors of independent films is . . .
we offer lobsters and long walks in the woods to all who visit us.

If you could only give independent filmmakers one bit of advice it would be to . . .
not make a film for any other reason than that you love movies and that you have some unique vision that you have to express in this medium.

Upcoming titles to watch for:
Rocky Collins’ Pants on Fire, perhaps Shadow’s most widely accessible film, a brilliant debut feature that, like the best films of Douglas Sirk (a Collins influence), treads an amazing line between the comic and the dramatic.

The future of independent film distribution in this country is one which . . .
the future of great films depends on. The big companies don’t care about anything but bucks. The smaller ones do.

About :

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