April 20, 2018

Happy 40th Cinema Guild

The venerable film distributor sets the scene for a seamless splice into the digital age

On May 10, 1968, the Cannes Film Festival shuddered to a stop when filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut rushed the stage at the Palais des Festivals to protest French New Waver Henri Langlois’s removal from his post as president of the National Cinémathèque Française. Also that month, in that same spirit of film lovers’ activism, television documentary producers and spouses Philip and Mary-Ann Hobel founded and self-financed the nonprofit Cinema Guild. The couple had initially intended Cinema Guild to be a conduit through which to distribute documentaries they’d themselves seen through every stage of production: e.g., the ten-part series The Fabulous Sixties and The Sensational Seventies. But what began as a handful of collaboratively produced titles grew, by the late 1970s, to a library of 300 titles from a number of sources. With the couple’s venture into rights acquisitions in the early 1980s (following their Oscar win for Tender Mercies) and their launch of a theatrical division in the late 1990s, the collection has today grown to 1000-plus titles strong, with 30–50 new films added annually.

In its 40 years, Cinema Guild has trained its klieg lights on various injustices and realities of the national and international stage, from the perils of illegal immigration (Crossing Arizona) to child labor in the developing world (Journey of a Red Fridge). With the theatrical division becoming the company’s focus in 2002—enter director of distribution Ryan Krivoshey—the spotlight has shone directly back in the form of multiple recent nods from the academy for Cinema Guild–produced films. This year, following a 2007 Oscar win for Ruby Yang’s The Blood of Yingzou District, James Longley’s Sari’s Mother was nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject. Also, Laura Dunn’s The Unforeseen, Margaret Brown’s The Order of Myths, and Ellen Kuras’s The Betrayal have all qualified for and will all be competing in the Best Documentary Feature category.

That irresistible, magical pull

It might be no surprise, then, to learn that Philip comes from a long line of film insiders—some of whom, he says, “owned parts of MGM”—and that he grew up amid movies and movie stars. Yet that’s exactly what compelled him, after a stint as a naval officer, into the furniture-selling business. Still, Philip found himself returning to the world of film, a medium he says “incorporates all the elements—picture, sound, language, story—to deliver your message.”

Film was Mary-Ann’s calling, too. Before cofounding Cinema Guild, she worked for several years as a physics and math teacher. But it was another memory of time spent in the classroom that accounts for what she calls her “lifelong love affair with film.” Mary-Ann remembers her first-grade teacher leading the class to the assembly room every Friday to watch action-adventure pictures with cliffhanger endings, and she recalls how impossibly long the weeks between each episode seemed, until she could again “enter that fantasy land.” Even as she pursued physics and math in college, film beckoned, and she eventually left academia for the Cinema Guild, happily finding through it “the opportunity to use all the skills I had acquired and the challenge to learn so much more.”

Zooming in on the library market

Krivoshey estimates that, today, nearly every public library in the United States owns at least one Cinema Guild title (costs run from $99–$395, including public performance rights). Much of this market penetration can be credited to Mary-Ann, whose work as a teacher made her recognize the value of the library and academic markets from the outset. Today, Cinema Guild’s library marketing initiatives continue in the form of promotional mailings and email blasts to a core group of library customers as well as ongoing networking at crossover industry events (to add your library to the mailing list, 800-723-5522). Recently, Krivoshey says, librarians have expressed considerable interest in educational films on China, the Middle East, immigration issues, labor studies, and the environment.

Fading in to digital

While all of Cinema Guild’s titles are still available on VHS, the format accounts for less than one percent of its sales. DVDs are the company’s bread and butter, and Krivoshey reports that a small percentage of libraries now purchase digital rights to nontheatrical DVDs, a number he expects to grow over time as he works to keep the additional charge for digital rights “reasonable and affordable.” In the next couple of years, he predicts, the company will start distributing films through its own online digital platform as well as offer sample clips on its web site. Even the stack of 8mm reels in Philip’s office, documentaries on everything from teen education to world hunger, will be available by the fall both on DVD and digitally.

For all of these strides, however, the film industry is still in an experimental stage when it comes to digital rights, which Krivoshey describes as a kind of “Wild West…we’re still feeling our way through, with no set pricing structure, no standard.” Whichever way the West is won, Krivoshey is confident that librarians’ ride into the digital frontier will be a smooth one. Though the library and academic markets took longer than the commercial market to adapt to the VHS-to-DVD transition, he says, “they’ve interestingly adapted quicker than anyone to the move from DVD to digital.”

Cinema Guild’s next theatrical release, The Order of Myths, which offers an intimate consideration of race relations in America, will be available to schools and libraries in September.


Cinema Guild Top Five

The distributor’s best-selling films for the first half of 2008:

  1. Crossing Arizona. color. 75/55 min. versions available. Directed by Joseph Mathew & Daniel DeVivo. 2006. DVD/VHS $350. Closed-captioned version available.
    An “intelligent and technically superior” (LJ 2/15/07) look at immigration; official selection of the Sundance Film Festival, 2006.
  2. Miss Navajo. color. 60 min. Directed by Billy Luther. 2007. DVD/VHS $295.
    Follows female contestants competing in a Navajo Nation beauty pageant; official selection of the Sundance Film Festival, 2007.
  3. The Blood of Yingzhou District. color. 40 min. Directed by Ruby Yang, produced by Thomas Lennon. 2006. DVD/VHS $295.
    Exposes the extent of the AIDS epidemic in China; 2007 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Short Subject.
  4. Never Perfect. color. 65 min. Directed by Regina Park. 2007. DVD/VHS $350.
    Examines the rise in popularity of cosmetic surgery among Asian American women; winner, Houston WorldFest International Film Festival, 2007.
  5. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle. color. 116 min. Directed by Ray Telles & Rick Tejada-Flores. 1996. DVD/VHS $250. Closed-captioned version available.
    The story of Cesar Chavez, the charismatic founder of the United Farmworkers Union, and the movement he inspired. (LJ 8/97)