Cowboy Booking

What is Cowboy Booking?
Cowboy Booking International is a distributor, a distribution partner for producers, a booking agency for international festivals, and a programmer and film buyer for specialized calendar houses.

What’s the difference between a distributor and a booking agency?
We play both roles. We are a full-service distributor with films like West Beirut, which we released last summer, and which we acquired for all U.S. rights. With other films and projects, we function as a booking agency. We have a catalogue with hundreds of films, licensed by sales agencies like Alliance Atlantis and Good Machine International, to book and service at festivals and cinematheques around the world. We should probably establish a different company to handle our domestic theatrical releases, “Cowboy Films” or something, but we aren’t sure anyone really cares.

Who is Cowboy?
John Vanco and Noah Cowan are the co-presidents of the company. John works more closely on domestic distribution and publicity; Noah on the international business and booking The Screening Room’s calendar cinema [an arthouse in Lower Manhattan]. Both of us do acquisitions and marketing. Our secret weapon, Director of Communications Kris Percival, oversees all of our publicity efforts for national releases and all the films that are shown at The Screening Room. Cheyenne Martin, International Booker, handles all our overseas festivals requests.

Total number of employees at Cowboy:
Seven (including Noah and John).

How, when, and why did Cowboy come into being?
Noah started Cowboy about five years ago in Toronto to exploit a major change in the international film world. There had just been a massive increase in the number of festivals and cinematheques internationally and a parallel drop in the number of films sold theatrically in all territories. We set up a system to service this new international distribution circuit, signing output deals with several major sales agencies to handle negotiations and delivery to film events in unsold territories. Sales agencies were happy to devolve this business to us and, with a combination of volume and market share of key art films, we are very much the dominant force in this market. This venture combined the two principles that continue to drive this company: finding new ways to get the art films we love seen by more people, and seeking unexplored avenues within existing distribution systems.
The company changed completely when John and Noah teamed up two-and-a-half years ago. The company became aggressively involved in domestic distribution, both in partnership with companies like Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures and on our own. We began our relationship with The Screening Room almost one year ago to create a new home for specialized art cinema in Manhattan that reflected our aesthetic priorities.

Unofficial motto or driving philosophy behind Cowboy:
See answer above.

What would people be most surprised to learn about Cowboy or its founders and/or key staff?
Noah is a programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival. Part of John’s background is at Miramax Films. But John has the artier taste! And that only one of us—Noah—is from Canada.

How many works are in your collection?
We have about 10 films in active distribution in the United States, another 40 films in our domestic catalog, and over 300 titles that we represent internationally.

Films and filmmakers you distribute:
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg by Aviva Kempner, West Beirut by Ziad Doueiri, The Saragossa Manuscript by Wojciech Has (reissue), Benjamin Smoke by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen (upcoming), Throne of Death by Murali Nair (upcoming), Dear Jesse by Tim Kirkman, The Mirror by Jafar Panahi, The Beyond by Lucio Fulci, Mighty Peking Man by Ho Meng-Hua, Hard Core Logo by Bruce McDonald (the last three with Rolling Thunder Pictures).

What types of works do you distribute?
We distribute feature films of artistic excellence. Period.

What drives you to acquire the films you do?
We are not an insanely acquisitions-driven company. Unless we are involved in a special project, we only pick up a few films a year. Usually what happens is that we completely fall in love with a movie, get all excited about it, try and talk our friends at Zeitgeist or Strand into buying it, and then end up buying it ourselves.

Is Cowboy also involved in co-production or co-financing of works?
We do not develop or produce films. Occasionally we will work with producers at the very end of their post-production periods to strategize about festivals and non-traditional distribution possibilities.

Is there such a thing as a “Cowboy” film?
I don’t think our taste is that quantifiable. John and I were both weaned on foreign-language cinema so we have a bias in that area, but we love lots of American films, too!

Best known title in Cowboy’s collection:
Different folks identify with different films in our library. Genre fans love The Beyond, deadheads dig Saragossa Manuscript, and straight-up art films aficionados go for West Beirut.

What’s your basic approach to releasing a title?
We develop appropriate, cost-effective marketing strategies based on a film’s intrinsic appeal in an effort to find the film’s natural core audience and then to conservatively expand the audience within the larger group of specialized/art film fans.

Where do Cowboy titles generally show?
The Screening Room, other arthouses and upscale commercial venues around the country, and at festivals around the world. It’s important to us for our films to play as widely (eventually) as possible domestically, so we try to groom non-traditional venues wherever we can find them. We’re not dependent, in general, on the chains—we like to explore alternative screening venues.

Where do you find your titles and how should filmmakers approach you for consideration?
For distribution and international festival representation, films must be invited to a major festival for us to consider them. Please email us if you are interested in having us see your film at one of these events. For The Screening Room calendar, we have an open submissions policy but normally do not show work that has not made some kind of critical impact. It’s easier for us to work with films that have distributors attached, but we can work directly with producers if they are serious about the commitments necessary (financial, time, effort, materials) to open a film in NYC. Please feel free to email us with any questions about this.

Range of production budgets of titles in your collection:
Micro to medium.

Biggest change at Cowboy recently:
The massive national success of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg has prompted us to add another staff member.

Most important issue facing Cowboy today:
How to get the art films we love seen by the most people.

Where will Cowboy be ten years from now?
New York City. Probably still on 24th Street. We’ll probably be able to afford our rent by then.

You knew Cowboy had made it as a company
when . . .
We will have made it when we have someone else doing the books.

Best distribution experience you’ve had lately:
There have been a lot. The insane success of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg in our first two markets, New York and Boston, has given us faith that the documentary is still viable theatrically. A film we have been helping out since postproduction, Benjamin Smoke, recently premiered to great acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival. These two things happened at the same time; February was a pretty great month at Cowboy.

If you weren’t distributing films, what would you be doing?
Paying to watch them.

Other distributors you admire and why:
We’re really in awe of what Strand and Zeitgeist have been able to accomplish over the last 10 years. We have a close, collegial relationship with both companies because we feel as though all three companies are fighting for the same kind of cinema. We admire Dan Talbot and Jose Lopez at New Yorker Films not only because John worked there for many years, but because they have stood as a beacon for quality cinema through several decades. Internationally we think Haut et Court in France and Cinemien in The Netherlands are daring, progressive and smart.

The best film you’ve seen lately was . . .
Strand has a move called Praise that we really like. Zeitgeist has the new François Ozon film Water Drops on Burning Rocks, which is really sexy. But right now both of us are gushing about Benjamin Smoke.

The difference between Cowboy and other distributors of independent films is . . .
We still have the energy of being a youthful company but with strong enough relationships amongst the media and exhibitors to have our films seen by a wide audience. Our relationship with The Screening Room and our international component also make us unique.

If you could give independent filmmakers only one bit of advice it would be to . . .
Not try to copy trends identified in popular independent films. Just make intelligent, aesthetically interesting films that have something to say.

Upcoming titles to watch for:
Benjamin Smoke, to be released this summer in New York and then nationally. Stunning portrait of Atlanta rock singer, Benjamin, a major influence on Patti Smith and Michael Stipe. Throne of Death by Murali Nair from India won the Best First Film prize in Cannes last year and opened at New York’s Film Forum in April. The film concerns a man on death row who becomes a hero when his village gets electricity for the nation’s first electric chair.

The future of independent film distribution in this country is one which . . .
We are excited by the possibilities afforded by the burgeoning cable market and, maybe, the Internet. We believe that both of these emerging outlets will continue to be driven by “analog” theatrical marketing skills and will provide more money to do so. Our dream would be to find a way to collaborate with these media to reconstruct the eviscerated arthouse calendar, film society, and non-theatrical college markets in this country.

Famous last words:
Come see us at The Screening Room next time you’re in New York.

For more information, visit their website at:

About :

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