interviews Ben Achtenberg
What is Fanlight
A leading distributor of independent
film and video work on social issues, but with a special focus on health
care, mental health, professional ethics, aging, and disabilities.
Why was Fanlight
We've been in existence since 1980. I had just completed my first independent
film, which had been turned down by a few independent distributors, and
a couple of others wanted changes that I didn't think I could live with.
Simultaneously with that I had been working for a guy here in Boston,
Ed Mason, who was a psychiatrist and filmmaker. I had worked on his productions
and helped him with distribution. I also had the model of New Day Films,
which was five years old at that point. So I decided to do it myself.
Fairly soon after that I went into partnership with a filmmaker named
Joan Sawyer who had a couple [films] of her own and we added a few others
by friends of ours. Joan, Christine Mitchell, who was a nurse/ethicist,
and myself made a film called Code Grey which got an Oscar nomination
and is probably the only film on nursing ever to get an Oscar nomination,
as far as I know. Things kind of took off from there.
To create a select collection of programs which are independent in their
vision, emotionally and intellectually engaging in their approach, and
accurate and up-to-date in their content.
How do you distinguish
Fanlight from other independent distributors?
We the filmmakers, the distributors, and the people who use the films,
are all on the same side. It's our job to make the bridge between the
filmmakers and the users. The filmmakers we work with really care about
the films they're making and want them to be useful to people. I think
the people who are our customers A) care about the same subjects, and
B) for the most part care about film. A lot of them love film and love
to be able to use film and video in the work they're doing, so we're in
the middle trying to make the connections.
rewarding about distribution?
It's knowing that people are seeing the films and finding them useful.
We are a small to midsize distributor, but our stuff is known all over
the country, and to some extent all over the world. I ran into somebody
in the jungle of Peru last summer who was familiar with some of our films.
We know that all of the nursing schools in the country use some of our
films at one time or another, which means any nurse who takes care of
you has had his/her conscience raised by something they saw from Fanlight.
That feels good, and we try to convey that to the filmmakers when we can.
types of films are you seeking?
Most of what we distribute are documentaries. That's not a rule; that's
just a fact. We are open to dramatic work. We're open to experimental
work. Some of the films we have are kind of on that documentary/experimental
borderline. For the kinds of audiences we reach, it's important [for films],
even if they are scripted, to be based in reality, to deal with the real
issues people are confronting day-to-day. I would say the films we like
the best, and our customers like the best, combine worthwhile information
about one of the subjects we're interested in with some kind of personal
How do you find
A lot of it is word-of-mouth. We are now representing somewhere between
150 and 170 producers, so we have dealt with a lot of people over the
years who like us and spread the word with other filmmakers. We monitor
a lot of festivals pretty closely. We also pay attention to a lot of professional
journals and magazines, where things might not show up in filmmaker magazines.
We just try to keep our ear to the ground in every way we can.
festivals in particular?
Certainly Hot Springs and DoubleTake are some of the prime documentary
festivals these days in the States. There are some special focus festivals,
SuperFest out in California, that focus on disability films. There's the
International Health & Medical Media Awards, that we pay attention to.
It's a mix of general festivals and ones that are really focused on an
How many films
do you acquire per year?
It's been running about twenty to thirty over the past three to four years.
How do you work
with a filmmaker in the distribution process?
We usually find that the filmmaker knows stuff that we don't, so we do
try to take advantage of that. We work with the filmmaker to try to develop
mailing lists, to find people to send films to for reviews and comments,
to look at what professional organizations might be interested in the
subject and therefore might program the film in their annual meeting.
what stage of production should filmmakers approach you?
We're very happy to look at rough-cuts. But we almost never make a decision
based only on a rough-cut. We want to be sure we see the final product
before we make a commitment to anybody, and of course they don't make
a commitment to us by sending a rough-cut either.
or final, which do you like to get?
I don't think I could say one versus the other, but there's not a lot
of point in looking at the rough-cut unless the producer wants input.
But it's also kind of nice to be early in the process, so both ways work.
What advice can
you give to filmmakers who are looking for distribution?
The one thing we always say is "think short." It has become more of an
issue as more and more of the model for independent producers is public
television. Everybody is making sixty-minute films, which is obviously
understandable: that's where the money is, that's where the prestige is.
But some of these films are never going to make it onto public television,
and they are going to hurt their educational market by being that long.
We frequently get back our little response cards that we send out where
people say, "We loved it. We laughed. We cried. We can't use it." Because
most of the people using our films are using them in a classroom setting
(or some kind of community discussion setting or something like that)
where it's not just somebody sitting down in front of the TV to watch
a film. They want to discuss it. I think more importantly, listen to the
audience. Meaning, talk to the people who are going to use it, not just
the people who are going to help you get it shown.
are some of the issues that affect Fanlight?
Technology…We are getting more requests from people who want to digitize
our releases either for use on in-house systems or, in some cases, for
web screening. We would like to develop those as potential additional
markets to generate revenue for us and royalties for our producers, but
there are real copyright problems there that have to be paid attention
Guerrasio is an intern at The Independent.
He has also written for 1-42 and moviefone.com
(clockwise from top left):
Barbara Altman, Database Manager
Ben Achtenberg, President
Sandy St. Louis, Distribution Director
Kelli English, Publicity Coordinator
Ethical Dilemmas in Nursing
by Richard Kahn, with the
Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College
by David E. Simpson,
J.J. Hanley, and Gordon Quinn. Produced by
Kartemquin Films. A presentation of the
Independent Television Service.
from The Independent
Film & Video Monthly, October,
2002, by permission of the
Foundation for Independent
Video and Film (FIVF).
For information about FIVF
and to join the Association
for Independent Video &
Filmmakers (AIVF) click
on the image above.