Spotlight on Grasshopper Film, an Adventurous Film Distributor
Since its start in the fall of 2015, Grasshopper Film has become one of America’s most adventurous distributors, releasing films like Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama (2016) and Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017), with a nine-hour Wang Bing documentary on the way. They also have deep enough pockets that they have released eight films theatrically so far in 2018, with others headed to the non-theatrical market. Its founder, Ryan Krivoshey, was responsible for taking the Cinema Guild in a similar direction before venturing out on his own. Even though the audience for subtitled films in the U.S. seems to be sinking rapidly, at least in theaters, Grasshopper has recently acquired titles like Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room (2018), Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II (2018), and Ognen Glavonić’s The Load (2018). As the company moves into production and achieved Oscar success with Last Men in Aleppo (2017), it stands almost alone in its commitment to releasing a fairly large number of sometimes challenging, always daring films to American theaters. I wanted to interview Krivoshey to find out how the company can survive in the current culture and market.
Was your job at Cinema Guild the start of your work in the film industry?
No, actually my first job was at Kim’s Underground on Bleecker Street. I started there right after I graduated school in 1997. I was there for about a year and a half, then I went to work at Film Forum, then Icarus Films, which was then known as First Run/Icarus, and finally to Cinema Guild, where I worked for 13 years. The great thing about Kim’s was that, obviously, you could watch as many films as you wanted for free, but because it was connected to the music department, you could do the same there. It was a nice time with good, interesting people on both sides of the counter. I remember people like Larry Clark, Jim Jarmusch, and Sara Driver coming in. Before Netflix, there was nowhere else to get these kinds of movies. For me, both Kim’s Underground and Film Forum were de facto film schools. Kim’s had the VHS and DVDs that we would take home and watch. At Film Forum, I could watch their programming and see the library of movies they’d shown previously, many of which weren’t available elsewhere. It was a fantastic resource to have at the time.
When you were at Cinema Guild or Icarus, did you feel frustrated that you didn’t control the company?
No, not at all. When I was at Cinema Guild, I was able to run the company as I wanted to and acquire the kinds of films I loved. Ultimately, there was a change of ownership, and I wasn’t able to keep growing the company in the way that I would’ve liked.
Grasshopper’s website mentions a production company, Grasshopper + Marks, that’s geared towards making politically conscious films. Your first production, Brewmaster , premiered at SXSW last spring. Can you talk about your goals as a producer and your release plans for Brewmaster?
Yes, Grasshopper + Marks is a partnership between Beata Gutman, Andy Marks, and myself. Brewmaster is a documentary directed by Doug Tirola. A great filmmaker, Doug directed Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon  and Hey Bartender . He also produces, with his partner Susan Bedusa at 4th Row Films, all of Robert Greene’s films. Grasshopper is not going to be releasing Brewmaster. Cinetic is handling sales on the film, and they’re talking with interested distributors.
For the films you produce, do you have in mind trying to sell them to a larger distributor like IFC Films or Magnolia Pictures rather than distributing them through Grasshopper?
The idea is to produce smart, adventurous, socially conscious films and documentaries. But it’s case by case. The goal is always to find the best home for each film. What we have with GM that’s unique, however, is that through Grasshopper Film, we can guarantee distribution for a film. So, we know the films we’re producing won’t fall into distribution limbo. That option is always there. But if the right fit for a film is another distributor, for whatever reason, that’s fine. But the through line with all our projects is a close collaboration with the filmmaker, and whether it’s brand-funded or funded through traditional documentary routes, final cut always rests with the filmmaker.
You re-released The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach  theatrically and put out Moses and Aaron  on Blu-ray last year. When New Yorker Films went out of business, they had a pretty incredible library of older films, especially from Latin America, that I can’t see anyone else putting out on Blu-ray or VOD. Do you have any plans to expand beyond the few films you stream now?
I’m very proud of the Straub-Huillet collection, that we were able to acquire and release it. It was a long process. Originally, those titles were going to be released by Cinema Guild, but they were still being restored by Straub and his company in Switzerland. By the time they were finished and premiered, I had already left and was at Grasshopper. Moses and Aaron was just the first release. Later this year, we will do a Blu-ray and DVD of Chronicle. But only about half of Straub’s titles have been restored in 2K or 4K. As those are completed, we’ll look into doing more re-releases of them. I’d like to do more repertory. We’ve just picked up Heinz Emigholz’s films. They’re already available on the non-theatrical market. We might make them available on VOD or home video as well.
Nocturama actually got a better critical response in the U.S. than France. It opened in New York on two screens the weekend the Charlottesville protests happened. Do you think you can measure the success of your films not so much by the amount of money they make as by how much they click with the zeitgeist?
There are definitely lots of ways of measuring success. I think these days box office is only one factor. And increasingly in the distribution landscape that we’re in, it’s becoming less important because there are so many other routes for films to reach their audience, such as VOD, home video, and the non-theatrical market. So, when a film clicks with the zeitgeist like Nocturama did, it’s a good sign that there will be interest in these other distribution channels. Nocturama has been a very popular title for us on home video.
What’s been Grasshopper’s biggest hit, commercially?
That’s hard to say. Fireworks Wednesday  did really well. Don’t Blink – Robert Frank  was very successful, as was Nocturama. Araby  played a month in New York and has now been booked in a number of cities around the country, so it seems to be on a good trajectory. The directors of Araby were doing Q&As to sold-out crowds on opening weekend at Lincoln Center. The other film we’ve had great success with is Last Men in Aleppo. It only had a limited theatrical release, but after the Oscar nomination, it’s proven extremely popular on VOD and home video. That’s a film that certainly captured the zeitgeist.
I’ve heard horror stories about how it costs so much money to get an Oscar nomination that theatrical runs are loss leaders.
It certainly can be. But sometimes, especially with foreign-language productions, these costs are offset by funds coming from governmental or cultural bodies. That was the case with the Danish Film Institute and Last Men in Aleppo.
What’s the process that led to it getting a nomination? Every documentary that gets a weeklong theatrical run is eligible at first, then it gets culled to a shortlist, then the five nominees. How do you get your film onto that list to begin with?
To make the shortlist, the films are voted on by the members of the documentary branch vote. But you never know. So, it was a wonderful surprise to see Last Men make the shortlist. After its selection, we hired Brigade Marketing to help with the Oscar campaign. They did amazing work. A large part of the campaign was to set up screenings of the film and get more people to see the film, because we knew that once people actually saw Last Men in Aleppo, they would be as moved and awestruck as we were.
Why do you think the theatrical audience for foreign-language films has bottomed out so much, even in just the past five years?
I remain guardedly optimistic about the foreign-language market in the U.S. We certainly do a healthy number of English-language documentaries, but an equal number of our releases, if not more, are foreign-language films. In fact, our 2018 slate and what’s shaping up to be our 2019 slate is very foreign-language-heavy. There was an article in The Ringer that came out recently that talked about the golden age of documentaries, mentioning that six films have passed the million-dollar mark. I’d like to see the equivalent of that article for foreign-language films in three, four years time. There are signs that point to a resurgence of that market that I hope will come to fruition.
What signs do you see?
I see a general, growing interest in these films. Even if people don’t make it out to the theater, they see them at home on iTunes or Netflix or buy the Blu-rays and DVDs. We see the attention these films generate on social media. There was a myth at one point that most Americans don’t want to read subtitles under any circumstances. Today, some of the most popular content on Netflix are foreign-language TV shows. In many cases, they’re being watched by people who had never previously seen a foreign-language film. That’s a positive sign.
But Michael Haneke’s Amour  and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation  grossed $7,000,000. Last year, Haneke’s Happy End grossed something like $301,000. It was a total bomb. Farhadi’s The Salesman  grossed about half of what A Separation did, and it was still the fourth most popular foreign-language film of 2017. There was a Bollywood film released this year, Padmaavat, and in its second weekend, that outgrossed all but one foreign-language film released last year. But I think the audience for it is almost entirely Indian-Americans. For a lot of its audience, it’s not a foreign-language film, and even if they don’t speak Hindi, the culture’s not foreign. I don’t think a lot of people who aren’t Indian-American saw it.
I see what you’re saying. Part of it is the natural ebb and flow of the market. Just last year, people were writing that the audience for documentaries is shrinking compared to the recent past. Now we’re seeing numbers no one expected. A lot has to do with the films themselves. Is Haneke’s latest film as strong as Amour and Caché ? I’ve always loved his films, but I was less enthusiastic about this last one. Another factor is the culture and times we live in. Certainly, given where we are politically, there’s a yearning for documentaries.
I think one reason for the success of RBG  and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  — and even I Am Not Your Negro , although it was released in the exact month of Trump’s inauguration — is that people want to find heroes in politics and media.
Movements in the culture and political landscape fuel interest in films. Right now, they’re leading people to certain kinds of documentaries. I see an upswing coming.
It’s just maddening to look at someone like Hong Sang-soo, who I think is the equal of the French directors he gets compared to. About ten of his films have been released in the U.S., but Claire’s Camera  is the only one that’s played New York longer than two weeks. And it’s only grossed $82,000 so far [as of July 25th, when this interview was conducted].
And that has Isabelle Huppert. When I was at Cinema Guild, we released The Day He Arrives  and at Grasshopper, we did Right Now, Wrong Then . Even though it only played a couple of weeks in New York and didn’t venture into a lot of other cities, it’s been one of our most popular and best-selling titles on VOD and home video. The same is true of Kaili Blues . It had a relatively low profile when it premiered but wound up having a great run at Metrograph. Since then, there’s been so much interest in the film and Bi Gan, the director, that it’s become one of our best-selling titles.
Do you have any trepidation about releasing Caniba , which produces pretty extreme reactions? Right after it played at the Toronto Film Festival, I read an interview with the directors in a Toronto paper that was pretty positive in tone and then read the comments, which said things like, “This is violent pornography that the festival should be ashamed of showing.” I know that kind of controversy can titillate people, obviously, but I genuinely found it a difficult film to watch.
I’m a great admirer of Lucien [Castaing-Taylor] and Verena [Paravel’s] films, and I have been for years, dating back to Sweetgrass , Foreign Parts , and certainly Leviathan . But all the uncomfortable questions and issues that Caniba elicits in viewers is precisely what it — and all documentaries — are supposed to do. I think documentaries should challenge people’s preconceptions. If you watch a film, and it doesn’t make you think, if you forget about it after the credits roll, it’s a failure.
Grasshopper Film is a distribution company based in New York City. In 2018, so far they’ve theatrically released in the U.S.: Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, Milla, Cocote, and Notes on an Appearance among others.