Movie Mix

Zeitgeist Films: The Only Woman-Run Film Distribution Company Celebrates 20th Anniversary

Founders Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo talk about how to thrive in the indie film world.
Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo are an anomaly in the film business. Their company, Zeitgeist Films, is the only woman-run distribution company and they have been working successfully together for 20 years. This week the Museum of Modern Art kicks off a retrospective of their cutting edge and exciting work Zeitgeist: The Films of Our Time that they have been involved with over the last two decades.

Gerstman and Russo talked with Women & Hollywood about their work and some of the keys to success.

Women & Hollywood: What made you start your company?

Gerstman and Russo: We didn't know what we were getting into. We had a very strong desire to work for ourselves and to work with each other and to be able to select the films we wanted to work on and to be able to handle them in the way we thought they should be done.

You've stayed true to your vision throughout the years.

We have grown a lot. For three years it was just the two of us sitting across from each other at a tiny desk. Now we sit across from each other at a slightly bigger desk and have eight staff members. We have grown organically and gradually.

Which filmmakers' careers are you most proud to have been a part of?

First of all Bruce Weber. He was our first filmmaker. Broken Noses and Let's Get Lost were big films for us. We had Bruce's films for 18 years and he now distributes them himself. We really launched his career. Todd Haynes was also very important to our company because he brought Poison to us. It was an extremely important film in the history of cinema, and that we made almost a million dollars theatrically was extraordinary.

How do you pick the films?

It's a very personal process. We really have to love a film to take it on. We also need to believe we can find an audience for the film as well. Generally, if we love it we feel that other people will love it. But it really comes from the heart, the emotions of whether we connect with the movie.

What women's films are you most proud of?

One of our first filmmakers was Yvonne Rainer and we released Privilege. We also distributed her last feature MURDER and Murder. She is a world renowned filmmaker and we have done well with handling her films on a worldwide basis. Her following is enormous and is still growing.

We also worked with Caroline Link who directed Nowhere in Africa which was our highest grossing film and an Academy Award winner. We worked with Laura Poitras on My Country, My Country which was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. We also distributed both Fire and Earth by Deepa Mehta.

There has been a lot of turmoil in the indie film world lately yet you are thriving. What lessons can people learn from you?

We've never overextended ourselves. We do the same thing that we did 20 years ago. We take on 5 or 6 films for theatrical release per year. We're very picky about what we take and we work extremely hard on those films. We now have ancillaries to back us up which has helped us over bumpy roads. This is not the only time that companies have gone out of business. Over the 20 years we've probably seen a hundred go out of business -- sometimes it happens in clusters, sometimes they flame out dramatically and sometimes one big company can bring down a bunch of small companies. But that isn't us.

We've always been a tightly run company, a fiscally conservative company that takes its risks with the films but not in the way we manage the business. That's been the key to our survival. We've been around for 20 years and I can tell you a lot of money has been floating around and Nancy and I have never benefited from that. Sometimes we looked at each other and said gosh everybody's getting rich but it wasn't about that for us and now that the tide is turning and things aren't so good -- I won't say that we are not feeling it because the business is tough all around -- but we're not feeling it as much. We have a sustainable business and that's what we are able to celebrate on this anniversary.

What are your hopes for the next 20 years?

We just expect to have a wonderful business identifying some great talent, distributing better films, seeing what new technologies will be out there, and finding out what this wonderful world of distribution will be.

What advice would you give to women who want to get into the business?

Most of the small businesses in the country are started by women but we have not seen any other distribution companies run by women. I want to encourage women to follow their dreams and while distribution may not be on the top of the list it's an interesting area to be in. We would love to see more women in the business.

Check out Zeitgeist's site for information on the films they have released. Most are available for rental and purchase.
Melissa Silverstein is the writer and editor of Women & Hollywood.
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