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The True Believers

Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, the husband-and-wife team behind Milestone Film & Video, will tell you that the movies they’re passionate about place an overwhelming emphasis on visual storytelling, and furnish insights into the past and other cultures. But such fairly standard cineaste preoccupations are only the start of what has made the four-person company, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, one of the more respected, and eclectic, microdistributors around. Informing the couple‘s keen taste is a most unique and galvanizing acquisitions philosophy. As Doros devilishly puts it, ”We like to screw with film history.“

To that end, the Milestone catalog is loaded with cinematic curveballs, overlooked or re-discovered films from the silent era and onward that challenge both the traditional canon and current distribution trends. Among the forgotten classics Milestone has brought back to light are Frank Hurley’s South, a breathtaking 1919 documentary of Sir Ernest Shackleton‘s star-crossed expedition to the Antarctic; director Roland West’s masterful old-dark-house thriller The Bat Whispers (1930); and Mikhail Kalatozov‘s stunning 1964 paean to Latin-flavored revolution and the tracking shot, I Am Cuba. (On the contemporary front, Milestone was the first company to bring Japanese phenomenon Takeshi Kitano to the attention of American audiences when, in 1998 -- in a labor of love that left the company, until recently, deep in debt -- it distributed that writer-director’s Fireworks.)

”People don‘t go to museums to see what was painted last week, and film shouldn’t be like that either,“ says Doros of why he and Heller, who run Milestone out of their home in New Jersey, have carved a niche out of cinema‘s past. ”We love to investigate our films, to learn about them, and there are so many discoveries still to be made. We look at it like sharing instead of competing, sharing the films you love.“

But Milestone does more than put classics back in theaters. Its growing video and DVD business, which accounts for approximately 45 percent of its income, has not only helped the company to stay afloat but also to acquire more films and remain an aggressive partner in preserving and restoring a number of important titles, including Marcel Ophuls’ newly re-released The Sorrow and the Pity. Significantly, proceeds from a national 10th-anniversary tour of selected Milestone films will go to various film archives. Such devotion has won the company the support of such well-known cinephiles as Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, each of whom has lent his name and reputation to help promote Milestone titles -- Luchino Visconti‘s Rocco and His Brothers and The Sorrow and the Pity, respectively -- which have inspired them along the way.

For Doros and Heller, being involved in that larger cycle of inspiration is a significant part of what keeps them in a film market that seems to get more crowded and cutthroat every year. Which is why there’s no small sense of vindication in Heller‘s voice when she notes that in his commentary on the DVD release of Boogie Nights, director Paul Thomas Anderson refers to the film’s bravura poolside tracking shot as his ”I Am Cuba shot.“ ”It‘s like dropping a little pebble in the water,“ says Heller, ”and watching the ripples spread.“

For more on Milestone, turn to Film Calendar.