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The Guild Complex: And Interview with Gary Crowdus

By Renee Tajima-Peña

Four women smile while holding instruments.  From The International Sweethearts of Rhythm by Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss.

Gary Crowdus has the bearing of New York's film intelligentsia, and the credentials to support it. A graduate of New York University's Institute of Film and Television, he is founding editor of the magazine Cineaste, and Vice President of The Cinema Guild distribution company. But he comes to the fore of social issues with heartland roots. The Detroit-bred son of a Ford line worker and a housewife, Crowdus' love of movies was sparked by the fundamen­tally mainstream Lawrence of Arabia and The Miracle Worker, a far cry from the Third World and alternative film and video he has come to champion. Even now, his own explanation of these influences—that "the romance and glamor of cinema provided a convenient escape from a working class existence" sounds like a scholar talking about someone else's experience. But this was the 60's, and cities like Detroit still had art houses, not cineplexes, so Crowdus discovered foreign film early on. Imagine a teen­ager driving 40 miles to Ann Arbor, in his dad's Plymouth on a Saturday night, to catch the latest of the French New Wave.

Still, as Crowdus tells it, "I got out of Detroit as fast as I could." In 1966, he began film studies at NYU where he was a self-described "fellow traveler" of the Students for a Democratic Society—among the generation of independent film professionals whose political and aesthetic formation were firmly grounded in the '60's social turmoil. By 1972, Crowdus joined the Broullon brothers, Rodolfo and Carlos, in launching Third World cinema to American audiences. He stayed with the company for eight years, in its various incarnations at the Third World Cinema Group, Tricontinental Film Center, and finally, Unifilm. They pioneered the semi-theatrical film market, and introduced such Latin American classics as Blood of the Condor, Hour of the Furnaces, Memories of Underdevelopment, and Portrait of Teresa, before folding amidst considerable controversy in 1983 (Crowdus had already left in 1981 to join Philip and Mary Ann Hobel of The Cinema Guild).

Today, Crowdus's discourse on Third World and independent cinema is colored by the language of business : grosses and markets have replaced talk of media to the masses. It is indicative of the evolution of alternative distribution. Despite the budget cutbacks of educational and cultural institutions—the meat and potatoes for social issues distributors—a handful of stable, profit ­ minded companies have survived with their collections of off-mainstream, political product intact. Cinema Guild handles feature and dramatic films, but their staple remains social issue documentaries, with new releases such as Mozambique: The Struggle for Survival, Haiti Dreams of Democracy, and Soweto to Berkeley. Its New York City office is located squarely on the Broadway entertainment belt, operated by a staff of six, a computer system, and facsimile machine—gone are the days when distributors like Crowdus carried 16mm prints under their arms to get films onto college screens. I talked to Crowdus during the August hiatus, before the beginning of another academic year, about the art and business of documentary distribution.

Tell me about your start with The Cinema Guild.

It was then called Document Associates, Inc., wholly owned and run by the Hobels, who are producers. They formed their own documentary distribution company in the early 1970's, basically to handle their own films. They had been signing distribution contracts with other distributors and were not really happy with what had been done with them. I joined them in the spring of 1981 because they were going to go on to make feature films. In fact, Tender Mercies was their first feature production. They needed somebody to keep the distribution office going, acquiring independently produced films. We renamed the company The Cinema Guild because I thought it was a name that would allow us to distribute a much broader range of materials. So we now have both the documentary catalog and a smaller feature film catalog.

The collection of The Cinema Guild has something of a left profile. Is there an underlying political philosophy to it?

I think that 's mainly because most of the filmmaking community finds itself left of center. That's where the good films are being made. Although, I guess I would · have to admit if I saw an excellent film made from a right wing perspective, I probably would not want to distribute it. The collection reflects my own personal interests as well. I try to keep myself educated and informed on various issues. I can get most excited and involved with distributing a film or videotape that I think really addresses some important political and social issues that are not being addressed by the mass media, which is quite a bit of territory.

Do you have any particular titles that you championed that probably would not have gotten any distribution had you not picked it up?

No, any of the really good films or tapes that we've picked up would have been distributed by somebody anyway. We tend to take on films that we know may not have a wide audience, but that we think are important films. But there's a lot of competition for the really good films or videotapes. There's no question that a good film is going to get a distributor.

A good example is one that we took on a couple of years ago, that we've been very happy with in terms of its message and success in distribution—a little half-hour videotape called Making the News Fit, produced by Beth Sanders. It analyzes U.S. media coverage of the war in El Salvador and it's done quite well. We've done mass mailings to journalism and media studies departments, and it's been one of our best sellers in many years.

What kind of income can a producer expect from distribution if it is a successful film or tape?

That's a question we often get asked by producers, and obviously it can vary tremendously. Some producers get royalty checks in the range of hundreds of dollars and quite a few actually get checks in the thousands of dollars. I always kid producers, "Don't quit your day job," because nobody can make a living off the royalties their films are going to produce. I mean, we're talking distribution of specialty products here. None of our programs reach the sales level of perhaps even an average home video release.

I noticed most distributors don't want to talk about income levels, but it is a basic business question.

But it does range tremendously. We have producers who get very small checks, others who get S5000, $6000, $7000, $8000. It depends on the titles. There are so many variables in distribution. The size of the market, for example. A film that has what we call multidisciplinary applications clearly stands a much better chance of selling, when you send out a preview, than a more narrowly focused or specialized subject. A program like America and Lewis Hine—which has applicability in American history courses, biography, photography,labor studies—we know the preview to sales ratio is going to be much lower for that film than a Latin American anthropological film on tribal rituals.

What would the life of the film be?

There are what we call campaign films, or current affairs films, that are going to have a very brief life. It may be a year or two before they become dated. A lot of the stuff on Central America, for example, has already become quite dated and is more of archival or historical interest. So you've got to move very quickly on those. We've advised a number of producers who are more concerned about getting their program out quickly, and in massive release, to distribute a low cost video. Because the way we, or any other comparable distributor works, is a much slower, longer process. And we can 't charge those low, home video prices and still pay overhead, and pay a producer royalties.

A few years ago, there was a whole debate within 16mm distributors who were worried about the threat of the low cost video market. Yet you are now advising producers to possibly go the other route.

Sure, one of the toughest areas for distributors to deal with is the volatility of video pricing and its impact on non theatrical distribution. Originally, a few years back, we were all con­cerned that if video prices were too much less than the film price, we would be discouraging 16mm purchases. But the situation has gone far beyond that now. There are very few public libraries, or even college film collections, that are maintaining 16mm collections. 16mm is not dead yet. I certainly would not want to discourage anybody from making 16mm films. But video has so overtaken 16mm now that, like most distributors, our video prices are dropping dramatically.

What is that doing to your profitability?

Even if a distributor sells more units in the course of the year, the dollar value may well be lower, because the video prices are lower. That puts a real squeeze on most distributors. That means we have to be incredibly resourceful, you have to keep your overhead lean and mean, and you have to be very smart in acquisition and marketing in order to stay in business.

Do you think producers now working in 16mm are fighting a losing battle?

It depends on the program and the kind of audience outreach that it has. There are some programs that really deserve, and cry out, to be seen on a big screen. Large screen video projection can't compete with 16mm screens in terms of film image.

Is the use of video in institutions lowering the standards for exhibition?

There is that effect, no question. The ease of video makes it so much easier to pop a cassette into a machine and push a button, than to thread a projector. Therefore students and instructors are getting used to, and satisfied with, a lesser visual quality. It's unfortunate, but I don't know that there are any distributors, save for New Yorker Films, that refuse to put out titles on video. I don't know that one can remain a viable commercial distributor and maintain such a purist attitude about video.

If a filmmaker were to solicit Cinema Guild, how should they go about it?And what are your selection criteria?

They could call, write, or FAX us about their program. If it sounds like it is remotely of interest we would ask for a preview cassette. There's very little that I would refuse to look at. Generally we have three criteria. Number one, we have to like the program. Number two, we have to think that there is a viable market for it. Sometimes the market may be very small, but we think no matter the size, it is an important market to distribute to. For example, in the area of Puerto Rican or Chicano studies there may not be massive markets, but we think they are politically and socially important. Third, we have to think we are the right distributor for it. However, that's becoming less of an issue now that we've expanded our areas of representation. Previously our reputation has been social issue documentary, broadly defined. But we're moving into newer areas, such as the performing arts, the humanities, literature, and so on.

What are the most lucrative markets for a documentary?

If you're talking domestic, there's no question that a program sold to cable television could be a significant and very quick return for its producers. I'm immediately discounting network television, which very rarely acquires independently produced documentaries. And a PBS national feed is good, although quite frankly you could count the number of programs that get a national feed on your fingers. Again, a program that has multidisciplinary applications could be quite successful in the non theatrical marketplace and, if it has a long life, it can continue to bring its producer royalties year after year. Historical films are quite good in this regard.

Which of the pay cable services are lucrative sells?

We sell to just about all of them: Arts & Entertainment, National Geographic, Discovery, Bravo.

What kind of prices can a documentary bring?

It depends on the program, whether the service insists on an exclusive for example. Obviously, what you try to do is to put together a string of nonexclusive sales so you can sell it to a number of systems. It's tricky, because they all want exclusives. A single program sold non exclusively to a regional cable system might bring in the range of $10,000 and up.

How do you go about looking for new acquisitions?

We go to some festivals, we look at the trade literature. One of the best sources has been referrals. The area of producer relations is very important to us. That's something I learned from my experience at Tricontinental and Unifilm. If you do a good job for a producer, you're likely to get a chance at getting their next film. They'll also be likely to recommend you to other producers.

What is the standard promotional strategy for a new documentary?

We immediately put out a press release with basic information. Once we've gotten, hopefully, a few awards and critics quotations from reviews, we will print an attractively designed single sheet flyer. If we have good graphic and photo material, we'll do a more involved brochure. One area producers really fall down on, is they don't have good materials to promote their film with. Photos and visuals are the most. important thing to help promote a title.

We also do a lot of targeted promotions. We assemble, let's say, half a dozen titles from a particular subject area and do specific mailings. Our catalog is published once a year.

You can't just take a film for distribution, stick it in your catalog, and wait for the phone to ring. We try to be aggressive about getting them shown at trade shows, academic conferences, film and video festivals, get them reviewed.

What kind of future do you see for the distribution of social issue documentaries over the next ten years?

Definitely there will be lower cost video releases. Home video stores, however, will be more problematic. By and large people are not going into video stores and asking to see a good, hard-hitting documentary on Central America to screen at home on Friday night. Non Theatrical markets will remain prime. I don't see that collapsing as long as there is an educational system. However I would like to think that, if we distributors could be a little more level headed in our video pricing, we can regain some of our public library market that I think is crucial to the marketplace.

How about pay cable and overseas markets?

Everyone knows the overseas market is growing, but I have my doubts just how much of this kind of material will get sold. Basically, you 're talking largely entertainment programs. If we were distributing "Battle of the Las Vegas Showgirls," I'm sure we could sell it overseas. But a film on the Hispanic community here? I think the kind of enthusiastic talk you hear or read about of the booming overseas market has to be tempered by a close look at what actually is selling.

How viable will documentary features be in the marketplace?

They can be problematic. I see more feature documentaries than I would like that seem to be padded for length, simply because the producer would rather have a feature than a good, tight, one-hour documentary. Once you get substantially beyond 60 minutes, it puts the film into a whole different distribution category. It is problematic for classroom showings unless you split it up into two or three parts. It's more suitable for public exhibition, perhaps with limited theatrical or semi- theatrical distribution. But generally that is short-lived. I don't want to discourage filmmakers who have viable feature length documentaries, but I think some producers have unrealistic expectations about theatrical distribution. What's happened in the last year or two is a consolidation of specialized screens. Now there are fewer screens to show specialized theatrical films, even narrative, much less documentary.