Since the premiere of Trembling Before G-d at Sundance in 2001, New York-based filmmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski has been constantly on the go. The film has traveled to festivals around the world (including the Berlin and Jerusalem film fests and the idfa in Amsterdam) and DuBowski has gone with it. DuBowski was also at New York’s Film Forum theater for the opening day (October 24, 2001) of Trembling’s U.S. theatrical release, which broke Film Forum box office records. This month, Trembling opens across the U.S. and DuBowski will accompany it to about 30 of the country’s major cities.
More than five years in the making, Trembling takes a profound and personal look at the struggle of gay Hasidic and Orthodox Jews who try to reconcile their homosexuality with their faith, which strictly forbids same-sex relationships. DuBowski describes the process of finding the film’s interview subjects as a scavenger hunt that took him to Israel, the U.K. and across the U.S., but attributes the film’s ongoing theatrical success to the relationships that were forged as a result. Additionally, fundraising efforts fueled the need to organize benefit events, which not only raised production money, but built a community. ‘The need to fundraise, both from foundations and individual donors, created a base of thousands of people who are ready to carry the film into distribution,’ says DuBowski.
Trembling arrived at Sundance without a deal in place, but left with invitations from several distributors. Its impact was partly due to the events DuBowski organized around the screenings, including two Shabbat dinners, a Havdalah ceremony, and a forum for open dialog between Utah’s gay Mormons and Jews. Says DuBowski, ‘We had an incredible buzz at Sundance, because we went out of the box. The translation of that was that we were put on the map as a film to watch.’ He continues, ‘A lot of filmmakers swallow this idea of the festival space and the theatrical space as one of limited possibility. I’m interested in transforming that space and making it something that’s really interesting. It’s not about turning the switch, showing the film and then having an audience file out the door. I want to create a way for media and film to break down walls between people, to knit people together around issues and to galvanize change.’
DuBowski eventually signed with New Yorker Films, which shares his vision for the film’s theatrical release (Cowboy Bookings International handles non-theatrical rights outside the U.S.). The U.S. distrib agreed to build a stipend into DuBowski’s contract that allows him to be an outreach person and to receive a fee for accompanying the film to selected major cities – a detail the filmmaker says was a deal breaker in negotiations with competing distributors. ‘I wasn’t looking for a distributor, I wanted a partner in distribution,’ says DuBowski.
In the three weeks surrounding the film’s New York release, DuBowski hosted dialogs and special events, including a benefit dinner organized for opening night. Postcards were also distributed to targeted communities. Says DuBowski, ‘We were one of the highest grossing films ever in the first two weeks of a Film Forum run. A lot of that had to do with how we used the synergy of community organizing and a commercial release to fuel box office and meaningful dialog. It winds up benefiting activism and box office.’
DuBowski recognizes Trembling’s subject matter lends itself to an activist approach to marketing, however, he feels his methods can be applied to any theatrical release. ‘It’s easily duplicated, because it’s treating a theatrical release as a series of promoted events,’ he explains. ‘People want to see documentary in communities. They want the lights to come up after the film and really engage with the issues the film raises.’