'Parents' of Indie Films Still Fiercely Independent

Director Atom Egoyan, a darling of the indie film world, remembers the first time he went to the offices of Zeitgeist Films in New York. It was the late 1980s, and he needed to check in with Emily Russo and Nancy Gerstman, Zeitgeist's head honchos, who were distributing "Speaking Parts" to theaters.

It's a film that wasn't necessarily everyone's cup of tea, a sort of meditation on the alienating effects of video technology on our lives (think: early days of the medium), set partly in a hotel laundry room, a film that Egoyan himself described as "a carefully harnessed union of despair and lunacy."

"It was so exciting, I was coming down to New York," said Egoyan, who lived in Canada and was not yet 30. "And I had this image of them as being real players."

When he arrived at Zeitgeist, in Greenwich Village, that image took a jolt.

"Their office was the size of a closet, this tiny place on Waverly Place, there were Nancy and Emily, it was fax machines on top of typewriters, just the two of them," he said.

Ask Russo and Gerstman, celebrating their company's 20th anniversary (now with eight employees, an Academy Award winner and, yes, bigger offices), how they first decided to set up a film distribution company, and their answers are simple:

They love films.

They didn't want to work for anybody else.

They got this great deal on an office: $175 a month.

Voila! A business. Gerstman had left First Run, another independent distributor, and was consulting for community organizations setting up film programs. Russo was repping films, like the photographer Bruce Weber's "Broken Noses," a black-and-white documentary about a boxing club.

"It was so easy," Gerstman told ABC News in an interview in the Zeitgeist offices in New York's SoHo neighborhood. "We didn't have families or spouses. We had substantial alliances with filmmakers. Emily was working with Bruce Weber. I knew Todd Haynes [director of films, such as "I'm Not There" and "Far From Heaven"], and they were talking to me about a project."

Today, Zeitgeist releases five or six carefully chosen films each year (their DVD division is now some 70 percent of their revenue, but they maintain a strong commitment to theatrical releases). In theaters now are "Chris and Don: a Love Story," "Up the Yangtze" and "Jellyfish." Each is a critical success.

"Chris and Don" chronicles the relationship between the writer Christopher Isherwood, whose "Berlin Stories" was the basis for "Cabaret," and Don Bachardy, a painter 30 years his junior. Writing in New York magazine, David Edelstein called the film "the rarest of documentaries: a realistic portrait of the human spirit."

"Jellyfish," a poignant tale of three lonely Tel Aviv women whose lives cross paths in unexpected ways, won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year; though set in Israel, it is surprisingly not about politics or the nation's troubles.

"Up the Yangtze" follows two employees of a tour company as an entrée into the effects on China of the construction of Three Gorges Dam, which will displace some 2 million people. The film, wrote Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times, "blends this empathy with its subjects with a striking visual quality, haunting images that show both the beauty and uncertainty of this pivotal time."

Zeitgeist films have not been without controversy. In 1991, the company released a provocative Haynes film, "Poison." One section of the film was based on the life of the writer Jean Genet, who, 60 years ago, shocked readers with his provocative portrayals of homosexuality and criminality.

A Sundance prize winner, "Poison" hit the national radar when a review claimed that the film showed anal sex ("It didn't really," Gerstman said). The Rev. Donald Wildman (who once complained that Mighty Mouse was snorting cocaine in a cartoon) went on the attack, sending copies of the review to every member of Congress.

"It was at a time when the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] was really under fire," Gertsman said. John Frohnmeyer, NEA chairman, called a press conference to defend the film. A back-and-forth ensued, which damaged the NEA and its potential to fund films.

But the publicity did wonders for the film's box office among a select audience and helped put Zeitgeist on the map.

"Emily and I were having Passover with our families," Gerstman said. "We each happened to turn on Channel 2 at the same time and Dan Rather's lead story was the NEA and 'Poison.'"

If "Poison" was a turning point in Zeitgeist history, so, too, was the release of "Nowhere in Africa." Set in Kenya during World War II, the film centers around a German Jewish family who fled the Nazis; it became the highest grossing foreign film of 2003, bringing in $6.2 million at the box office.

"Anything that goes over $500,000 is in the realm of significant success," Russo said.

The movie also won the Academy Award for best foreign film.

Starting Thursday, New York's Museum of Modern Art begins a month-long retrospective, "Zeitgeist: The Films of Our Time," which will include early works by Egoyan, Haynes and Weber, indie favorites Guy Maddin, the Brothers Quay, Derek Jarman and Agnes Varda; critically acclaimed films by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylon, France's Olivier Assayas and India's Deepa Mehta.

Also screening will be "The Corporation," which put corporate culture under a microscope, held it there for two-and-a-half hours and brought in $1.9 million at the box office in 2003.

The series will conclude with "Into Great Silence," a mesmerizing film shot in a monastery in the French Alps, where the monks have taken vows of silence; it brought in $800,000 and, until the release of Michael Moore's "Sicko," it was the highest grossing documentary of last year.

Gerstman and Russo "have a social conscience that flows to their work," said Rajendra Ray, the museum's chief curator.

"It's not that they show political films, necessarily, but they tend to embrace, let's say, images of people who aren't regularly seen on screen: women, people of color, gay issues," Ray said. "These are signature elements for the company, and valuable marketing tools, as well as great issues to embrace on a philosophical level."

"They only take on films they really love," said Laura Pointress, who directed "My Country, My Country," a story about a doctor in Baghdad struggling to move his country forward. "You see over and over how that translates into really good business choices."

Their catalogue, said Peter Scarlet, artistic director of the Tribeca Film Festival, is "rigorous. It's not seasoned with crowd pleasers that will pay the bills. If I see a film at a festival that I like a lot, and may have a limited audience, I'll often think that the only chance this film has of getting shown in the U.S. is if Zeitgeist picks it up."

Changing Times

"In the last 20 years, at least 75 to 100 distributors have come and gone," said Mike Maggiore, a programmer for Film Forum, an independent theater in New York.

The world of independent films is one that depends on the festival circuit, good relationships with theater owners, word-of-mouth, and grassroots marketing. It's a world where distributors are the talk of the town one minute and belly-up the next.

Gerstman and Russo, who will talk about how much individual films bring in, but not about overall revenues of the company, have resisted the lure of outside investors.

Of course, if "a sugar daddy," said Russo, "or a sugar mommy," added Gerstman, came along with no strings attached, they might consider it.

An independent film's success is "dependent on an important newspaper or magazine giving it a strong review, which gets people coming to the theater initially," Seymour Wishman, president of First Run Features, told ABC News. "You can't support the film with a lot of large ads -- it has to be supported by word of mouth, which can build over time."

But, in a world with more and more films to choose from, theater owners look at the numbers after the first weekend and often won't hold a film long enough to develop good buzz.

"The press cannot physically handle 15, 18 films that open every weekend," said Sasha Berman, a Los Angeles-based publicist who often works with Zeitgeist. "Fifteen years ago, that wasn't the case. You had one foreign language film that would open every few weeks, and not as many documentaries."

Today, "you can shoot a film digitally with no investment," Russo said. "Films are more affordable. And there are more festivals and more blogs, and you need product for that. So, if you make a film, somebody, somewhere will see it."

And, she added, there are "a lot of films about political subjects. Everybody wants to analyze everything in a film. That really wasn't the case 20 years ago -- it's an enormous change."

Egoyan is no longer with Zeitgeist, who couldn't compete against offers by larger companies with deeper pockets, although he retains great affection and admiration for Gerstman and Russo.

"For an independent film," he said, "they're perfect parents. They treat you with respect, but they know and recognize that you'll grow up and become independent."