Started as a “weekend hobby” in 1987 by husband and wife team Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, Milestone Films has since become a renowned distributor and preserver of classic film, documentaries, and independent cinema. “We are not always prudent and we are hardly ever commercial, but we pride ourselves on being passionate, ridiculously over-researched and persnickety about sound and image quality,” Heller says.
Doros’ involvement in preservation began while employed at Kino International, during which time he oversaw the restorations of silent films Queen Kelly and Sadie Thompson. Heller, who studied labor history at Yale, entered the field after working for First Run Features, an independent distribution company that carries social and historical documentaries. Having worked together for three years on a series of film restorations they later named “The Age of Restoration,” Doros and Heller founded Milestone in 1990 after discovering that other distribution entities were not interested in releasing the films.
At Milestone, experience and availability factor into the decision-making process for preservation and distribution, but often, personal interests serve as the biggest motivator. Heller says, “I think that one aspect of [our] mission that I especially love is the way our work really sets out to and does mess with the established film canon. I grew up knowing that ‘the personal is political’ and I really enjoy extending that mantra to include our acquisition and distribution decisions. We love helping critics, audiences and historians rediscover the neglected films of women, African American and other great independent filmmakers. To our delight, we have seen our film releases change the way current filmmakers work and the contents of cinema textbooks.” She adds, “and for 23 years, we have asked film friends for their favorite ‘lost’ or unavailable films and tried to follow up to find those missing treasures.”
Doros, who was voted to the Board of Directors of the Association of Moving Image Archivists in 2008, notes that making connections with others in the field “[has] led to a lot of our acquisitions. We have experienced amazing generosity from our friends (especially with bonus features) that have greatly enhanced our love for the field – and our company’s reputation. The friends we have met and the support of the archives and archivists is really important to us.” As a rule of thumb, Milestone preserves films that can be seen many times (“because that is what is required for successful distribution,” Heller says), that actively work as cinema (incorporating the tools of the camera, movement, sound, and editing), and that tell a story or retell history from an underrepresented viewpoint. “Films from the past often have an emotional and political power that is just amazing. I love when we can re-discover, restore and release films that still speak to audiences today,” Heller says.
Also important to distribution is selecting cover art for Milestone DVD releases, which are designed by Scott Meola of Simplissimus and Adrian Rothschild, the latter of whom recently designed the company’s Portrait of Jason poster. Heller notes, “I admit to being crazy about fonts and design – both offer extremely economical means of conveying a great deal about a film. We frequently consult our library of books of poster and design art from around the world to focus in on the style and typefaces from the time the film was made. Fortunately, our designers have always welcomed this kind of input and have worked with us to create title treatments and art that reflect the film’s content, style and time.”
Though Milestone employed up to six staff members during the 1990s, these days Doros and Heller are its only full-time employees. “A few years back, we realized that with the film industry shrinking, it was necessary to cut back so we could continue to distribute the films we loved and afford to properly restore them,” Doros notes, before adding, “the hours really suck.”
Milestone offers paid summer internships to students, some of whom continue to work for the company after graduation. “These terrific young people have brought great energy and expertise,” Heller says. While Doros admits he’s not sure about the future of film preservation, he notes “there are many positive signs and that’s primarily the incredible students who are coming into the field these days. They have the training, the maturity and the knowledge that few of my generation or the previous generations had entering into film.”
Currently, the two are working on preserving several American Indian films, including In the Land of the Head Hunters, Daughter of Dawn and Sherman Alexie’s The Business of Fancydancing. They are also working on the films of Barney Rosset (the founder of Grove Press) and Kathleen Collins, and are continuing work on Project Shirley, their series of restorations of Shirley Clarke’s films and unfinished works. “We’re always excited about the next project and we have a lot going on now,” Doros says.
Doros considers the company’s longevity its greatest achievement to date. “Many other distributors have come and gone and by working out of our house and keeping our salaries low, we’ve been able to contribute to the archives while making a living…we are fervent believers in promoting the work of the archives and archivists as well as the films they allow us distribute. Milestone still has a devotion to preserving film as film.”