Shadow Distribution: Reel Deals
by Michelle Troutman
"I got very excited by film when I was at Colby," says Shadow Distribution President and co-founder Ken Eisen. The New York native graduated from Colby College in 1973 with a Bachelor's degree in English. While there, he nurtured his passion for movies, having been part of a film appreciation society known as Film Direction.
Following graduation, Eisen spent a year and a half in Washington, D.C. working as a theater manager, and watched as many films as he could there, at the American Film Institute, and at other venues.
After returning to Waterville, together with four friends and local film buffs -- Gail Chase, Lea Girardin, Alan Sanborn, and Stu Silverstein -- in 1978 they opened Railroad Square Cinema, originally as a repertory movie theater. Eisen is currently theater programmer.
Eisen and Girardin established Shadow Distribution in 1986 as a way to market unusual, specialized films to a wider audience. The first film Shadow distributed was the Canadian documentary Waterwalker, featuring canoer and painter Bill Mason's canoing travels through the Canadian wilderness.
That was pretty much their only film until 1994, the year Eisen considers Shadow stepped into the spotlight. "We raised some capital to do that with, and my wife Beth and I were able to find Latcho Drom (pronounced "drome") as a good project for this revitalized company to take on."
Directed by Tony Gatlif, Latcho Drom ("Safe Journey" in Romanian) features the gypsies of several countries, including India, Spain, France, and Romania, and their music and dance.
"Latcho really put us on the map. It was a big success," says Eisen. "It established us as a legitimate company, and a force in the world of specialized film exhibition, and essentially, I think, we have been ever since."
Shadow releases an average of three to four films a year. The documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill has been their most profitable film, having grossed over $3 million. "We had sixty-seven 35 millimeter prints circulating in theaters throughout the country constantly for a period of over half a year, and it's been a huge success subsequently on home video or DVD."
Shadow negotiates for film rights, and then publicizes the films by contacting theaters to see if they're interested in showing them. This also involves making posters and short promotional videos, also known as trailers. Part of this process includes watching a lot of films; Eisen estimates he sees over 1,000 films annually. He also travels to film festivals.
They decide which movies to distribute based on the films they like and whether they think they are marketable. "You can love a film, but if you think that you can't make it work, then it's not a great idea to do it. But, we've done it anyway, and made it work. Even films that have made a lot of money; if your heart isn't into getting it out there, it's probably not a good idea to try."
Another byproduct of Eisen's passion for film is his involvement as co-founder and head programmer of the Maine International Film Festival (MIFF). (Waterville Main Street Executive Director Shannon Haines is also Festival Director.)
Eisen sees the film festival as an opportunity to show films people wouldn't otherwise have a chance to see, and a way to bring together filmmakers and audiences so they can share the excitement and creation of films, and experience them and discuss them.
"A festival environment is different than a 'Oh, let's go see a movie after dinner' kind of environment that you get for a regular movie, and people will usually choose a movie based on 'Oh, well, I've heard about that, and that sounds like it might be fun.'"
The MIFF is hosted in Waterville every July, and runs for 10 days. Every year the MIFF presents a Mid-Life Achievement Award to an actor, actress, or filmmaker. Among past recipients are Ed Harris (2004), Sissy Spacek (2001), John Turturro (2008), Peter Fonda (2003), and director Arthur Penn (2009).
"We feel very fortunate, and privileged to have them come here, and share some of their time with us, and their audiences."
English actor Malcolm McDowell, best known for his role as Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange (1971), was honored with the 2011 Mid-Life Achievement Award in a ceremony at Colby College's Given Auditorium on Saturday, July 16th. O Lucky Man (1973), was shown at the ceremony, and during the festival, A Clockwork Orange and other films starring McDowell have also been shown, including Never Apologize (2007), and Assassin of the Tsar (1991).
"We think he's had kind of an amazing career. Most people know him first and foremost from A Clockwork Orange, and that's a very iconic role -- there's no other word for it. But around the same time as that, he made several other truly remarkable films that have become a little less known to people over the course of years, including O Lucky Man, and a film called If... Most people today aren't familiar with them."
Eisen's favorite part of the MIFF is the retrospective section. "It's become an increasingly important part of the festival, and it certainly is to me. We're able to bring in newly restored versions, often, of just absolutely great old films."
Among the other restored films included in the MIFF 2011 program are Taxi Driver (1976) starring Robert DeNiro, the Glenn Ford western 3:10 to Yuma (1957), and Eisen's favorite film, the Bernardo Bertolucci directed The Conformist (1970). "It's the film that I flipped out about the most when I was at an impressionable age, I guess, when I was in college."
Eisen's other work has involved writing for various film publications; he was film reviewer for The Maine Times, before it stopped publication. He teaches film at Colby College in January, and the University of Maine at Augusta, both fall and spring semesters.
"There are huge economic challenges, and aesthetic challenges, as well, in dealing with films that are not conventional, that go other places that other films don't go, and make people feel and think about things that they haven't felt or thought about before. That's the function of art, and that's what these films mostly are."
Despite those challenges, Eisen believes, "It's very exciting to be able to bring a film that you care about deeply to people across the country."
"Maybe because we're involved in Railroad Square, and with the film festival, we're a little closer to the ground, than some people are who only sit in an office in New York or L.A. I like to think that has something to do with our success."
Shadow Distribution's offices are at 76 Main St.: 207-872-5111. www.shadowdistribution.com. The 2011 Maine International Film Festival runs from July 15 to July 24, with movies shown at Railroad Square Cinema, and at Given Auditorium at Colby College in Waterville. www.miff.org.
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