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First Run/Icarus Rising: A Quarter-Century of Distribution

By Seth Magalaner

From Yannick Bellon and Chris Marker's <em>Remembrance of Things to Come</em>, distributed by First Run/lcarus Films, Photo courtesy of First Run/lcarus Films,

The year was 1978. The music was disco, the carpets were shag. Lycra was in fashion. Sony's Betamax technology was battling it out with an upstart videotape format called VHS. And Jonathan Miller and Ilan Ziv, two college friends from New York University, launched a modest film distribution enterprise called Icarus Films.

"I can't for the life of me think we knew what we were doing," says Miller today. "What we thought we were doing was getting interesting films that weren't being shown in the US and getting them out to people, finding audiences for them. We didn't have bigger plans or goals than that...we were young, and we didn't want real jobs."

Twenty-five years later, many would say Miller has a real job. He has guided Icarus from its modest beginnings to a position as one of the world's pre-eminent distributors of documentaries.

At its inception, Icarus Films was known for its films about the Middle East—Ziv had been an organizer of New York's Middle East Film Festival—which as it turned out, gave the company a timely boost. "In our first year," recalls Miller, "we were releasing several Iranian feature films, as well as a German film, The Temptation of Power (Gordon Troeller, Marie-Clause Deffarge), that was made in 1977 but predicted the Iranian revolution. So we had something to get started with." Co-founder Ziv departed in 1980 to return to filmmaking, and the company began to branch out into a broader range of subject areas, while developing a focus on provocative ideas and innovative aesthetic treatments.

In 1987 Icarus and independent distributor First Run Features combined their non-theatrical divisions: each company still exists as a separate corporation, but most of their films are now released under the joint banner of First Run/Icarus Films. With a catalogue of 875 titles on subjects ranging from AIDS to World War II, FRIF has compiled an impressive and enduring record of commercial success and creative respect. And unlike many businesses that succeed by mining a single niche, FRIF's history has been marked by an admirable growth and diversity that continues into its second quarter-century.

That's an achievement applauded by filmmakers like Lynne Sachs, whose Investigation of a Flame (2001) looks at the 1968 actions of the Catonsville Nine and explores issues of civil disobedience. "It's so important to have a clearinghouse for the kind of films we make, which are often very challenging, which provide ideas rather than information," she says. "Prior to there being a place like FRIF, notions around documentary were often an informational approach—like the kind of films you'd see on public television, as innocuous and 'objective' as possible. Jonathan and the people at FRIF embrace the idea that documentary can be subjective. They've taken a perspective on documentary that's allowed it to find its voice."

Certainly, well-known FRIF titles like The Trials of Henry Kissinger (Eugene Jarecki, Alex Gibney), El Salvador: Another Vietnam (Glenn Silber, Tete Vascincellos) and Human Weapon, Ziv's 2002 examination of suicide bombing, show a company willing to take on difficult topics from alternative points of view. But perhaps its most noteworthy accomplishment has been to remain economically viable with this kind of eclectic and eccentric inventory—especially in a period that has seen so much change in the documentary landscape.

The advent of video formats in the 1980s made it easier to distribute films and especially increased the range of non-theatrical outlets. Similarly, in the 1990s, the growth of the Internet opened up entirely new possibilities for marketing films and connecting with audiences. Both of these trends have helped fuel the "boom" in documentary filmmaking, but have also created a more crowded and complex marketplace.

"It's true that there are more outlets, and more demand, for docs than there used to be," says Miller. "It's also true that one result of that is producers have greater expectations regarding the commercial potential of their films. People are making films with those markets in mind, but there's also more competition for those markets. It can make it harder to fulfill those expectations. We're not Miramax."

Still, FRIF has managed to steer a course that's capitalized on the mainstream popularity of docs while using creativity and energy to find markets along the margins as well.

A film like the Academy Award-nominated War Photographer (Christian Frei's 2001 study of James Nachtwey) raises the company's profile among general audiences, but Drowning By Bullets (Philip Brooks, Alan Hayling)—about the killing of several hundred Algerians during a police massacre in Paris in 1961—may be a more typical example of a film that FRIF champions.

"This wouldn't be a big general interest film," Miller observes. "But since the '80s, people are using more media more often, and so there are more people who will seek out such films as a specialized audience. Our job has become more complex and interesting—we have to think more strategically about outlets and marketing, and do more things more ways more often. That's a good thing."

This summer FRIF presented a 25th anniversary retrospective at New York's Anthology Film Archives, which provided a perfect opportunity for its founder to ponder the accomplishments of a quarter century. "It was interesting for me to see that our collection has become both broad and deep," Miller muses, "and to see that there's a relation of films we did 20 years ago to our films of today. I see a connection and consistency in what we've done."

Breadth, depth, connection, and consistency—a good recipe for longevity.


Seth Magalaner is a television producer living in Seattle.