NEW YORK — The offices of Zeitgeist Films in New York’s Chinatown district these days are echoing with an unaccustomed sound: the ka-ching of seven-figure box office grosses.
Since 1988, the distrib has been serving the arthouse niche with an eclectic slate of documentaries and features, introducing U.S. audiences to such cutting-edge filmmakers as Christopher Nolan, Todd Haynes, Atom Egoyan, Francois Ozon, Olivier Assayas, Guy Maddin and the Quay Brothers.
But while co-presidents Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo have long been poised for a Zeitgeist release to cross the $1 million mark, even they were not entirely prepared for the breakout success of “Nowhere in Africa.”
Now in its fifth month in release, the Oscar-winning German drama about a Jewish family’s exile to Kenya to escape Nazi persecution during WWII has earned $5.4 million to date, overtaking Miramax’s “City of God” as the year’s top-grossing foreign-language title.
“We knew ‘Nowhere in Africa’ was going to be bigger than the films we had handled before,” Russo tells Variety. “That was reflected in our offer and in everything we put into the marketing. But we had no idea it was going to succeed to the level it has. Watching it just climb and climb has been great.”
Zeitgeist’s previous successes, including Haynes’ “Poison,” German lesbian drama “Aimee & Jaguar” and the Noam Chomsky docu “Manufacturing Consent,” all stopped shy of $1 million, with an average P&A expenditure of $150,000-$250,000. The company’s confidence in “Africa” prompted a marketing outlay of $1 million.
“It’s not really a fluke, because we were ready for it,” Gerstman says.
Russo adds, “All that training for 15 years had to be for something.”
The most significant shift in Zeitgest’s history has been the expansion beyond its origins in U.S. indies and documentaries into foreign-language product.
“In those early years, we more or less had our pick of a lot of American independent films,” Gerstman says. “But the success of ‘sex, lies and videotape’ made it suddenly more difficult. This business is always very changeable. Right now is a very strong time for documentaries.”
“In the last few years, the competition has definitely increased for foreign-language films, which may be partly because the American independents have become a little less interesting,” Russo adds. “But there’s still a lot of good international product out there that doesn’t automatically find a home in the U.S.”
Zeitgeist’s first acquisition with the company’s new liquidity is Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s bittersweet contemporary fable “James’ Journey to Jerusalem,” picked up at Cannes, where it was one of the crowdpleasers of the Directors Fortnight. Two more acquisitions are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
Gerstman and Russo say that despite “Africa” making five times as much as Zeitgeist’s most successful titles, their acquisitions policy remains largely unchanged.
Perhaps a key difference is that, rather than watch its filmmakers move on to bigger distribs, Zeitgeist now will be in a position to keep some discoveries within the fold.
“We’re still very interested in identifying talent, and with this new money we’d like to be able to grow with the talent,” Gerstman explains. “We will be looking for bigger films, but they’ll still have to meet the same criteria of being movies we love and think we can sell.”