Exporting Italian Comedies in the US. An Interview with Nancy Gerstman and Adrian Curry (Zeitgeist Films)

Zeitgeist Films is an American independent film distributor based in New York City and founded, in 1988, by co-Presidents Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo. Films distributed by Zeitgeist are mostly art films and documentaries. In 2017 Zeitgeist entered into a multi-year strategic alliance with renowned film distributor Kino Lorber. In 2008 and 2011 they distributed in the US market the two comedies by Italian director Gianni Di Gregorio: Mid-August Lunch and The Salt of Life. On the morning of March 20, 2019, together with my colleagues Marco Cucco, Emiliano Morreale and Massimo Scaglioni, I had the opportunity to do an interview with Nancy Gerstman, Co-President and Co-Founder, and Adrian Curry, Design Director, at Zeitgeist. We met both of them at their office, on 333 West 39 Street, in New York City.

The first thing that we would like to ask is what role Zeitgeist Films plays in distributing European cinema in the USA more generally, before turning to Italian film in particular.

Nancy Gerstman: Well, Emily [Russo] and I, we are business partners, we started Zeitgeist in 1988 and our focus was originally, actually, on US feature films and documentaries. We had a few successes in that area and actually our biggest success was a film by Todd Haynes, and it was such a large success that I think a lot of the smallest companies began acquiring films. So, it became very, very difficult to acquire American films, American narrative films so we decided to switch our focus and we started distributing foreign language films. At that time, around 1991, they were really not that popularly acquired by smaller companies, but there were a lot of films that really needed a good release. Our company only acquired six films per year, divided up between documentaries and features, because we really wanted to concentrate on each movie. With foreign films we were doing nicely, people were really interested, so our films started really doing very well at the box office. We had some German films, not Italian films, including the film Nowhere in Africa, which even won an Academy Award. We released it in 2002 and it made $6 million at the box office – that was really significant for us – we’d never had a film that made more than $1 million dollars the box office. As a result we were offered a lot of films, we became very familiar with a lot of wonderful sales agents: people were offering us films because we were a very small company. So that was the space we fit into: not the smallest, but one of the smallest companies, far from being a Miramax or somebody like that. But we were able to expand somewhat after we did so well with Nowhere in Africa.

How do you choose the films that you distribute?

NG: I think for us number one is really a matter of whether we like the film, we really just don’t do it just because we think it’s going make money. As a matter of fact, we passed on some films that we thought could make money but that we really didn’t feel that we could distribute, because we really didn’t like them. We do it out of love for the movies. We also have to feel that there’s going to be some interest in people writing about it, and some sort of interesting subject matter. We would like to think that critics will like it. Of course, the critical landscape has changed so much so we don’t really know, there’s no way to predict which critic is going to like something, and whether we can really push films towards certain critics, but we do want to believe that we’re going to get some kind of critical response to the film.

Do you mostly work through film festivals, to choose the movies?

NG: Absolutely, for at least 10 years we were seeing films “over the transom” so anyone could send us anything, and we would look, but after those 10 years we hadn’t acquired anything from that “over the transom” technique. We decided to really let festivals curate for us.

How does the acquisition process work? Do you deal directly with European distributors or do you also work with sales agents?

NG: Well, I should also mention that, despite that preference, we don’t universally acquire from festivals, that sales agents also send us things outside of festivals, and we have exhibitor friends who might love something and send it over to us. We’re in this relationship with Kino Lorber – they do two festivals and have their own relationships, so we also look at films together. But yes, we also have a lot of direct contacts with European producers and distributors. That’s really most of what we do, actually. Over the years we’ve really met so many people. That’s one of the reasons why we go to film festivals, to really renew our relationships – with sales agents, but also producers, filmmakers too.

What does your partnership with Kino Lorber entail?

NG: Kino Lorber developed this partnership, and essentially they give us money to acquire and market five, maybe six films a year. This is really wonderful as we’re able to acquire bigger films than ever before. They then they take the ancillary rights, so they have everything else. And then we share income, which really works so well for us. I didn’t really describe this earlier, but we did have a staff of ten people, then about four years ago we had completely downsized because things were really difficult following the disappearance of DVD sales, and a lower income from VOD and streaming. It became very difficult for us, but Kino Lorber came in and sort of saved us.

And I imagine that you also have several relationships with US theaters…

NG: Yes, certainly. Emily and I previously worked with other distribution companies, and during that period we had very close, telephone relationship with those theaters – there wasn’t really e-mail, then, we spoke to people, we booked our films. Mostly our films rights were for the USA only, plus a few Canadian rights, but no international rights for our films, so basically we were really talking directly to people, and those relationships kept going as we moved to Zeitgeist. Over the years they’ve changed to some extent because people move, exhibitors vary. We’ve been in the business for 30 years, they’ve been in the business for 30 years, but there’s a lot of turnover. But we still have to maintain relationships with theaters, that’s the only way we can get our films booked.

Nancy Gerstman and Emiily Russo, co-founders of Zeitgeist films.

We are really interested in the case of Mid-August Lunch, since usually European comedies do really well in their national markets but really struggle to gain distribution abroad, whereas the same countries produce arthouse films seemingly most of all for the international market. This case, Mid-August Lunch, is something of a middle ground between these two, as a comedy that also premiered at film festivals, including Venice. Why did you decide to choose this one?

NG: We had a relationship with the company sales agent, whom we had known for a long time. I think she had a hard time selling Mid-August Lunch, so she came to us, knowing that we were not going to offer a lot of money upfront but that we did a good job on movies, and she said: “I have a gem, I have this wonderful movie, I’m so in love with this film, you have to see it, please look at it”. Emily and I took a look, but the DVD that she sent was very dark, we could barely see it, it was not the right version of the film. It looked muddy and unprofessional, so I think we turned it down, I think we told her “forget it, we’re not going to take this movie, we don’t really understand what you are seeing in it”. But her response was “no, no, I can’t accept that, you really have to see it, I’ll send you another copy, you have to see it, I really loved it so much, it’s really wonderful!”. It also had the slight disadvantage of being just exactly the amount of times, 75 minutes, that a theater would not quite tolerate, most theaters want something longer than 75 minutes. 80 minutes, 90 minutes is more normal in the USA, and 75 seemed very short. That said, the second time we got it, we really loved it, and we decided that we would just make 75 minutes work. We really felt very confident that we could make it work. That’s how that acquisition came about. The same thing happened a couple of times, actually, where a sales agent was incredibly passionate about a product. Of course sometimes you think a sales agent is saying something that they don’t necessarily mean – I’m sure some do that – but this was really just a case of passion about a film, and we appreciated it. And she was right: it really is a wonderful, wonderful movie.

You mentioned that you usually acquire a limited number of films, five or six annually, but that you really concentrate on each one. Can you describe what kind of work you do on each movie?

NG: I think it’s not so different from what other companies do. We have to have a good trailer, we have to have wonderful posters, but we also don’t really take “no” for an answer from exhibitors, if they don’t seem to want to play a certain film. We work very hard to get it booked in as many theaters as possible before it plays, and we really try to stay on top of it, if it shows. If it doesn’t do phenomenal business initially, we’ll still continue to really promote it. A lot of people just move on to another project, but we don’t really do that. But I think it’s also the quality and the amount of time that we can devote to filmmakers, to producers, we are always there if they need us. We don’t work on ten things at one time. I don’t really know how other people work, perhaps they have dedicated people who work on single projects for three months, but that’s certainly what we do – perhaps even more than three months.

In terms of movie theater geography, are there different areas of the USA where European foreign movies are better distributed?

NG: On the coasts. You’re not going to find a film that starts its distribution in Chicago, even though it’s a wonderful city, very metropolitan, very cosmopolitan, very sophisticated, but national film releases have to start in New York. It will have to be released in Los Angeles too – actually that’s quite a difficult market, it’s not easy to get an audience – but it does have to play there, and you just have to find your own audience. Certain cinemas, not necessarily European ones, but, for example, Iranian films – those films always do well in the Los Angeles area because there are so many Iranians living there, so you can target it in that way. But when it comes to Italian cinema, that only really appeals to general audiences, and only when foreign-language films are experiencing popular moments. Right now I think they’re having a bit of a down period, but at the time we were doing Mid-August Lunch I think that we were doing well.

And what about second film by Gianni Di Gregorio, did you select that based on first one?

NG: Yes, basically that’s why. We were prone to loving anything that Gianni did. But I think we both had some second thoughts that it was just not as good as the first one, and we weren’t exactly sure what sort of business it would do, but we tried to give it as good a shot as possible. But we had very bad reactions to it – even friends of mine were asking “what happened to that guy?”. I think it just struggled to translate, the idea of this older man, this young women, and those kinds of clichés of Italian cinema were used in a way that people didn’t expect. So it was kind of a shame. Mid-August Lunch was such a wonderful success but The Salt of Life, I don’t think it did terribly, but it was a disappointment.

And did you work directly with Gianni Di Gregorio for promotion work during the distribution?

NG: He came over for The Salt of Life, I think he hadn’t done for Mid-August Lunch. They showed the film at Lincoln Center, he came in, he did Q&A, he was a little bit of a film superstar at that point. I think people were disappointed by the film but they really wanted to see him. Before Mid-August Lunch came out he wasn’t known as an actor in the States, at most just a screenwriter, so there wasn’t the same demand.

Have you also worked with the Ira Deutchman in supporting Italian movies?

NG: We don’t work together but we really like Ira, he’s really great. We don’t work with him purely because we pick up really specific products. He may do it through film festivals, but perhaps we just haven’t seen anything of his that we really wanted to pick up.

Neal Block told us how at Magnolia Pictures they change, for example, their posters and trailers to fit the films. Do you do the same? I’m thinking for example of your really wonderful posters of Gianni Di Gregorio.

Adrian Curry: We actually bought the posters from the British distributor. I think for both his films they have the same artist. We saw that and we loved it, it was perfect. I didn’t draw that myself – I wish!

Is it same for the trailer, or did you make a specific trailer? At Magnolia, again, they told us they recap their trailers, and in the recent case of Dogman they tried to present the film as less depressing, less dark.

NG: We do have a trailer maker, with whom we work very regularly, but I think in the case of Mid-August Lunch he just touched it up. But generally we do that, quite a lot – we have done for a film that’s opening at the end of March. For example, with Nowhere in Africa, the trailer was made not to have any subtitles at all – we really did not want people to think that they had to read subtitles and it was a great trailer.

AC: In ’90s that’s what people were doing here, Miramax did that a lot, pretending that foreign films weren’t foreign. I don’t know if you know the story of this film that Kino is releasing, talking of trailers, it’s a Chinese film, it’s a very arty film, it has this hour-long 3D tracking shot in it, the director loves Tarkovsky, etc. But they marketed it in China as a romantic comedy, through the trailer, with a whole campaign that it was going to open on New Year’s Eve, and at midnight you should kiss the person you’re with, and it had like the biggest opening pre-sales for an art film in China ever. It had a huge opening weekend, but everybody was really disappointed because it wasn’t the film the expected, and the numbers the next day just dropped!

NG: Were there any other design things related to Mid-August Lunch that we did?

AC: We made a website and we asked people to tell us their memories of their grandparents’ or mother’s cooking, especially if they were Italian.

And did it work?

NG: Not really, it didn’t

AC: A few people wrote on it…

NG: But it could be one of those things now, with social media, you really would be able to get some stuff going. Then it was really hard.

We were also wondering about post-theatrical exhibition, i.e. OTT, DVD, VOD etc. When you buy the rights of a film, do you buy all the rights, even the post theatrical ones?

NG: Yes, we certainly do, absolutely.

And then you used to work with platforms like Amazon, Netflix?

NG: Yes, but with Mid-August Lunch I don’t believe that there was VOD, I don’t think those things really existed in the same way, but we did release the film on DVD and that was successful. And we probably got a pretty big Netflix sale too.

And is this relation between theatrical, DVD and streaming services changing, from your point of view as distributors?

AC: For us, at that time we were just ten people in an office so a few of us did theatrical, a few of us did DVD, it was different people doing different things.

NG: It was a bit of a disaster when DVD sales started really plummeting, that was a really big problem for our company. Whatever was coming, streaming, VOD, all of these things, they didn’t immediately rise to the surface, it has a sort of evened out somewhat. But at that time we were doing really well with every DVD, some were selling really phenomenal amounts, so it was a big blow to our company.

So was home video even more important than theatrical distribution?

NG: Actually in a couple of cases yes, but theatrical distribution generally drove DVD sales, in our case it is sort of impossible for us to release a DVD without having had a theatrical release. We did a few but they were very specifically for one sort of audience.

As just a final question, a curiosity, what do you think is the makeup of foreign film audiences? Are they mostly college students, or older people?

NG: Well, that has changed a lot because when we were releasing things like Mid-August Lunch or Nowhere in Africa, there were pretty substantial audiences for foreign language films. Now things have really changed, there is no a substantial audience in USA for that genre.

AC: In that small audience, I think it still skews slightly older.

NG: It does, I mean, new movies do skew older, for quite a long time it is older people who actually pay to go to the movies. One thing that’s been sort of interesting is that certainly in New York repertory cinema, i.e. older, classic movies have become much more popular, younger people are really attending these films and seeing foreign language films for the first time, which is really great. But in terms of new movies, it certainly skews older.

Massimo Scaglioni, Marco Cucco, Damiano Garofalo, Nancy Gerstman and Emiliano Morreale