Conversation with Amy Heller and Dennis Doros from Milestone Films

We’re speaking to Amy Heller and Dennis Doros, guests of Fi:Re Film Restoration Summit in Warsaw, founders of Milestone Films, US distribution company doing archival restorations.

Could you tell us more about your company?

Amy: 27 years ago my husband and I got married, quit our jobs and started this company. It’s been bigger over the years but it’s a two person company. We’ve restored hundreds of films. We have a real passion for looking for films that have not really been in the canon so there were films by women, by African-American filmmakers, by voices that just haven’t been heard. So we try to introduce films that people haven’t chance to experience yet. It’s been a real privilege and it’s always interesting and challenging.

How did you find Fi:Re?

Amy: We were really excited to come here because we’ve been working with Elżbieta Wysocka at the Film Archive and Jędrzej Sabliński at DI Factory. We’ve distributed the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema around the US and then we also sold the Blu Rays so we’ve been working closely with them for years and it’s been such a joy to see the environment they work in.

Dennis: First I thought that Fi:Re was a big, warm hug. Everybody in Warsaw and everybody attached to the conference was extraordinary welcoming. And it’s interesting — because I know almost all the panelists, we’re friends – and yet I learned so much from them today that there’s so many new ideas, so many wide-ranging ideas in restoration. I’m impressed by what they said.

Could you please sum up your presentation at Fi:Re summit?

Amy: What we really wanted to do is to talk about how when you do a film restoration and introduce it to the world it has repercussions that go on and on and you can never anticipate. We really wanted to talk about how it effects history, culture, other filmmakers, artists and has a life of its’ own. And so when you make that restoration, you do the distribution you may not know what wonderful things may happen years down the road. So we always think about that when we start project that there’s a lot of unanticipated effect and change that will happen in the world. So it gives us a lot of hope to continue.

What impression about Polish situation did you get from the panelists?

Amy: From what we gathered, from what people were saying is that the archive situation still needs improvement in Poland. That’s not unique to Poland or to this particular archive but I hope they’ll be able to improve their facilities because the point that Thomas Christensen made about “if you do this now you save yourself a great expense and also you preserve the materials that you might lose”. I think it’s an important point. National film heritage is a treasure so I hope the archive is going be able to protect it and then continue to restore it in best possible circumstances.

Dennis: To hear them talk about digitizing 160 classics that will be accessible to the public is amazing — the money for digitization is far superior to what United States has. It’s an incredible project. At the same time money is needed to preserve the original materials because every 5 to 50 years you’re going to need to redigitize, to redo the films — and the original film has to be preserved first. And that means that the actual buildings, the infrastructure of preservation has to be considered first and foremost.

Amy: We’ve been working at Milestone for 27 years. We have several films that we’ve restored that we’ve had to go back and restore and remaster again many more that we need to go back and remaster because the truth is masters from the 1990ties are not good enough in this environment so it’s really crucial that we keep the original source materials in the very best possible condition.

What are the titles that you restored you are especially proud of?

Dennis: As a two person company we get to choose the films we restore. And because we’re going to be seeing them anywhere from ten to a hundred times (sometimes more), we really have to love the film first so when people say ‘Well of course you have to love the film because you distribute it” it’s the other way around. We just pick the films we really love. My very first restoration was an Erich von Stroheim directed film called “Queen Kelly” that starred Gloria Swanson; and 35 years later I’m going to be restoring it again. So I’m definitely getting old! But really the most important film I think we’ve ever distributed was Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep”. It opened people’s eyes to not only the life of African-Americans living in America, but also the brilliance of Charles Burnetts’ filmmaking, the real genius of it. People woke up to other ideas because of “Killer of Sheep”.

Share you view at distribution market in the US.

Amy: I first start working in distribution in 1985 so it’s hard to not compare to the past. The theatrical market and film society market has shrunk almost to nothingness but there are still few people hanging on, showing films and DCPs to the public. Increasingly we show films on Turner Classic Movies, we sell DVDs and Blu Rays and we do some streaming. It’s certainly shifted. One of the things that we’ve done to survive as a company is we tend to acquire world rights and we show our films increasingly more in Europe and around the world than we do in United States which is kind of sad but we just keep going and hope things will change.

How would you see the possibilities of Polish classics to be distributed in the USA?

Dennis: When we distributed Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema it was pretty astonishing because we were not aware of how popular they were going to be. They sold out in so many places. First there is a very large Polish American community in United States that misses home and they were looking for something of home and these movies represent such brilliant, beautiful filmmaking. The films themselves are so wonderful that it really was extraordinarily important for them. But there is also these young cinephiles, students who found Polish cinema to be exciting and vibrant and even they are 60 years old, they are just as vibrant today.

Can people like you count on any financial public support?

Amy: Some of the archives that we’ve worked with do have some support. The Library of Congress is supported by the United States. But generally there’s not a lot of federal money supporting these efforts. It’s hard to say what will happen going forward. The current US administration does not seem to have that much of a commitment to culture, arts, science, people. I’m sure it will impact some of the archives and it will certainly impact some of the exhibitors around the country that do get some federal money. Our work entirely has never been supported by the federal government. There’s been so little support for the arts for such a long time that I hope we’ll still manage to continue in whatever way we do.

Dennis: Milestone is a self-supported company based on the earnings we make on previous films to restore more films. We’re very lucky that Turner Classic Movies supports us and shows our films. We are lucky that Alexander Street Press is an educational site that has provided a platform to get our films out to colleges and high schools so we can make money to preserve the next films. And we’ve stayed small. We’ve worked at our house, we have stayed a two person company in order to acquire and distribute the films that we believe in and that we think are important; that no other distributor will acquire; that we think we can do best with. So we acquire films that we don’t expect to be “Wonder Woman” but we acquire films that we know are significant and can change discourse, they can change education, they can change ideas.

Counting just on the money from the distribution you probably need to be very careful.

Amy: Yes, we try to do things in a very careful way. When we work on a restoration, when we acquire a film or restore a film we try to have a budget that will realistically reflect what we can hope to make. Sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes we’re getting to cashflow situations but we’ve managed to keep going. And we work in our basement, we live in not a very large house in New Jersey and we work in our basement so that we can do the films we want to do.

What was your biggest distribution success?

Amy: We had two most successful films. One was the title that we did risk more money than we had previously was a film by Takeshi Kitano called “Fireworks” / “Hana-bi”. We thought that was a masterpiece and although it took a long time to make back the very large advance we did we were very proud to distribute it and it showed in hundreds of places around United States. So that was a success but I think at that moment we thought “We’ll have this big success, we’ll get to be a bigger company” I think we had that illusion. It wasn’t that kind of success. That was a success that allowed us to keep going.

Dennis: And the second film that was as profitable if not more was Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep”. We had acquired it from the director Charles Burnett and there was no money involved. Then we worked with UCLA to digitize the film and that wasn’t expensive. But the clearing of music rights was 150 000 dollars and then to release it. By the time we open the film we were 450 000 dollars in debt. And it took two years to get out of that but not only did it break even, but we’ve made a lot of money for Charles Burnett. Our director always gets half of whatever we make and it probably was the most successful film we had — and the third one was “I am Cuba”.

Amy: We can’t have too many complete failures in row then things get scary but we do it on a small basis. Now we have a catalogue, we’ve been doing this for so long. We have 150 films so there is a certain amount of income that just rolls in from that. So we’ve survived. And we didn’t do this to get rich, we’re not getting rich and it’s ok and we managed to put our kid to college without putting him into huge debt.

Dennis: In Milestone we’ve always figured we would go broke every third year and pretty frequently we were correct — but lately it hasn’t been so we’re very happy.

What’s the most important thing while working with the creators?

Dennis: Listening to them, seeing how they perceive the film, learning the history of it, seeing how they want it released, treating the director and the film with respect and promoting it to the best of our abilities are first and foremost. As a for-profit company we’re also supposed to make money for the directors and sometimes these royalty checks are the first they’ve ever seen from their films. That’s really often the case. But in terms of releasing, it is to really treat the films with respect. My favorite was hearing that Charles Burnett’s was unhappy with the fact that his films, he’s an African-American director, were showing in white theatres in very wealthy areas for the art crowd. That was okay but he also wanted to show it in community theatres where African-Americans could be affected and so the first thing we did was show “Killer of Sheep” in Harlem. Charles Burnett went to several screenings in black communities to present the film. He knew we had listened to him, that it wasn’t always we had to show it in the most glamorous theatres. He wanted this film originally to impact the communities he knew.

Amy: I think the other thing is just to be honest. When we acquire film we say “Look. This is who we are and what we think we can do with this film”. We don’t promise more than we think is reasonable. We talk about a timeframe that we hope will work and then we try to keep them up to date what’s happening. A lot of restorations and a lot of restoration releases go slow which in way is ok because you can go slow. It’s an old film. There’s very often not a deadline and so if you have to take more time you can. But for filmmakers that can be frustrating so it’s important to just say to them “Look, we hoped we were going do it to this date, but it’s going be six months later but this is why” and just keep them involved and we really do a lot of research on our films. You can look at our website. One of our press kits is 75 pages. Especially as we’ve gone on longer and we really have better ideas about what we’d want to read if we were reading this so we really try to show that kind of respect and attention to the film and the filmmaker and then usually they understand what we are trying and sometimes we make for them a lot of money, sometimes little money.

Dennis: Sometimes we lose a lot of money.

Amy: That happens too. And because we do restorations in number of films we’ve worked with, like silent films there’s nobody left but we always try to find someone. We did this 1916 film and Dennis found the great great-grandniece of Lois Weber, the woman director.

Dennis: And I found a painting by her great great-grandaunt that nobody knew existed. She has it now.

Amy: So we try to do it the best we can. The most respectful way we can. And we choose films that we really love so usually the filmmakers get that how excited we are about their films. We love their babies so they love that too.

The interview was made by Kalina Cybulska.