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.

But again the situation for us is different. We had a 20% increase in our sales last year. This year we have diversified our income tremendously and, in fact, just had our best month ever in terms of sales. This means that we are not in the situation of having to change. We are more in the situation of trying to figure out how we can take the resources that we have and expand in a way that is the best for the filmmakers who we work with, as well as for the organization.

Feminism in the 21st Century 

UJ: The films that you are taking on, they don’t only have to be made by women, they also have to deal with women issues?

DZ: Yes, it is very specific and that is both a political as well as a business decision. People in North America know what kinds of films we have, so they know what they are going to get. It also makes it much easier for us to market in a very targeted way. In fact, the distributors that I think are the most successful are the ones who are in some way specialized. For example, California Newsreel does African and African-American films and started out with a very strong labour collection. Because the US market is so huge, it is very important to have your specialization. We do consider this requirement from time to time because there are some wonderful films made by men about women, and there are great films that are made by women about men. But we always come to the conclusion that we are doing exactly what we should be doing.

We are here at the One World festival, and Igor (Blazevic, director of the One World Film Festival, – ed.) has done a really great job with this festival. I know he is very conscious about the participation of women at the festival because he worked with us this year… But still, if you look at the percentage of films, it is not very good. In the main competition, 30% of the films are made by women, 30% are about women, and those are not even the same titles.

In general the great documentary filmmakers who have the retrospectives seem to always be men, with the exception of Kim Longinotto and Heddy Honigmann.

And the statistics for fiction film are even more shocking. Women only represent 10 to 13% of the Directors Guild of America – that is an appalling figure. That is just the environment that we are living in. It is not directly connected to documentary, though I am sure in some ways it influences it. Women has been much more successful as doctors, as lawyers, as business people, even the American Congress is more progressive than Hollywood, so we still really have a way to go.

UJ: So you think in the 21st century it is still more difficult for women filmmakers to get their films out, or is it because there are fewer women filmmakers?

DZ: Both. We did a very informal study a couple of years ago through our Production Assistance programme and looked at funding patterns. And the hierarchy was this: the films made by men about men got the most money, the films made by women about men got the second most amount of money, the films that were by men about women got the third most amount of money and last was women about women. Which was very interesting. We thought that the hierarchy would be more gender-based by director. But it really was about the gender of the subject. It made us realize that our particular specialty – films which look at women’s issues from a women’s perspective – is still very valuable and still very important today.

Things are really changing though. Ten years ago, if you asked how many women were directors of festivals or actually doing the programming for festivals, you would find a very small number. Now it is growing, especially in documentaries. I don’t believe that women’s films are better than men’s films. But it is about orientation. When a man watches a film and a woman watches a film, they see very different things. Again, it is not bad or good, it is just different, because we grow up differently. You need to have women in positions of power: making decisions about the programming, or the films that win in order for there to be real equality.

In Asia in the last ten years, there has been an absolute explosion. Five years ago I was at the first Seoul Women’s Film Festival, and there was one Korean documentary woman filmmaker. This past year, I was on a jury for films by Asian filmmakers and the best films were made by Korean women filmmakers. All of the Korean films in the last edition of the Yamagata festival were made by women. This is amazing. And in the Philippines the top five box office directors of feature films are all women.

UJ: Do you think there are stories to tell both about Third World women and Western women in terms of women’s issues?

DZ: That is another important part of what we are doing. We take our role as an alternative seriously. We think it is really important for Americans to be able to understand the lives of women outside of America, because what they see is basically National Geographic documentaries of bare-breasted women, these poor women who are always carrying a lot of water. So for us, those kinds of films are doubly important because they teach us something about what the world is like outside of the United States. And I am the first one to say that US audiences are extremely provincial. Americans are very isolated from the rest of the world. I think that is one reason why the war in Iraq is able to happen: we only get our news from the United States. You know most Americans don’t speak another language; most Americans don’t leave the United States, so for us it is very important to bring these films back to the United States.

UJ: Do you think there is a big difference in the way women and men make films? Would you be able to take a film and say this was made by a woman and this was made by a man – to make a blind test, in other words?

DZ: I have done it, and it was very interesting. I was a panellist for the Massachusetts Council of the Arts for their annual grants to filmmakers. They have a blind jury system where they make the filmmakers take their names off the credits of the films they submit as samples for their new work. Four years ago I was on their final jury and watched three or four minutes of two hundred films. I marked down on a piece of paper whether I thought it was a man or a woman filmmaker and I was right 95% of the time. It is not just their style of filmmaking, it is the subject of the filmmaking. We have a joke at WMM that all films by women have to have water in them. Although it is a joke, in some way it is strangely true. It is a style, it is the selection of subject matter. I think women filmmakers are more drawn to personal filmmaking. Another thing is the choice of the narrator: women films often have a women narrator, whether or not the subject has to do with women. Men choose a male narrator. Of course, this is not terribly important, but it does go back to the perspective of how you see the world. Men and women choose their own voice for their films.

I think the reasons why the masters of cinema are men is because the most respected form of documentary is cinéma vérité, and to me that is a very male way of making films. I think men by nature distance themselves from subjects; they live more distant from each other and from the world than women do. So for them, it is a very natural way of filmmaking: to kind of blend into the background, to see what they see without letting us know they are present. They are dealing on a more intellectual than emotional plane. I think it is very interesting that Michael Moore has gotten credit for creating personal documentary filmmaking when he put himself into Roger and Me. It was considered this new great form of documentary, even though women had been doing it for a very long time. And when women did it, people said, “Ugh! Why did she put herself in the film? Why do we need to know that stuff about her?” I do think that women and men have different ways of making films. And I think it is one way where women are in some way devalued, unfortunately.

On the other hand I have had the experience of watching American films with European friends, and they would say, “Oh I am so sick of this. I don’t want to know every detail of that person’s life. Why don’t they just go to psychoanalysis?” I kind of agree with them, because I think we all have seen too many personal documentaries. For me it is just very clear that somehow the personal story has to transcend the facts of that person’s life and that person’s life experience. There has to be something really profound in the film for it to really work, and when it’s done well, I find it gets the closest to truth, much closer than cinéma vérité, in fact. But it is not always done well.

I think sometimes women’s organizations have had a bad reputation around the world, because there have been many small ones that haven’t been very successful. WMM is very different. We are not this organization that goes around screening ‘feminism’. Rather, we work really hard at what we do and hope people take notice of us because we are doing our work really well. I think one thing I can say, even being modest, is that we are considered to be one of the strongest educational distributors in North America. In fact, I think that there are women who come to us now, not because they are feminist at all, but because they think we are the best distributors. I am very proud of that, although I would prefer that women choose us as their distributor because they are a feminist and believe deeply in the work that we are doing.

More information on Women Make Movies can be found on: