Strand prospers with high-risk ventures

Gambles pay off for Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans

Like many businesses, Strand Releasing began as a friends’ venture: A company (in this case, Vestron) goes belly-up, and two ex-employees decide it’s time to take their shot.

Unlike most businesses, Strand is still all about friends, sustained over 20 years through lasting relationships between principals Marcus Hu and Jon Garrans and an international contingent of indie cinema heavy-hitters, who recognize the Strand brand as a mark of quality.

As “Psycho Beach Party” helmer Robert Lee King puts it, “They are survivors. Just look at all the dead bodies piled up at the side of the road, some of them even from the majors…There’s a lot of loyalty and respect on their part from exhibitors and critics, in a very critic-driven niche of the business.”

Focus Features’ James Schamus, who produced his first film “The Golden Boat” for Strand, gives them high marks for “knowing where to put the resources that connect great film artists to the core film fans who keep this business going.”

Impact can be variously gauged, he believes. “If you think of the billions of dollars our industry turns over every year domestically, you wouldn’t find Strand with a very large percentage, though it’s not inconsiderable. But in terms of film culture, from critics to filmmakers and fans, they’re one of those building blocks. If you took out (their releases), the structure suddenly collapses.”

That 300-title library includes cutting-edge, international filmmakers — Fatih Akin, Francois Ozon and Apichatpong Weerasethakul rank among their proudest “gets” — as well as entries from the 1990s so-called Queer New Wave, though Hu insists, “I don’t think we ever thought of LGBT cinema as being the heart of our company. It’s about the film being a great movie first.”

Hu and Garrans’ brainchild happened to coincide with the late 1980s explosion of independent cinema in and around the Sundance Festival.

“There were these people with their little 16mm cameras making feature films out of film school,” Garrans remembers. “We were able to get our feet wet, meet these people and work these low, low budget films. It was this small community, where there weren’t too many options out there for distribution….sort of a labor of love, and what seemed to be a cool, hip thing to do.”

Hu happened upon a black and white feature made for $5,000 at USC by Gregg Araki.

“We were hanging out, and I went, ‘For $15K, could you do a color movie with real sync sound?’ ” Armed with film and equipment donated by Jon Jost, Hu “got $15K from my mom, and we made the movie on weekends.” The domestic gross of “The Living End” topped $1 million and, says Araki, “put me on the map.

“The independent film community in Los Angeles is so small that a lot of the filmmakers knew each other. Marcus met some through me or other connections. It’s kind of crazy to me that 20 years later they’re this mainstay, the premier distributors of cutting-edge cinema, because they started out as kind of an out-of-the-back-of their-car operation.”

While Strand has pulled back from production to protect its distribution arm (12 theatrical and 24 video releases annually), they are exec-producing King’s dark comedy “818” after having released his first short as well as his “Psycho Beach Party.” The helmer marvels at Strand’s fundamental — and rare — accounting honesty.

“Our deal called for a sharing of net profits. That there were any net profits to split at all was already world-shaking. And their costs reflected the actual costs, not an attempt to sap all the profits out. I’d put everything I had into that short, and to get anything back was a miracle.” (He still receives the occasional check to this day.)

Killer Films’ Christine Vachon, who met and began working with Marcus “a gazillion years ago,” credits Strand with stepping in to give “Party Monster” a theatrical release when pic was about to go straight to DVD. “We both benefited from it, and it wouldn’t have had a life without Strand.”

Pic’s co-director Fenton Bailey remains appreciative of the brand.

“They’re incredibly connected with the content and they know the content will connect with an audience. That’s just savvy. And they’re not afraid. I mean, to name your company after an adult porn theater (the Strand in San Francisco) takes a certain amount of balls. That lack of fear about what other people think gives them a tremendous advantage.”

“It’s easy to nobly fail at what Marcus and Jon do,” muses Schamus. “It’s not easy to succeed year after year, and without the umbrella of studio affiliation. How they do it is one of the great mysteries of this business.”

Araki believes it has to do with staying small, “a lean-‘n’-mean business model,” while Vachon says, “They’ve chosen the movies they distribute wisely, and they’re cheap.”

Everyone points to their passionate faith in the filmmakers they champion.

“We’re really proud of the films we’ve brought out that might otherwise not have seen the light of day,” says Hu. “I don’t know who would have taken a risk on the first Gaspar Noe film, or on Apichatpong.

Last year Strand picked up Terence Davies’ “Of Time and the City,” which Hu calls “very dark and personal, but such a beautiful film.”

Garrans reports, “(Davies) came up to Marcus in Toronto and said, ‘Why did you pick up this film?’ He was so grateful. ‘I really appreciate it so much, but you’re going to lose so much money.’

“And we did! But maybe some day down the road we’ll make it back.”

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