Once in a Lifetime!
Thank you to the Art House Convergence, Spotlight Cinema Network, and all of you here for this really incredible honor. I use that word, because I still can’t quite believe it. It has taken me weeks to come up with this short speech — I hope my words convey how much this means to me.
Back in 1985, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was a runaway grad student newly returned to New York City with absolutely no idea what to do next. A former boss sent me on to First Run Features where I began as an unpaid intern and met my first mentor in film, the amazing Nancy Gerstman, who remains my very dear friend. As Nancy’s assistant, I got all the glamorous jobs, like making cold calls (John Toner, I think you were my second ever call) and phoning for grosses. This was a simpler time, when there were no cell phones, no fax machines, no Internet… so if you wanted the box office numbers, you called. And the film I was phoning about, Michael Apted’s 28 Up was then screening all across the country — in 16mm only!
The thing is, I actually loved making those calls. I had previously worked in publishing, volunteered for progressive causes, and studied history, but while I was making those calls for grosses to exhibitors like Jim Emerson at the Market Street Theater, Anita Monga at Renaissance Rialto, Richard Herskowitz at Cornell Cinema, and Gary Kaboly at Pittsburgh Filmmakers I found my tribe, my community, you.The next year, 1986, I moved on to New Yorker Films where I first worked as assistant to Dan Talbot and Jose Lopez. Here again, I was so lucky to be learning from some of wisest and kindest people in this business. Part of my job was coordinating with the managers of the Metro, Cinema Studio, and Lincoln Plaza Theaters, so I also got the opportunity to be part of the day-to-day work of exhibition. Later I moved over to work as a nontheatrical booker at New Yorker, where my customers and friends included Brent Kliewer in Santa Fe, Hart Wegner at UNLV, Eleanor Nichols in Sonoma, California, Dan Ladely in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Ann Brandman at the Honolulu Museum of Art. I am grateful to them all, and to so many more.
Since then, my list of film friends and teachers has grown to include fellow distributors Wendy Lidell, Adam Yauch, Jeff Massino, Emily Russo, Dan Berger, and Dennis’s wonderful mentor, Don Krim. I have also had the privilege of working with so many great exhibitors, including Bruce Goldstein (the first programmer to book a Milestone series) and Karen Cooper at Film Forum, Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery, Connie White, Richard Peña, John Ewing in Cleveland, Toby Leonard and Stephanie Silverman at the Belcourt, Carol Johnson and her great team at the Amherst Cinema, Rachel Jacobson, Harris Dew and John Vanco at the IFC Center, Florence Almozini and Dennis Lim at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Dave Filipi at the Wexner. I promised a short speech, or I could definitely go on and on…
My film community has also grown to include archivists, scholars, filmmakers, and journalists from around the world. I am grateful to David Bordwell, Ian Christie, Jean Jacques Varret, Christophe Terhechte, Jedrzej Sablinski, Margaret Bodde, Ronald Gray, Dan Streible, Ally Field, Richard Koszarski, Charles Burnett, Philip Haas, John Canemaker, Eleanor Antin, Ava Du Vernay, Richard Brody, Bill Gosden, and Billy Woodberry. Former colleagues and interns including Cindi Rowell, Fumiko Takagi, Michael Bellavia, Isabel Cadalso, Megan Powers, Zach Zahos, Anke Mebold, Peter Miele, Nadja Tennstedt, Maia Krivoruk, Lauren Caddick, Adrian and Dylan Rothschild, Sarah Lipkin, Victor Vazquez, Austin Renna, Vincent Mollica, Angeli Reyes and my favorite, Adam Doros, are still members of our extended film family. And I would like to also thank my parents, who would have loved this, my beloved sister Karen Key, and my guys, Dennis and Adam. Friends like these at once make life bigger and more interesting and make the world smaller and kinder. I am incredibly grateful to them all.
Which brings me to this room and why we are all here today. Despite storms and delays, we all made our way here to Midway, Utah. Why? To be a community and to celebrate and strengthen the ties that make this community strong. And we schlepped here even though in 2019 there are so many other ways we could communicate. So why aren’t we all home now, tapping away at SnapChat, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, LinkedIn, Signal, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit, or even just texting or emailing?
The answer is the same reason that we all work to get people into movie theaters. Because all these media absolutely pale compared to the power of actually being in the presence of another person and sharing space and experiences with them. However convenient it may be to post a birthday greeting on a friend’s wall, it can never be as meaningful as a phone rendition of Happy Birthday (in my case, off-key) or actually sharing a celebratory dinner (with cake and candles).
Looking back on my decades in film, I have a few thoughts I’d like to share.
First, for me, networking is okay but collegiality is better and friendship is much better still. Over the years, I’ve been able to work with so many people I esteem and love — and it has been a privilege and a joy.
Second, all camaraderie requires intimacy which requires contact. Honestly, I miss the days of talking at length with my exhibitors. I just haven’t found that texts and short emails generally lead to new friendships. I became friends with many of my customers because we talked on the phone for hours and got to know one another. I knew if they were fans of Abba, or were recovering from shingles, or once lived in Elmira, NY, or had twelve-year-old twins — and they knew about my life too. I met other film friends in person, here at the AHC, at film festivals, and at conferences of the Association of Moving Image Archivists.
Third, I have become very wary of social media. I think it is so easy to get lulled into confusing social media interactions for real human connection. Also, we need to keep in mind that these are for-profit businesses run by huge corporations for the purpose of aggregating data — our data. And we know that they have repeatedly misused that private information to the detriment of individuals and to democracy. And I worry about the ability of hackers and bots to manipulate social media to polarize and alienate us from one another. I think we have all seen that happen.
Finally, looking forward, I really want to keep growing my worldwide film family! Cinema is a universal art form that embraces everything — literature, theater, dance, photography, comedy, animation, history, mythology, science, music — and my cinephile community is international, diverse, challenging, funny, crazy, thought-provoking, and the just, the best.
One of our international cinephile friends is Yvonne Ng, who serves with Dennis on the AMIA board, lives in Prague, and works for Witness, a great nonprofit organization that uses audiovisual technology to support civic participation and human rights around the world. We are immensely grateful to the wonderful team at the Spotlight Cinema Network for donating $2500 to Witness as part of our Lifetime Award. This donation will help Witness’s programs to create and archive evidence of military actions in Syria, to teach young people of color in Brazil how to document police violence, and to monitor the abuse of immigrants in the United States. We love that Witness is employing same technology that brings feature films to our screens to make the world safer and more just. The work that Witness does is incredibly tough and we hope that members of the Art House Convergence will check them out and support them.
[This section I managed to omit... I dropped my papers and got flustered...] And to close, let me say how much I love and respect the work that you all do, every day, in the real world, to bring people from different backgrounds and experiences together to share a passion, a movie theater, and maybe some popcorn. That’s not just building diversity, that is creating community.
We’ve written these speeches separately, so please forgive me if there’s some repetition. Just assume you’re watching a Christopher Nolan film.
Thank you to Alison, Ronnie, the Spotlight and Conference Leadership, and all of you for this wonderful award. Now, one doesn’t get too many lifetime achievement awards in ones… well, life. It sort of says it in its name. This honor really took us completely by surprise. And like most every one of my age, I completely forgot how damned old I’ve become.
There is something uncomfortable that I want to reveal publicly for the first time – because I think it is more valuable to discuss the struggles and the people who helped -- than to talk about any achievements. And there’s a specific reason why I’m telling you because it has to do with cinema… The fact is that I was a child of abuse. It was a life of frequently harsh, violent physical punishment and equally harsh criticism. For most of my young life, my self-esteem was zero – something I still struggle with even standing here today. My childhood terrors were a struggle that I hid from my teachers, my classmates, and my friends. I barely hung in there in high school, and by college, my life was slipping away from me. My college friends had no idea, but I was broken in so many ways.
Dennis: 1975 in Florida
Then it happened… at the advanced age of 21. One day, by complete accident, I was chosen for no real reason other than I could operate a video camera, to be the president of Ohio University’s Athens Film Society -- exactly forty years ago this year. My fortunes and my life completely changed for the better. It was instant karma in the form of 16mm celluloid. I found an art form that I loved above all the others, I found a career that has rewarded me time and time again – especially tonight – and I found my beloved wife and partner Amy and gave birth to Milestone, and even more important our son Adam, the joy of our lives. They, above all else, are why I’m here today
From day one in cinema, I also found surrogate fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers -- lifelong friends that I tend to call my cinematic family – that have helped me along the way. And they are from all phases of the industry, so please bear with me for a few seconds when I name a few of them. From the beginning, there was Dean Henry Lin at Ohio U and my first film boss Giulio Scalinger, followed by the animators Grant Munro and John Canemaker, the archivists Kevin Brownlow, Ross Lipman, and James Card, programmers like Anita Monga, John Ewing, Connie White, and Kyoko Hirano. The filmmakers Tony Buba (my personal favorite), Charles Burnett, Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Jonathan Demme, Michael Powell, Bill Greaves, and Manny Kirshheimer. The media librarians Bill Sloan, Lillian Katz and Joe Yranski. The distributors Lee Krugman, Ian Christie, and the ever-wonderful Nancy Gerstman. Then there are the film critics like Scott Eyman, Ann Hornaday, Melissa Anderson, Manohla Dargis, Richard Brody, and Dave Kehr. There are also the lab people like Janice Allen, Russ Sunewick and Jack Rizzo. There’s Turner Classic Movies’ Charlie Tabesh. I know… he’s television… but he’s our brother-in-cinema and Milestone owes its continued existence to him. Then there are all my friends at the Eye Filmmuseum and my two closest cinematic sisters, Wendy Clarke – that’s Shirley’s daughter -- and Letizia Gatti of Reading Bloom, she’s our Italian side of the Milestone family.
And lastly, there’s Laura Rooney and the entire membership of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Amazing people who I have loved and cherished these past twenty-two years and I’m lucky now to be in a position as President that I am able to serve them. They are the thousand people all over the world working without fanfare to preserve our moving image history.
And of course, many of you here In this room, I consider to be my cinematic family. And just to explain, I started to write this speech in the Netherlands after three glasses of wine, and I was shall we say… a little drunk, overly sentimental, and immensely nostalgic. And outside of the drinking which in retrospect probably would have helped get me through this speech, I’m about to get a little of all that once again.
My fellow old-timers probably noticed by now that I haven’t thanked somebody I worked for seven years — and are probably getting a little pissed that I’ve forgotten him. And many have, but I never will. Donald Krim has been left out of film history by too many. He was too self-deprecating, too sincere, and too honest to have books, articles, and theses written about him. So let’s flash back to 1983. It’s a long story but I hope you will be repaid in the end by listening to it.
I finally left Ohio University having been president of the film society and programmed their terrific Athens International film festival. I was in hell for two years working for the family business – selling Marlboros, Virginia Slims, Eve 120s and Newports in Irvington, New Jersey for a living.
So! In desperation and with fingers crossed and with lots of prayers, I sent out about 200 letters to just about everybody in the BoxOffice Distributors list of 1983 along with my resume and Giulio’s reference letter. Over the next few weeks, I got 176 rejection letters – I still have them all -- and two film production companies who wanted me to launder money out of Greece -- well they both assumed with my last name being Doros and coming from Athens (they skipped over the Ohio part) that I must be Greek… and since I was looking for I job in film, that I must be dishonest… I mean can you imagine telling somebody in the job interview that you’re hiring them to commit international money laundering?
Anyway, months after I had given up and resigned to my fate of smelling like tobacco for the rest of my life, I got a letter late in December 1983 starting off “pertaining to your letter of May 5th.” Don, I have to say, kind of worked methodically. It seemed his last nontheatrical salesman had to be fired for dishonesty – taking imaginary bookings but shipping real 16mm and 35mm prints to unsuspecting exhibitors. As you can imagine, that did NOT go over well with the theaters…
As shy as I was, he saw something in me. I was hired and a couple of weeks later, I had my own office on West 57th Street. It was a tiny company then -- Don’s wife Susan Krim and Paula Pevzner were the other two people there and I am still tremendously in their debt as well.
I should mention that when I joined Kino, my father stopped talking to me for a year. I had left Star Tobacco and went into the film world. I had truly disgraced the family. But Don’s kindness, his willingness to teach me the ropes, his taking me into his confidence about the business, and especially our lunches and walks together where he’d tell me the history of indie cinema in New York and the characters he knew are memories I hold dear. Even his criticisms when I didn’t live up to what he thought I was capable of were kindly. I can’t begin to tell you how much he meant to me. In the emotional vacuum that was my prior life, he became my substitute father, my mentor, and my lifelong inspiration.
So! How did I become a distributor and a film archivist? During my first year there, Don acquired two silent films from the Gloria Swanson estate, Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly and Raoul Walsh’s Sadie Thompson. Von Stroheim’s film had been completed in haste by others less talented than him after he was fired, and Walsh’s masterpiece was missing its last reel. Don thought of bringing them out as historical oddities with an explanation at the beginning and end of the film. I asked if he thought of restoring them as close as you could using stills and scripts. I was inspired by Bob Gitt’s work on Lost Horizon done a few years before.
Now, this is commonplace these days where there are so many outlets for silent films, but this was absolutely unheard of in 1984. I should mention that Kino was always in debt. Kino was threatened almost monthly by the man Don bought the business from – and who was still owed a lot of money. Don and Susan were working nights and weekends trying to figure out how to keep the company alive. Besides that, only the well-respected Kevin Brownlow and David Gill were restoring silent films with the kind of budget I proposed, and they had Thames Television corporate money to back them. I mean, I was asking Don to spend a boatload of money on the idea that a 26-year-old kid with less than a year’s professional experience could pull this off. All Don asked was, “Do you think you can do it?” And, let me say here, I completely lied. I definitely didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I said, of course, I could. And he trusted me.
Oh my god, That was when I discovered film restoration. As broken as I had been as a teenager, the art of putting something together again, to fix it and make it whole, to make it look new again, was a revelation. I’ve never discussed this before and perhaps I didn’t even realize it until I wrote this speech. But I suspect I’m not alone in this feeling of film restoration as rejuvenation of one’s own soul.
For the next two years, I was working at Kino every day in the city. And every night and on weekends, I would take the bus an hour ride home, then drive up an hour to Janice Allen’s lab in Park Ridge, New Jersey so I could work on these two films late into the early morning hours. Janice, by the way, taught me everything I needed to know. I was living on coffee, fast food, and doughnuts that I’d pick up on the New Jersey Parkway. And every morning, I’d arrive at Kino before anyone else and Don and I would go over what I did the night before. We also talked about what I was going to do, and he helped with possible ideas and on writing the new intertitles we needed. We sweated daily to make them better. As I recall, the intertitle “A Serenade” took two weeks before we finally came up with it.
Don was there to hold my hand when I needed it. All together, it cost a lot of money to restore these two films, most likely money he had to borrow. Don never mentioned it, so I never had to think about it. Hell, I was probably too young and too self-involved to care. When by some miracle the first one neared completion, Queen Kelly was to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and to follow was a huge opening in Los Angeles. There was a lot of excitement about the film and It looked like it was going to be a tremendous success. Don told me that I was to be credited as the archivist. I suggested that Don also would take a restoration credit. He said, no thanks, the Kino International logo was all he needed. That was his. And that was Don.
Now for my inspirational part of my part of the speech and the reason I told this long story. It’s the secret why Milestone, run by two short but adorable Jewish people out of their home in New Jersey is 29-years-old and has outlasted a lot of bigger companies. No matter how broke we were, we took some really big risks on films that really mattered to us. That could make lives better just by watching them. We went for the home runs because no one remembers the singles the next day. Our films may seem like obvious choices now, but I promise you that everybody thought we were crazy to spend $450,000 to release a film shot in 16mm about an African American working at a slaughterhouse in Watts — or to risk all our savings on a 141-minute 1964 propaganda film celebrating the Cuban revolution — or taking ten years to restore the films of the uncommercial and forgotten Shirley Clarke. We took these risks because we believed in the power of cinema, in the films themselves… and we believed in all of you.
Our secret was to build our company taking risks — to be honest, the more degree of difficulty the better… because it’s not just about today, it’s about building something of value to last for generations. Don taught us this.
So! let’s say down the road, you distributors and exhibitors alike, finding that you need to take a big risk on something really wonderful and worth fighting for … I want you to remember Don Krim. By the way, Queen Kelly netted over half a million dollars and played in over forty countries. Don took great risks not only on films and directors but also on a person that 176 other companies wouldn’t hire -- and here I am today with my lovely wife and this rather nifty award. This year, Amy and I are going to restore Queen Kelly and Sadie Thompson once again, this time in Don’s honor. This time, his name will appear in the final credits.
So in conclusion, when you hear me say — and I do so frequently — that I believe in the power of cinema to change lives, well, here I am.
Now, I’ll dry my tears over lost friends and I’ll get that drink with my amazing partner and wife, and here will be my toast, “Here is to all of you.” Thank you.