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Women Make Movies – And Distribute Them Too

By Skye Dent

From Diane Zander's 'Girl Wrestler,' which recently aired on PBS' Independent Lens, and is distributed by Women Make Movies. Courtesy of Women Make Movies

Women Make Movies (WMM) is losing its enviable, mile-long view of New York City's SoHo. Across the street from WMM's floor-to-ceiling windows, construction workers ignore the warm rain as they build the infrastructure to what will be a spanking new and obnoxiously high 16-story building.  

But Women Make Movies is still in an enviable position that Executive Director Debra Zimmerman would never have imagined over 30 years ago, when she first began working as an intern. "I made $50 a week and 25 of that was deferred," Zimmerman recalls.

Women Make Movies is a multi-cultural, multi-racial, nonprofit media arts organization that facilitates the production, promotion, distribution and exhibition of independent films and videos by and about women. The organization was established in 1972 to address the under-representation of women in the media industry. 

The agency started out dealing primarily with production. In fact, Zimmerman made her first film there in the 1980s. It was a documentary about wife abuse called Why Women Stay. Although she made money from educational institutions, she was distraught that few battered women got the chance to see the film due to the lack of theatrical or television distribution.

So, when she and Lydia Pilcher, who later went on to produce Mira Nair's films, took over WMM in the '80s, they decided to look into distribution. This decision was pushed along by two factors: More women were now making films, and the National Endowment for the Arts was swinging to a more conservative mindset that resulted in defunding for WMM for the first time in its history.

 "There was a film about women in prison that we wanted," says Zimmerman.  "The filmmaker just wanted $400 for it. Lydia designed the flier. I used the postage meter from a foundation I was working with. We got a mailing list. We sent the flier out to 2,000 groups. We ended up renting it six times, and we sold two 16mm prints. The whole thing cost about 50 bucks, and we made about $200."

"I said, ‘Wow, this is amazing.' Distribution is a win-win-win," Zimmerman continues. "The filmmaker gets royalties. The groups that need and want to see the films get to. And for us, we're able to make money. That's where my passion for distribution started."

With its dramatic shift to distribution, WMM saw its yearly budget grow from one that was almost totally dependent on grants to its current $1.5 million budget, which is 90 percent funded by the company's distribution profits. Each year, WMM picks 20 to 25 films for distribution out of approximately 700 submitted, making WMM the leading distributor of women's films and videos in North America.

Five of WMM's films screened at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) last fall, and two of these films appeared in IDFA's Docs For Sale section. In addition, five WMM films have been featured on PBS' acclaimed Independent Lens series over the past two years, including, most recently, Girl Wrestler (Diane Zander, prod./dir./cin.), which aired December 14 to critical acclaim.

The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt (Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes, prods./dirs.), Beah: A Black Women Speaks (LisaGay Hamilton, prod./dir; Neda Armian, Jonathan Demme, Joe Viola, prods.), The Man Who Stole My Mother's Face (Cathy Henkel, prod./dir.; Jeff Canin, prod.), Afghanistan Unveiled (Brigitte Brault and Aina Women Filming Group, prods./dirs.) and Thunder in Guyana (Suzanne Wasserman, prod./dir.) are just a few of WMM's recent and recognizable titles that have received various honors both domestically and internationally.

WMM's success in the distribution realm doesn't mean that the organization is ignoring its production roots. WMM also offers a unique Production Assistance Program (PAP), which provides training, fiscal sponsorship and information services to independent media artists. All Over Me (Alex and Sylvia Sichel, prods./dirs) and the film adaptation of Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (Marc Levin, dir.; Anna Deavere Smith, Ezra Swerdlow, prods.) are just two of the 80 projects that have been completed through PAP.

Zimmerman credits the market, the filmmakers WMM works with, her small industrious staff and the support of her board of directors not only for the organization's success, but also for her ever-increasing ability to re-invent herself. She has been called upon to give distribution and production presentations both in the US and abroad. Indeed, she has been encouraged to be more of a presence at festivals by WMM board members, who include such industry players as Leslie Fields-Cruz of the National Black Programming Consortium, Kathryn Galán of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, Marian Masone of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Bienvenida Matias of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers and Diane Weyermann of the Sundance Institute.

From making $25 a week to distributing 25 films a year, both WMM and Zimmerman have come a long way. "I was really lucky," she maintains. "I had an opportunity to come into an organization, recreate it and learn on the job. I've been able to change what I do here every few years. And now I have a board that wants me being visible, thinking, writing and being a leader. I was amazingly lucky."

Zimmerman and staff may no longer see much from their office window. But the world will be seeing much more from Debra Zimmerman and Women Make Movies.


Skye Dent is a veteran filmmaker, journalist, and member of the IDA and WGA, west.