Why I Love My Job (most of the time) and How I Got Here (first published January 16, 2011)

Amy Heller in 1982?
When I was a mere youth, back in the 1970s (and early 1980s—I matured rather slowly), I struggled to imagine a career for myself. I had jobs, sure, but as much or as little as I liked them, I was always ready to move on after a while—often, a very short while.

Was I a prima donna? A slacker (long before the word was ever coined)? A snob? A baby? Probably.

I do remember that I consciously did not want to be a “hack”—which to me meant doing the same task over and over again. Or maybe I was just easily bored. But either way, I wandered away from good internships and jobs as soon as they started to seem repetitive.

I also wanted my work to be both meaningful to me and “good for the world.” Stints working for the book editor of a fashion magazine and at a publisher of teen romance novels left me with the feeling that the product of my labor was (at best) questionable. I had been a good student in college and I remembered my Marx: the worker under capitalism loses control of the product of his labor, of the work process itself and finally, of her own connection to humanity. I might be willing to punch a clock and wear pantyhose, but I cringed at the idea that my work was making other women feel fat or unloved (although I felt that way myself, a lot of the time). So on I went.

As a feminist, I believed that the personal was political. A temporary job (at, of all places, an antinuclear group’s fundraising campaign) brought home how important it was to work at a place where everyone is treated with respect. I was giddy with relief when that gig ended—and I remained friends with some of my (amazing) elderly volunteers for years.

Graduate school was (naturally) a more complicated series of lessons. I was challenged (scared witless, much of the time) and excited about what I was learning and writing. But I had the bad (or good, perhaps) luck of arriving at a university to study labor history in the midst of a very divisive and bitter strike. I walked picket lines and tangled (briefly and ineptly) with the administration. I also saw how grandiose and self-righteous students (like me), while meaning to do the right thing, could end up turning on one another. Later, I understood that my grad school experience had given me a valuable and cautionary taste of corporate America. When you work for a large corporation (like a university), you have very little power or control. I knew I didn’t want to be an itinerant teacher, hop scotching the country from one three-year teaching assignment to another. I wanted to go home, to New York City.

So I did. And I had the wonderful luck to fall into a job in film distribution. My colleagues were the best: smart, interested in everything and deeply engaged in their work. And the films were “products” that I could and did believe in. They combined art and politics and I felt happy to be part of the process that got them into theaters (this was before video, if you can believe it).

The pay was, well, meager. So I moved on to another fine film distributor and saw more life-altering films. I loved my coworkers and my customers. Conversations with film programmers across the country taught me about places I had never been, books I wanted read and music of all kinds. I am still friends with many of these folks, 25 years later. The job occasionally chafed (remember, prima donna…) but I worked at a small company and when I had a beef, I could take it to the boss. And I had some pretty great bosses.

Work did get a bit repetitive, of course. And I wished I had more say in what films were acquired and how they were marketed. Even at a small company, the division of labor could be inflexible. I thought about other careers, but I stayed in film. And eventually I met Dennis Doros, my now-husband and partner at—of course—a film party.

Dennis was also working for another small independent film distributor and had done terrific work putting together several film series and restoring two silent features. He had a project he was working on outside his day job—a series of adventure and exploration films from the early days of cinema. So I joined in. And after we married, first I, and then he, left our jobs to start Milestone. We were (relatively) young, quite naïve and we just plunged in. Somehow—I’m not quite sure how—we, and Milestone, survived.

So why—after more than twenty years—do I love my job? Well, first and above all, it is not boring. (At least most of the time—bookkeeping is predictably tedious.) Each film is a new project, a new start. Over the last twenty-plus years we have had occasion to do research on Antarctic exploration, Korean Zen Buddhism, Mary Pickford, the history of New York’s Bowery, Aboriginal bark painting, Native Americans in Los Angeles, Italian neorealism, life in occupied France, chess-playing automatons, the life and loves of Edna Saint Vincent Millay, Islamic religious schools in Bangladesh, Pablo Picasso and Luke the Wonder Dog—well, you get the idea.

Truth is, I suspect that we do more research than most distributors—certainly more than we absolutely need to. But from the start, we realized that while our P&A budgets were meager, we could make sure that the members of the press (and now, increasingly, the public) have all the information they need to give the film an informed viewing—and plenty of background to include in any reviews (or now, blog posts). And I have to admit that the research often becomes and remains a joy and a pursuit in itself. There may be somebusiness rationale for our ongoing interest in, say, the life and work of those intrepid filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Perhaps we will re-release their great documentaries Grass and Chang one of these days. But really, we love them and their stories and enjoy learning more about them, whenever we can.

Other reasons I like this job: although it took me years to get used to it, running Milestone means we can set our own schedules and priorities. This is really a tremendous luxury. When we first started, Dennis and I worked all the time. But after we became parents, we (and especially I) were able to hang out with our son as he went from infant to toddler to now, teenager. And last year when my dad was fighting his gallant battle against laryngeal cancer, I could be with him almost every day. Of course as small business owners we also work many nights and weekends (I’m writing this at 8:11 on a Saturday night, and I generally try to write in the evenings) but we choose.

Another huge perk: I get to work with Dennis. If you know him or have been reading his blogs, you will understand why I appreciate and enjoy this! And over the years we have worked with many great colleagues—full-time employees and interns. They have brought—and continue to bring—great energy, creativity, passion and talent to Milestone.

Finally, when we started Milestone, Dennis and I decided to release films that we love and believe in. And so we love and believe in the films we release. I think that our collection contains art, sanity, intelligence and humanity—and I hope it has a good effect on the world. I believe and hope it may.