Women Make Movies is one of the most successful ‘educational distributors’ in North America. Celebrating their 30th anniversary last year, they have a big catalogue with more than 400 titles, and though they also do theatrical and broadcast distribution, the educational market is where the US money is. ULLA JACOBSEN talked to executive director Debra Zimmerman at the One World festival in Prague this past April.
With internationally renowned titles such as Love and Diane, My Terrorist and The Day I Will Never Forget in their catalogue, representing famous filmmakers such as Kim Longinotto, Jane Campion, Maya Deren, Minh-ha T. Trinh, Sally Potter, Alanis Obomsawin and Annie Goldson, Women Make Movies (WMM) can be characterized as a distributor of high-quality films specializing in those made by and about women. They distribute all genres, though, with a focus on documentaries. It is a non-profit media arts organization that “addresses the under representation and misrepresentation of women in the media industry,” but it combines its political aim with the professional management of a distribution company that must turn a profit, and this combination is very successful. WMM has ten full-time, and four part-time employees, plus a number of interns and volunteers, and is lead by the enthusiastic film lover, businesswoman and feminist Debra Zimmerman.
Women Make Movies
UJ: What is WMM all about?
DZ: WMM was founded in 1972 as a non-profit organisation with the specific mission of training women to make films. It was founded alongside the resurgence of the women’s movement in the ‘70s, and out of the birth of the independent film. For the first seven or eight years we made films. I came as an intern in 1978 and I was lucky enough to get a job with the organization making a videotape about battered women, Why Women Stay. After working freelance for a couple of years in film production, I returned the organization in 1983. When I came back in 1983, we made a decision to focus on distribution. This was for two reasons: first, because by then women had the skills to make films, but also because it was the one programme that we were doing that actually brought money into the organization. And that ended up being a very good decision, both because we were filling an important need for women filmmakers, but also because we continued to have difficulties, and still do, with government funding. Our budget is currently 90% earned income from selling and renting films, and 10% subsidy from the state and federal government and sometimes special foundations and grants. Our budget is around one and a half million dollars a year.
In 1983 we started with about thirty films which were mostly by American women. Over the years it has grown into the largest collection of films by and about women in the world. About half of the films we distribute are made by women from outside of North America, the other half are from the US and Canada. As a distributor we mostly distribute in North America and we have been best known as an educational distributor.
But we really do all kinds of distribution; in fact, this month we are releasing Love & Diane in the cinemas. And in the last three years, broadcast distribution has been our fastest growing market segment. Broadcast has always been difficult for American filmmakers, but in the last five years it has gotten somewhat easier. ITVS and POV have expanded a bit, HBO has a stronger commitment to independent film, and the Sundance Channel has expanded its interest in documentary.
And actually in the last year we have started to move into international broadcast distribution. It really began when Jane Balfour went out of business. Some of our filmmakers had Jane as their sales agent, and they asked us if we would be interested in taking over those rights, and all of the sudden we started to get increased requests from all over Europe. In the last year we picked up a film called Georgie Girl by Annie Goldson from New Zealand. We have taken on world sales rights, and we are doing quite well with it. So now we are looking into this as a possible direction for the future.
Educational Distribution in the US
UJ: And how does the educational distribution work? I think it is very different from Europe – obviously there is some money to earn in the States?
DZ: There is. Most of the educational distributors in the US, like the Cinema Guild, Filmmakers Library and Icarus, make a significant amount of their income selling films to universities. Within the university there are many, many places that buy films: university libraries, different schools and various departments, e.g., the women studies department, the sociology department, anthropology, African-American studies, African studies. If you look at the catalogues of the distributors in the US, you can actually make a link between the films that they pick up and the university classes. But besides universities, educational distributors sell to hospitals, health centres, prisons, government agencies, public libraries, youth centres – just an amazing array of places, and we sell the cassettes for quite high prices. If the films sell at USD 19.95 for home video, they may sell for USD 195-295 to a university, because so many people use that same cassette.
So in fact for almost all filmmakers in the US, it is possible to make more money through educational distribution than through broadcast sales. For example, Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, a documentary we have been distributing for about seven years, is our best-selling title. Every good thing that can happen to a film happened to that film: it won an Emmy award, it was nominated for an academy award, it was in Sundance, it was in Berlin and many other film festivals. As a result of those things, as well as a very aggressive educational marketing campaign, it has earned more than USD 350,000 in educational distribution. And the filmmaker has actually made more money from educational distribution than from sales to television.
UJ: How many copies of a cassette do you actually sell on average? Is it like 10 or 500?
DZ: It can be either. If a film sells more than 1000 cassettes, it is extremely successful. There are some films we have that sell 10 a year. But frankly, if a film sells 10 a year, then it is close to the point where we would drop it, unless it is an extraordinarily important title, historically or artistically. Sometimes what we do is put it into a special classics section of the catalogue.
I would say the average is maybe 25-50 a year, but it is very common for a film to be in distribution for ten or fifteen years, so over the life of a film it is possible for the filmmaker to a make certain amount of money on an annual basis. Very few of our filmmakers can live off the income just from Women Make Movies sales. A couple, but not many.
UJ: Do you work like a sales agent in Europe, i.e., do you keep like 30% or a certain percentage?
DZ: It is very interesting. Educational distribution is the reverse of sales agents, we keep 70% and return 30%. I guess that is why we are still in business… But the truth is that educational distribution is so time-intensive and the costs are so much higher. With television you may send out twenty, thirty maybe fifty cassettes. We dub a hundred cassettes within weeks of acquiring a title. We send out hundreds of previews over the first couple of years. Our catalogue is produced annually, and we send out between twenty and forty thousands copies. We do special email campaigns as well as direct mail promotion of flyers and brochures. We also spend a lot of time working with festivals in the beginning of the distribution of the film. For us, festivals are part of the semi-theatrical market, the market which is in between theatrical and educational. Because it is so hard to get our documentaries and short films into cinemas, it is very hard for them to get publicity. So the festivals and other public exhibition venues take the place of theatrical release, which is extremely time-intensive. So the percentage is reversed.
We do have clauses in our contract for different markets: theatrical distribution which is a 50-50 net deal where we deduct costs; television on a 25-75 basis, meaning that the filmmaker gets the 75% and then, of course, the 70-30 gross deal for educational, where none of the costs are actually deducted from the filmmaker.
UJ: In Europe, sales agents have difficult times. Jane Balfour and d.net.sales went out of business, and some agents are saying they have to combine production and distribution to get it to work. Is this something you would consider?
DZ: Interesting. We actually don’t only do distribution; we have a Production Assistance Programme, where we assist women filmmakers to help them to find the money to get their films made. For example Love & Diane was part of this programme, and we actually worked with this film for many, many years. Fiscal sponsorship is part of this programme: this is a means for American filmmakers to get grants from government, corporate and foundation entities. It gives those projects, which are selected, a non-profit umbrella organization, and an institutional base. Because it is a competitive process, we are also able to say to funders, “We think this filmmaker has the ability to make a good film, and raise the money to do it, and we guarantee that whatever money you give will be spent on the film.”
We don’t have any financial interest in the films, but it does give us an opportunity to help make sure that good films get made – and to develop relationships with filmmakers. So in this way we are connected to production. The other thing we are starting to think about is offering money for post-production, in exchange for rights.
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