Sandra Schulberg, a long-time activist on behalf of filmmakers working outside the Hollywood studios, founded the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) in 1979, and one year later co-founded the independent distribution company First Run Features. In 2008, she launched IndieCollect, a national campaign to save indie films from extinction. She also serves on the advisory committee of the Women’s Film Preservation Fund, established by New Women in Film & Television New York. Alongside her advocacy and film restoration, Schulberg has been a working producer, with three of her films premiering at the Berlinale: “Beth B’s Exposed” (Panorama, 2013), Philip Kaufman’s Oscar-nominated “Quills” (Competition, 2000) and John Hanson’s “Wildrose” (Panorama, 1984). In 2004, the Berlinale also premiered her special series “Selling Democracy: Films of the Marshall Plan,” curated with Dr. Rainer Rother. In 2010, the Berlinale unveiled her restoration of “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (1948/2009),” which documents the first Nuremberg Trial and was directed by her father, Stuart Schulberg. It was screened in the Berlinale Special program. In 2019, Sandra Schulberg was recognized by the Berlinale for her 40 years of service to the field with a Berlinale Camera Award.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
First of all, congratulations on the Berlinale Camera, which comes on the heels of the Honorary Gotham Award. How do you feel about awards?
Sandra Schulberg: Accolades from one’s peers are to be cherished, so I am extremely grateful to the IFP for the Gotham Award presented to me in September 2018 at the launch of IFP’s 40th Anniversary Year. The Berlinale Kamera Award touches me deeply because I so admire the historical perspective and political commitment of Festival Director Dieter Kosslick. These awards are mainly valuable because they allow me to spotlight the crisis I am now trying to solve – the threat to the survival of American Independent Cinema. The underlying film, sound and/or digital masters will disappear unless we take immediate action.
The idea that preceded the creation of the IFP came from you visiting the International Film Festival Rotterdam and is based on your plan to focus on hype and publicity first, then exhibition by motivating exhibitors to show American indie films and engaging audiences, the distribution and finally the production of American independent films. Can you talk about those days, this method and the founding of the IFP?
S.S.: My founding of the IFP was inspired by a confluence of experiences and influences. In Rotterdam in 1977, I met leaders of the New German Cinema, especially Laurens Straub, general manager of the Filmverlag der Autoren, as well as Wim Wenders, Hark Boehm, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Margareta von Trotta, Volker Schlondorff. The Filmverlag – the “filmmakers’ distribution company” – was an innovation. But there were also U.S. models – New Day Films, another filmmakers’ cooperative; and Cine Manifest, a Marxist film collective that went on to produce Northern Lights. As story editor for the PBS “Visions” series, I had helped some of our American independents make their first movies – Nell Cox, Richard Pearce, Robert Young – so I knew the obstacles to getting their films into American theaters.
When we won the Cannes Film Festival Camera d’Or in 1978 for Alambrista by Robert Young and in 1979 for Northern Lights by John Hanson & Rob Nilsson, I sold both those films around the world; yet we could not get them released in the U.S. unless we did it ourselves. By that time, a few others had gone directly to theater owners – the Mariposa film collective with Word is Out, Tom Laughlin & Delores Taylor with Billy Jack, Jerry Struck with I.F. Stone’s Weekly, and Jill Godmilow with Antonia – and I decided we all needed to share this information and figure out how to do self-distribution.
By the summer of 1978, I had already raised the first grants to start the IFP and I opened our first New York office in January 1979. Nine months later, we gave birth to our first babies: the “American Independents” sidebar to the 1979 New York Film Festival, the first IFP Market (IFFM), and the first conference of American independent feature film directors. About a hundred independent feature filmmakers were invited to the conference – just about everyone who had made a feature by that time or had one in progress. The response allowed us to turn the organization I had founded into a bona fide grassroots movement.
This visionary initiative from the late ‘70s embodies the essence of the independent filmmaker, like Joana Vicente would say: “get up every day to create, find your way around the gatekeepers, make movies that matter and have them seen – any way you can.” Can you comment on that?
S.S.: I certainly agree with Joana Vicente’s statement. She did a wonderful job of running the IFP from 2012 to 2018. But I would go further. When I founded the IFP, we were not just interested in scraping together the money to make our next feature film; we wanted to make revolutionary structural changes in the film industry. We wanted to create a viable alternative film economy. Today, you would call us “disrupters.” We developed a three-pronged strategy. That rigor and vision drove the IFP and kept us clear-headed. I come from a boxing family – my uncle Budd Schulberg spent time at Muhammad Ali’s training camp and wrote a book about him – and I was very influenced by Ali’s mantra: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Our resources were so limited that we had to be smart and acute about how and where we applied pressure.
The IFP founded, among many other things, FILMMAKER Magazine. How do think it has shaped the way writing about film is perceived today and by extension (American) film criticism? What do you make of the lack of female film critics?
S.S.: I was a huge fan of FILMMAKER Magazine from the beginning and still am. You knew you could trust FILMMAKER because it was edited and published by filmmakers. In the hands of Scott Macaulay, it has become America’s most important film journal. I say that with the utmost respect for the trade papers, IndieWire, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Screen, and the excellent journals, Film Comment and Film Quarterly.
Women film critics have played an important role in the development of postwar Cinema: Pauline Kael and Molly Haskell have had an enormous influence, followed by B. Ruby Rich who coined the term “New Queer Cinema.” Janet Maslin, Manohla Dargis, and numerous other women critics, theorists and scholars continue to be consequential. I wonder if women critics have perhaps been better represented relative to their male peers than have been women directors among the male-dominated film industry as a whole. IndieCollect is still in the process of documenting thousands of important films by women directors and I would like to collaborate with the Women Film Critics Circle on this project.
What started your commitment to the preservation, restoration and release of bygone films, thus making the means to study the historical and aesthetic development of American independent film available to audiences?
S.S.: Restoring my father’s film about the first Nuremberg trial – Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today [The Schulberg/Waletzky Restoration]— made me frightened for the future of American indie films. How little I had known about film preservation & restoration! I learned that my father’s film negative was lost and that made it very challenging to restore the film. Then, I began thinking, what about the negatives for the films I had produced? What about the negatives for all the indie films produced by IFP and Sundance filmmakers? The more I looked into this, the more shocking the problem became.
So you founded IndieCollect which has already restored more than thirty films, a number of which are in re-release or will be out soon. Can you talk about that mission?
S.S.: At IndieCollect, we say that our mission is to Rescue, to Restore, to Re-activate.
By Rescue, we mean to rescue from oblivion, i.e., to document. Without the data about these films, they do not exist. So we created the IndieCollect Index – a comprehensive catalogue of indie films which now has about fifty thousand titles. By Rescue, we also mean to physically rescue. We go into warehouses, attics, basements to find film & sound elements and then place them in various archives. We have relationships with more than forty archives where we find permanent homes for indie films at no cost to the filmmakers.
By Restore, we mean that we have physically restored more than thirty important indie films, scanning the original 35mm or 16mm negatives and creating new 4K versions suitable for theaters and online platforms. To bring the costs down, we acquired our own 5K Kinetta Archival Scanner, and we do all the color correction & restoration work in-house.
And finally, by Re-activate, we mean that “Saved does not mean seen.” So we make sure that each newly-restored film is “re-activated.” That means a high-profile festival screening and theatrical showcase (generally arranged by IndieCollect). This brings each film to the attention of film critics and distributors. We help the filmmaker to make a deal with a distributor so his or her film can re-released in all markets and reach new audiences.
While accepting the Honorary Gotham Award, you said that: “Now we are in a battle to save American independent cinema from technological obsolescence.” Can you elaborate on that? How do you see the future of American independent cinema?
S.S.: Technological obsolescence means that films shot on celluloid cannot be seen anymore unless they are converted to state-of-the-art digital formats. IndieCollect launched its digital film restoration initiative in 2016 to address this problem, and we have digitally restored more than thirty films since then. But our efforts are a drop in the bucket. There are thousands more indie films that need to be digitized or they will never be seen again. And in the meantime, it is crucially important to locate, rescue and properly store the original film and sound elements. When filmmakers die with those film elements in their possession, the family members often don’t know what to do with them, so they may be thrown away. Thousands of films will be lost in the coming decade because of this.
Technological obsolescence means that films made in a digital format will be lost because digital motion picture files are so vulnerable: the codecs change constantly; the hard drives fail; filmmakers pay to store their films in “the cloud” but as soon as they stop paying their subscriptions, their access is cut off; or they die and no one has access to the user names and passwords.
These are disasters waiting to happen. Many young filmmakers have already lost their first films and many more will do so. We can only solve these problems with a far greater investment by all the “stakeholders” in the field. They need to support IndieCollect at a much higher level so we can intervene in many more situations, save many more films, and educate filmmakers about the pitfalls to avoid.
You serve on the advisory committee of the Women’s Film Preservation Fund (WFPF), created by Women in Film & Television. What can you say about that role?
S.S.: Since it was started in 1995, the Women’s Film Preservation Fund has funded film-to-film restorations of more than one hundred twenty films, and I am a huge supporter of what they do. They need and deserve much more money! By insisting on making new film elements, the WFPF has insured the longevity of important titles by women directors, and these are placed in various archive repositories for the long term. WFPF also recently adopted a new policy allowing some of its grant money to be used to create 4K digital restorations. This is the only way the films can be seen today now that nearly all exhibition is digital.
IndieCollect has just been awarded grants to create new 4K restorations of Home Movie by Jan Oxenberg, and Town Bloody Hall by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker.
You also worked on restoring short films produced by Vachon and Haynes’ in the ’80s and ’90s with Barry Ellsworth under their non-profit Apparatus banner. Why those particular films? What is your opinion on the short format today?
S.S.: When we acquired our Kinetta Archival Scanner in 2016, we decided – as part of our Queer Cinema Initiative – to bring attention to the early short films produced by Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes under their Apparatus banner. But they did not only produce films with queer content, so the Apparatus Collection is a marvelous glimpse at the work emerging from the downtown NY indie film scene in the 1980s and early 90s.
Short films are not only an art form in their own right, they are a testing ground for young talents, and can be important indicators of how a filmmaker will develop his or her themes in the future.
Going back to the restoration of your father’s film, Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today [The Schulberg/Waletzky Restoration]. What motivated these particular choices? What have these endeavors taught you about History, memory, humanity and culture?
S.S.: My father, Stuart Schulberg, made one of the most important films of the 20th Century – Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (1948) – about the prosecution of the top Nazi leaders and the modern foundation for international criminal law; but it was suppressed for political reasons by the American government for decades. Once I learned of the film’s existence, I felt it was my duty to restore it and release it for the first time in theaters in the United States. Josh Waletzky and I completed the restoration in 2009, and it had its world premiere in The Hague that year. In 2010, the Berlinale presented it, and the New York Film Festival followed suit. It then played in theaters around the U.S. from the end of 2010 through 2011, generating rave reviews. After that, we made thirteen other language versions: Arabic, Farsi, French, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Luganda, Mandarin, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Vietnamese. But I don’t have funds for distribution of the film or an international sales agent, so the film is not being seen or used as I would have hoped.
Restoring Nuremberg taught me a great deal about the utterly amazing and convincing project of the allies – the U.S., Great Britain, Soviet Union and France, along with fifteen other countries – to create a new international legal framework to prosecute crimes against humanity and the illegal use of armed force, also known as the “crime of aggression.” Their juridical innovations included the idea of holding individual military and civilian leaders personally culpable for murder, persecution, and hate speech, so no one could henceforth hide behind government or military institutions. Perhaps the most disruptive and provocative idea advanced at Nuremberg was that it should be a prosecutable crime to wage war unless in self-defense.
It was for this latter reason that I believe my father’s film was suppressed. The idea of holding individual leaders responsible for the crime of aggression is still being contested by the U.S. government at nearly all diplomatic levels, and is the primary reason that the U.S. Senate has never ratified the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court – even though U.S. Ambassador David Scheffer did sign the Rome Treaty on behalf of the United States at the time, with the express consent of President Bill Clinton.
You also collaborated with the Academy Film Archive to preserve two dozen Marshall Plan and OMGUS films. In that regard, you have a longstanding relationship with Berlinale; the festival premiered in 2004 your special series “Selling Democracy: Films of the Marshall Plan” curated with Dr. Rainer Rother.
S.S.: I began to research and watch the films of the Marshall Plan in the spring of 2003 at the urging of Prof. Tom Mascaro who was writing a book about my father’s work. My father had directed what is considered the first Marshall Plan film – Me and Mr. Marshal (1948) – while serving in Berlin as a denazification film officer for U.S. Military Government (OMGUS). As a result, he was recruited in late 1949 to take over as chief of the Marshall Plan Motion Picture Section, headquartered in Paris.
In the spring of 2003, the U.S. had just invaded Iraq and was considering what approach to take in the aftermath. There was much talk of “nation-building” and I felt that the Marshall Plan films offered some useful lessons. Dieter Kosslick and Rainer Rother endorsed my idea of showcasing some of the Marshall Plan films, and we ultimately selected forty films to show at the Berlinale in 2004. See http://www.sellingdemocracy.org/
Richard Pena, the director of the New York Film Festival, and I then selected twenty-five of the films to be showcased that fall at Lincoln Center. Under the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, it was illegal to show the Marshall Plan films in the U.S., so this was a historic occasion. With the support of the Academy Film Archive and Goethe-Institut, I traveled to about ten cities around the U.S. bringing these films to American audiences for the first time.
The U.S. Department of State, under Condoleeza Rice, invited me to present a day-long program at the Acheson Auditorium at State Department headquarters in Washington, DC; and the State Department later sent me in 2006 and 2007 to various other countries to show the films. They were a revelation to all!
There are three important things to understand about the Marshall Plan films.
One: Of the 300+ Marshall Plan films, all but two were directed by European filmmakers who were on the ground and were, themselves, living in difficult postwar conditions. These films were not made by U.S. filmmakers living in comfort across the ocean.
Two: They were funded by the European governments, not by the U.S., so filmmakers were not afraid to criticize or make fun of the U.S., which they did in some of the films. There is also a famous satire on the Marshall Plan – Welcome Mr. Marshall – made by the Spanish director Luis García Berlanga, which we showed too. Great fun!
Three: Besides reporting on specific Marshall Plan projects in each country so that citizens could understand what was being done in their names and with their funds, Marshall Plan films must also be seen in the context of the great postwar propaganda battle between East & West. Through the Comintern and Cominform, the Soviets were engaging in a campaign to win the hearts and minds of East & West Europeans. Within Western Europe, there were tremendous debates underway about different approaches to rebuilding their broken economies. Communist parties were in the forefront of those debates along with socialists and liberals. My father hired communist and non-communist filmmakers; and it is fascinating to discern differing points of view reflected in the resulting films. It made for lively debates in the cutting rooms and over the kitchen tables too.
I know this because I conducted film interviews with the last of the Marshall Plan filmmakers before they died. I am one of the few people in the world to have seen all of the Marshall Plan films, and I often wish they could be used for teaching purposes. But my project to create a comprehensive digital edition requires much more funding than I have been able to raise – another project I hope to accomplish before my demise.
Too much to do and too little time!
This interview was conducted during the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival.
Photo credits: © Barbara Katz / Berlinale