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By Phil Hall | September 19, 2000

During the past 10 years, the indie cinema orbit has seen dramatic convulsions in the state and health of independent distributors. Some of the more successful distributors (most notably Miramax, October and New Line) were swallowed up by the major studios, while others (too many to mention) vanished when projected profits never came around. Still others are barely holding on, trying to fill finicky niches with titles that attract a mountain of publicity but somehow never quite fill the theaters.
A major exception to the indie distributor rule is Milestone Film & Video, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary in business. Perhaps the quirkiest of the distributors, Milestone has specialized in presenting some of the least likely releases of the past ten years…and the company has yet to offer a money-losing title!
Categorizing a Milestone release is tricky, since the company’s output is so varied. It has specialized in presenting the finest of US independent filmmakers, including Alan Berliner, Philip Haas, Fred Parnes and Eleanor Antin, and it is responsible for introducing US moviegoers to major Japanese filmmakers such as Takeshi Kitano and Hirokazu Kore-eda. Yet the company made retro chic by serving up restored silent films, including the canon of Mary Pickford’s films and a series of pioneering ethnographic documentaries and dramas under the umbrella “The Age of Exploration,” including F.W. Murnau’s Oscar-winner “Tabu.” Furthermore, Milestone has successfully tracked down missing gems from major directors, including two never-before-seen French-language propaganda films made by Alfred Hitchcock as part of the British World War II effort and hitherto unknown classics by Pier Paolo Pasolini (“Mamma Roma”), Jane Campion (“Two Friends”) and Mikhail Kalatazov (“I am Cuba,” which earned Milestone a special award from the National Society of Film Critics). Even more amazing, the company rescued classic films from public domain hell with new prints that recaptured the original glory of Orson Welles’ “The Trial” and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s “The Woman in Dunes,” among others.
A collaboration of reel-life and real-life partners Amy Heller and Dennis Doros (who began Milestone a week after they married), the New Jersey-based company recently received a special tribute when the Walter Reade Theatre at New York’s Lincoln Center hosted a retrospective of their most celebrated releases. Film Threat spoke with Dennis Doros regarding Milestone’s adventures in the rocky world of indie distribution.
[ In an industry where many independent distributors either get swallowed up by larger companies or fold and cease operations, Milestone is celebrating its tenth anniversary. What is the secret of your success…and what did your defunct or acquired ex-competition fail to understand? ] ^ First, we had no desire on the most part to merge or sell. We started the company hoping to acquire the best films we can and only distribute the films that we truly love. We’ve been able to keep true to this dream, so we’ll continue as long as we can. There are no real secrets and the term “film business” is an oxymoron. We take on the films and do the best we can with them. I think the reason for our success is that we started small and remained so. The overhead and the big acquisitions have traditionally killed larger and smarter companies than Milestone.
[ Milestone has provided an invaluable platform for the release of many US independent productions. What have been the unique challenges in bringing these smaller, esoteric American films into theatrical channels? ] ^ There has been less and less of an theatrical audience for the “intelligent” art films and the newspaper, magazine and TV editors have been shying away from covering these films as much as they used to. At the same time, advertising rates have skyrocketed. So there is a much harder time getting the word out. Luckily, other avenues of distribution — DVD, VHS, and cable television — has taken up the slack and today there is a golden age of availability unequaled in the 100+ years of cinema. To watch a film in the privacy of your home and actually hear a Martin Scorsese discuss the making of his film is a remarkable opportunity.
[ Milestone has enjoyed a strong critical and audience feedback in offering both contemporary and classic cinema. From a distribution standpoint, is it easier to offer new films or older films in today’s market? ] ^ Older films have a built-in reputation — a sort of patina — that guarantees better reviews than new films. At the same time, the placement of the reviews and the attention given is smaller. Classic films are far-less risky, but the financial rewards are almost always smaller than new films. At the same time, to find a great film made this year is far more difficult than having over a 100 years of films to search through!
[ The company has done a remarkable job in rescuing presenting either restored versions or pristine new prints for titles which have long existed in scratchy or faded public domain dupes (“The Trial,” “Woman in the Dunes” and Curtis Harrington’s “Night Tide” starring a very young Dennis Hopper). Have you found a receptive commercial market for these films, even though they have long been available in PD video and 16mm versions? ] ^ We really do prefer “new” discoveries such as “I am Cuba,” but to restore and bring out beautiful versions of known classics is also a new way to see a film. To see The Trial now in a gorgeous 35mm print on a big screen is really to “see” it for the first time and it can completely change a film’s reputation. The audience for these films has been very successful.
[ Milestone has distributed a wide variety of films spanning from the dawn of cinema to today’s cutting edge, with almost all genres imaginable. What defines a “Milestone film”? ] ^ A Milestone film is one that we truly love and although there are many exceptions to the rule, I would say that our films tend to be very, very visual and they like to tell their stories through images as much as, or more so, than through dialogue. Besides all our silent films, “I am Cuba,” the Korean Zen drama “Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?” and “Maborosi” are three such examples. I’d also say that our films tend to take the audience on a journey to see a different place or culture than our own. That was the impetus in our “Age of Exploration” series.
[ Many independent filmmakers have found it difficult to obtain distribution for their features and have taken the route of self-distribution. Is this something you would recommend? ] ^ Yes, before you make the film, concentrate on the script. Re-write it a hundred times if you have to and fine-tune it through rehearsals. So many films fail on so basic a need as a good script. Secondly, have a great stills photographer on the shoot so the press and exhibitor have something to entice the audience. Self-distribution has worked in many cases and it’s definitely a viable route. With a distributor, the filmmaker should really make sure that the distributor is in love with the film, that they call other filmmakers in the distributor’s catalog to know what to expect and make sure they were happy, and to choose a distributor who has a track record with the kind of film that you have made.
[ Where do you see the Internet fitting in as a viable channel for the distribution of feature films? ] ^ Right now, it’s very scary for most distributors — large and small — since the issue of piracy is very real. At the same time, the online video stores have been a great source of income to the distributors. Sooner or later, downloading will become another viable way to distribute films though I don’t like the idea of a generation of filmgoers tied to their monitor and missing out on the communal wonders of seeing a film in a great theater.
[ In reviewing films for acquisition, have there been titles which you’ve turned down which led to belated regrets for not pursuing? And on the flip side, have you presented films which you later wished you had avoided? ] ^ In the end, we’re only sorry that we missed out on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life” which we did have an agreement on, but the film’s representative went back on their word. He’s a great director and a good friend. Outside of that, I don’t think we have any regrets.
[ Milestone is among the very few distributors which bring out silent films for theatrical and home video release. Is there a viable contemporary market for this yesteryear productions? ] ^ Viable for a very small company like ours, but it’s more of a love for the form more than the financial reward. At the same time, Image has supported them by bringing out most of these titles out on DVD and Turner Classic Movies has also been an extremely rewarding partnership in restoring and bringing these films out.
[ What projects are next on the Milestone horizon? ] ^ We’re still hoping to bring out Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Wide Blue Road” sometime in early 2001. That is a Jonathan Demme and Dustin Hoffman presentation. We also have a beautifully restored version of Lotte Reiniger’s “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” that we’ll first bring out theatrically and then on home video. We are also bringing out “The Mystery of Picasso” again. It’s a film we loved when it was released fifteen years ago, but it disappeared when the Goldwyn company changed hands. It’ll open theatrically on December 29 in New York and a beautiful video version will come out in late 2001. And, of course, we’re planning to have another round of Mary Pickford videos coming out in the next year or so. Beyond that, we have many hopes and dreams of other films to follow.
Visit Dennis and Amy’s web site Milestone Film & Video.
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