About Ira Deutchman

Ira Deutchman loves movies. He has spent the better part of the last 45 years watching, studying, teaching, distributing, marketing, and producing them. As a film marketer, he has half-jokingly said that his job is to get butts into seats, and he is a master of doing just that. Since the mid-1970s, when he joined influential indie and foreign film distributor Cinema 5, his impact on shaping and influencing the taste of American filmgoers interested in specialty films has been enormous.


His impact on the Columbia University film program has been equally profound. Deutchman has taught at Columbia since 1987. In 2000 he became an Associate Professor, and he served as Chair of the film program from 2011 to 2015. In 2010, Deutchman oversaw the expansion of the Producing concentration from 12 to 24 students, restructuring it into the stand-alone Creative Producing program. In 2013, Deutchman and Lance Weiler founded Columbia School of the Arts’ Digital Storytelling Lab, which explores new forms and functions of storytelling while encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration – focusing specifically on the ways in which story can be harnessed as a tool to innovate, educate, mobilize, communicate, and entertain.


Born in 1953 in Cherry Point, North Carolina, Ira Deutchman spent his formative years in Chicago, where his passion for movies began. After graduating from Northwestern University – where he helped to organize the Midwestern premiere of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence – Deutchman moved to New York in 1975, and landed his first job at Cinema 5, a small but influential film distribution company operated by Donald Rugoff. During his time at the company, Deutchman was part of a team of devoted young cinephiles who brought many notable films to market. It was especially successful reaching college and cult audiences with titles like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), The Man who Fell to Earth (1976), Harlan County USA (1976), Outrageous! (1977), and Pumping Iron (1977). Deutchman has said he got his real education in the film business from Rugoff, and credits him with teaching him everything he knows about how to market, promote, and distribute specialty films. He is currently in post-production on a feature documentary about Rugoff – which will be Deutchman’s directorial debut.


In 1981, Deutchman joined the venerable studio United Artists, where he oversaw marketing during a substantial transformation of the United Artists Classics specialty label. The unit quickly found success with such titles as Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981), Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980) and The Woman Next Door (1981), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lili Marleen and Lola (both 1981), Polish master Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron (1981), and documentaries like The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time (1981). Deutchman was personally involved in the re-releases of a number of ignored or under-appreciated films, including Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way, and Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter.  


In 1982, immediately after leaving UA Classics, Deutchman branched out on his own and co-founded Cinecom International Films, which specialized in distributing American independent films.  Rather than compete in bidding wars for exhibition rights of foreign films,  Deutchman focused on procuring low-cost films of quality from proven veterans or untried newcomers. He worked closely with an impressive cadre of directors including Robert Altman, John Sayles, Jonathan Demme, and James Ivory, and worked hard to build personal relationships with all. As the President of Marketing and Distribution, Deutchman carefully strategized the release of critically acclaimed movies such as Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), Starstruck (1983), Angelo My Love (1983), El Norte (1983), Stop Making Sense (1984), The Brother From Another Planet (1984), Swimming to Cambodia (1987), and Matewan (1987). The company’s biggest success was James Ivory’s A Room With a View (1985), which was nominated for eight Academy Awards (winning three), and which launched the careers of Daniel Day-Lewis and Helena Bonham Carter.


In the late 1980s, Ira Deutchman formed his own marketing and consulting firm, the Deutchman Company, working with future rival Miramax on the promotion and distribution of what would become one of the signature independent films of the era – Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989). In 1990 he founded Fine Line Features, a specialty division of the independent distributor New Line Cinema. Along with competitors Miramax and USA Films (later Focus Features), Fine Line quickly became a driving force in shaping the indie scene of the 1990s. During Deutchman’s time at the company, Fine Line released a slate of films by some of cinema’s most renowned directors, including Jim Jarmusch (Night on Earth, 1991), Gillian Armstrong (The Last Days of Chez Nous, 1992), Roman Polanski (Bitter Moon, 1992), Mike Leigh (Naked, 1993), David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, 1994), Alan Rudolph (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, 1994), Whit Stillman (Barcelona, 1994), and many others. He also helped shepherd Robert Altman’s career resurgence with The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993).


Throughout his career, Ira Deutchman has mentored, hired, and collaborated with female colleagues and female directors, and helped get their films into theaters. In the 1970s and ‘80s, he worked on marketing campaigns for renowned directors like Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties, 1975), Agnes Varda (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, 1977), Gillian Armstrong (Starstruck, 1982), Joan Micklin Silver (Chilly Scenes of Winter, 1982), Laurie Anderson (Home of the Brave, 1986) and Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay, 1988). At Fine Line, he supported an array of noted international women directors such as Margarethe Von Trotta, Diane Kurys, and Jane Campion, along with Americans like Nancy Savoca, Maggie Greenwald, and Maria Maggenti.


Deutchman has been similarly instrumental in facilitating the work of LGBTQ filmmakers. His roster of filmmakers at Fine Line included established gay directors like Gus van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, 1991) and Derek Jarman (Edward II, 1991), as well as younger directors like Tom Kalin (Swoon, 1992). The company helped find and nurture a commercial market for these films, proving that “queer” material could be financially successful and, in the process, making LGBTQ identities more visible in the media.  


Ira Deutchman also helped to change the game for feature documentaries. Most notably, Fine Line distributed Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (1994), a three-hour documentary following the story of two African-American teenagers from the Chicago projects as they progressed from grade school to college. Receiving rave reviews, the film went on to become one of the top-grossing documentaries of all time. The film’s surprising failure to capture any major Oscar nominations led to widespread criticism, and ultimately to a major overhaul of the Academy’s nomination process.


Since leaving Fine Line in 1995, Deutchman has produced an eclectic slate of films including Kiss Me, Guido (1997), 54 (1998), All I Wanna Do (1998), Lulu on the Bridge (1998), Way Past Cool (2000), The Center of the World (2001), Ball in the House (2001), Interstate 60 (2002), The Lucky Ones (2003), The Game of Their Lives (2005), Beauty Remains (2005), Red Doors (2005), The Speed of Life (2007), and For Real (2009). He also founded the innovative production-distribution company Emerging Pictures, which found success by distributing feature films in venues that weren’t originally designed to be movie theaters.


This retrospective of Deutchman’s professional career – and its accompanying exhibit – was originally assembled in 2017 by Professor Daniel Herbert and curator Philip Hallman of the University of Michigan, along with their graduate students. (Deutchman’s papers are held in the University of Michigan’s Screen Arts Mavericks & Makers collection.)


— adapted from the exhibit text of “Ira Deutchman and the Art and Business of Independent Cinema,” University of Michigan, 2017