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."