Women Make Movies

What is Women Make Movies?
Women Make Movies is a national nonprofit media arts organization that facilitates the production, promotion, distribution, and exhibition of independent films and videotapes by and about women. Our primary program is our internationally recognized distribution service. We also assist women directors and producers through our Production Assistance Program, which provides fiscal sponsorship and other forms of assistance to emerging and established video- and filmmakers.

Who is Women Make Movies?
Debra Zimmerman, executive director; Maya Montanez Smukler, director of production assistance; Vanessa Domico, director of distribution; and Mijoung Chang, distribution coordinator, as well as seven other very hardworking staff.

Total number of employees:

How, when, and why did Women Make Movies come into being?
We were founded in 1972 by Ariel Dougherty and Sheila Paige as a production collective focused on training women to be filmmakers. In the 1980s, once women had started making a significant number of films, we switched our focus to distribution. In 1983, we had 30 films in our collection and our budget was about $30,000. Now we have close to 500 films and our budget is almost $1,000,000.

You knew Women Make Movies had made it as a company when . . .
the Museum of Modern Art celebrated our 25th Anniversary with a six-week retrospective of more than 50 of our films.

Why is a distributor specializing in works made by women relevant in a “post-feminist” environment?
I don’t think we are in a post-feminist environment. Frankly, I don’t think there is such a thing as post-feminist. I think feminism is an on-going process and we all have a long way to go towards true equality in society. In terms of film and video, I am still waiting for the day that I can look in the newspaper for new film releases or even the catalogues from the major film festivals and see the same number of films being shown by men and women.

What distinguishes you from other distributors?
Besides the fact that we focus on media by and about women, which no one else in the U.S. does, we are committed to both the filmmakers we distribute and the audiences we distribute to. We have a political perspective as well as a commitment to aesthetics.
Unofficial motto or driving philosophy:
We like happy filmmakers!

What would people be most surprised to learn about Women Make Movies?
That I (Debra Zimmerman) am not the founder of Women Make Movies! That and the fact that in the last five years we have returned almost $1,000,000 in royalties to film- and videomakers.

What types of works do you distribute?
All kinds. Everything from five-minute animated films to features, from video art to documentary and experimental work. However, in the last five years we have focused more on documentaries than on features.

Films and filmmakers you distribute:
The early works of Sally Potter and Jane Campion. Films by Julie Dash, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Pratibha Parmar, Ulrike Ottinger, Helke Sander, Tracey Moffatt, Su Friedrich, and Ngozi Onwurah. Some better known titles: Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter by Deborah Hoffmann; Dialogues with Madwomen and Rachel’s Daughters by Allie Light and Irving Saraf; and Calling the Ghosts by Mandy Jacobson and Karmen Jelencic.

What drives you to acquire the titles you do?
It is always both an ideological and business decision; we want to distribute the very best films for which we think there is a need or a market. There are times when we pick up titles we know will not sell well but which move the art form forward. For documentaries, we look for quality and perspective. We are interested in films that give voice to women—whatever those voices are.

Is there such a thing as a “Women Make Movies” film?
Absolutely! It is a film that challenges audiences—either in form or content, or both—to think about film or the world in different ways than they are accustomed. It is a visually interesting film or tape that has a perspective or political content.

What’s your basic approach to releasing a title?
We are very committed to working on semi-theatrical exhibition release before or at the same time as an educational release to audiences. We do this so that our films get as much exposure in the press and on the screen as possible. We also really like to work with filmmakers on this. When we release to the educational market, we try to do very targeted marketing with thematic mailings as well as a broad release in our catalogue.

Where do your titles generally show?
Just about everywhere! Cinemas, television, art galleries, universities, community centers, prisons, hospitals, high schools, churches. However, like most educational distributors, our major market is universities. Although Women’s Studies departments are certainly a part of our market, they are by no means the major part.

How do educators and community members find out about the titles you handle?
We send out 30,000-40,000 catalogues annually in the fall and thematic mailings throughout the year. We also have had more than 100,000 hits on our website which contains our complete catalogue. Our films also show in major conferences and in media art centers around the country. A number of our new films each year show on HBO, P.O.V., or the Sundance Channel.

Where do you find your titles, and how should filmmakers approach you for consideration?
We go to festivals like Toronto, Berlin, and the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam, as well as women’s film festivals. We talk to programmers and festival directors and our own filmmakers to get recommendations. We also pick up a number of films that have come through our Production Assistance program. Filmmakers should send us written descriptions and promotional material on their work. We will let them know if we want to see a tape. We will look at rough cuts.

Describe your relationship with the makers you represent:
Close and over a long period of time. We have developed relationships with filmmakers that have spanned 15 years. We represent up to 10 films by the same makers. In some cases, we have started with their very first film and now are representing their sixth or seventh.

Biggest change at WMM in recent years:
The Internet—isn’t it for everyone? The Internet represents amazing possibilities for us and for our filmmakers. It is a fabulous way of reaching incredibly targeted audiences as well as the general public. We are also increasingly doing more and more home video because the Net is a great way to reach consumers.

Most important issues facing you today:
Technology; the coming change to DVD; the potential of streaming and online distribution.

Where will WMM be 10 years from now?
Hopefully, if we are able to renegotiate our lease, we’ll be right where we are now—on Grand St. and Broadway in Soho! We got our space years ago when the market was way down. But beyond location, I hope that in 10 years we will finally be able to get our titles out to the world without having to put them in bubble-pack mailers. That’s something I can hardly wait for. But I also think we will be doing the same thing: introducing audiences to the work of new and emerging talent as well as supporting and distributing the work of experimental and documentary makers who don’t fit the Hollywood mold.

The biggest issue facing women’s mediamaking and distribution is . . .
dealing with new technology—as it is for everyone. Specifically for women, though, there are other problems. Women still get smaller budgets than men and have trouble getting represented at major film festivals. There are not enough women in positions of decision-making at film festivals. For feature directors, particularly women of color, it is probably the problem of getting their second film made.

Other distributors you admire and why:
Zeitgeist Films, California Newsreel, Fanlight Films. I admire them all for doing what they do extremely well and with tremendous personal and professional integrity.

If you could give independent filmmakers only one bit of advice it would be . . .
to follow their vision but also think about distribution and market when in production. Take photos and think of music and picture clearances before the fine cut.

Upcoming titles to watch for:
Our newest release is Hannah Weyer’s beautiful documentary La Boda, which is a portrait of a young migrant farm worker on the eve of her wedding. Another filmmaker to keep an eye on is Elida Schogt, a young experimental filmmaker whose Zyklon Portrait has been winning awards at festivals around the world. She has a new film coming out this fall.

The future of independent media distribution in this country is one which . . .
truly represents the diversity of America.

Famous last words:
Take photos, take photos, take photos.

About :

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