Denah Johnston of Canyon Cinema

Denah Johnston is Director of Canyon Cinema Foundation, the West coast source for avant-garde and experimental film prints. She currently teaches at Academy of Art University and California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Her research deals with global cinema, especially underrepresented producers including women, avant-garde and underground artists. As a filmmaker, she specializes in optical printing, editing and sound design, while utilizing a number of chance operations in her work.

Not so long ago, there was a monolithic distribution model. People bought tickets to get into a theatre. Soon after television was an option, then cable, then streaming. How has experimental film followed or defied this model historically. How has experimental work always followed it’s own model?

Denah Johnston 

Historically experimental film has always existed on the margins or outskirts of the traditional distribution model – this has a lot to do with the fact that several times in industry history there was a monopoly on exhibition which experimental work could never attain. As an “other” form it has found ways of working in the 1960s with the birth of co-ops (Filmmaker’s Co-Op in New York and Canyon Cinema in San Francisco for example) which were organized and run by artists based on a profit-sharing model ranging from 50/50 splits to 70/30 depending on the times and circumstances. In many ways experimental makers still market their own work, if they are not super well known or sought after they have to. Just as Jack Smith, the Kuchars, Jonas Mekas and others would put on or organize screenings of their own and other’s work the micro-cinema, pop-up or independent cinema still exists in a large way today as a kind of “experimental film underground” of sorts. This type of film is always cast off when considered for distribution in traditional channels. Even with Criterion commercial releases of Hollis Frampton, Les Blank and Stan Brakhage collections there is the economic bottom line. They have to sell a minimum of 5,000 copies to make the effort worth if financially speaking. In terms of distributing prints, this is a whole other animal – as well tended projectors are less common and most theater installments have given up film projectors for digital as a result of industry mandate a few years ago (the “go digital or go dark” threat) it is a constant challenge. In the wake of this industry shuffle film advocates are still fighting the good fight – Quentin Tarantino just took over a theater in LA that will only show celluloid – and will be installing a 16mm projector to widen the range of films that can be shown. This is, of course, an exception to the rule. But it can give us hope that venues will continue to exist to show lesser-known or non-mainstream works. There is still a growing interest in it, but access is the key here. A lot of older experimental work is not digitized, and if it is it might only be SD – which is in many people’s opinion sub-standard and might not be from the original materials but a very used print – this is all a compromise of the experience. Experimental film distribution has always been variously DIY, changing or adjusting the model as it saw fit when needed – seemingly in a much more organic fashion than mainstream cinema where many functions and departments are dependent on others. Perhaps this is one of the benefits, being able to take what it could feasibly use from the mainstream (a printed catalog or website for example to list what is available with run time, year, synopsis, cost and formats) and disregarding everything else (TV and print advertisement, corporate sponsorship, etc.).


Could you talk about the path an experimental feature or short might take in distribution?


This is hard, because it is not always the same – especially moving on the spectrum from experimental to narrative to documentary, as we still have highly focused distributors with special market focuses: film festivals – though this is getting less and less, educational, broadcast, consumer and now the ever expanding multi-platform market online. I think it is more common for producers and makers to move a film through the festival circuit in hopes of finding a distributor at a more high profile festival/marketplace (as this is what festivals have largely become). A distributor proposes a split (60/40, 30/70, 50/50, etc.) or a series based on the different outlets/platforms – though I think even this is changing. Some ask for sole rights to certain territories which would limit your future possibilities with other outlets. An independent filmmaker should always remember no deal is better than a bad deal! It is becoming more common to have non-exclusive agreements, especially with online entities. If someone is asking for a lot of exclusivity it is likely not in your best interest. The distributor will tell you (or should tell you) what they will and will not do for you. Paid advertisement, cross-marketing, packaging your title with others, etc. Some will handle festival requests and see the rest of that life through, others will focus on their specialty market (online streaming, cable TV sales, commercial DVD release, etc.) but the exciting and scary thing is that all of the old distribution models are being shaken up by new ways to access media and film. We are in a permissive time where bigger chances are being taken – there is no real standard “release window” model now. If you are new media savvy and have built your own website, have gotten the word out about your work and have good momentum you have already done a lot of work for THEM! Now you can be as big of a part as you want in the process – sometimes to your detriment. Always be working on the next film, idea, etc. don’t put all your eggs in a film that is on the circuit – people interested in your completed work will want to know what is in the pipeline.


Is there an existing experimental festival circuit?


There is, though it is somewhat small by narrative or documentary festival standards. I think there are a lot of places that excel at showing experimental work that might not be as well known or “go to” as other places. Immediate fests that come to mind are Black Maria, Ann Arbor, Sundance, South by Southwest, Viennale, Berlinale, Toronto International Film Festival, FLEX fest, Chicago Underground Film Festival, Views from the Avant-Garde (now Projections in New York), San Francisco International Film Festival, Images, Crossroads (put on by San Francisco Cinematheque), Rotterdam, MIX NYC (queer), etc. Then there are festivals that were well known for experimental work that may not be so much anymore but are still totally worth checking out such as the Athens International Film & Video Festival (which happens to also be an Academy Award qualifying festival). You can see a list of resources for venues, festivals, etc. at


What role do educational sales play, if any?


This depends highly on the work and to a certain extent the champions of it and/or audience – especially for experimental work. If it is canonized then there is certainly a demand in this market – though departmental budgets don’t always allow for the acquisition of them through this outlet in a timely fashion. Big markets are LGBT and documentary, less so I think for short narrative and general experimental work. Though it is a great way for critics and scholars to access the work for purposes of study. Anthology Film Archive will be unveiling a long-time project in the works later in the year that will make available streaming files of many films in its expansive collection, taking on one of the major challenges for experimental work specifically – that of access. They will also have PDF dowloads and reference copies of every Film Culture magazine, Canyon Cinema News and other important documents from experimental film history. Until recently “educational sales” kind of had the market cornered on the access piece of this question. But with the explosion of the internet and various streaming platforms there is seldom true “exclusivity” which was a blessing and a curse to experimental and documentary film for a long time. We are on the verge of a more open-access history and resource to this realm of cinema than ever before. Theoretically this won’t kill print rentals or traditional exhibition, as the online version of these films is meant for individual use, study and inquiry.


What role do galleries, installations, and micro cinemas play?


An absolutely huge one, especially as unique venues that can show super-8 and 16mmprints. Many of these are informal or make-shift in their structure but in the past 2 years I’ve seen a nice explosion of micro cinemas in Portland, Austin, Atlanta, Tucson and other places in the US particularly. With less overhead and usually volunteer-based programming or this work as an extension of study or inquiry pooling resources from universities or the local community seems to work. Mia Fem in Portland got quite a nice Warhol Curatorial Grant last year that has enabled Cinema Project to put on themed screenings in lofts, on a boat and other places. In these times when arts funding is harder to come by we have to band together to produce events as a community. There are also established venues like Light Industry in Brooklyn that put on amazing shows from completely experimental to feature films. I’ve seen an increase in film presentations at galleries, I think this has a lot to do with the rise of cross-disciplinary discussion and interaction. Many experimental, documentary and narrative filmmakers also engage in still photography, painting, music – how can we highlight this crossover? Put up an interdisciplinary show! Curate painters and photographers that had an influence on this documentarian who exhibited a DIY style. I think the rarity of being able to see film projected in an audience has made people more hungry for the experience, and as a result we are now captives of our nostalgia and curiosity.


What advice would you give to a student who wants to make experimental work re. getting it seen?


Keep making it, keep showing it. Take feedback seriously but don’t let it debilitate you. Some of the harshest criticism or feedback I’ve ever gotten has been some of the best advice for moving forward as an artist, image maker and thinker. Some films and work will stand the test of time and others won’t. Collaborate with others, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Put on a show with your friends – guerrilla style or in a legitimate gallery, just don’t get arrested. Make the work you want to see – don’t make work you think the medium demands. Don’t be afraid to put it online so people can see it. Even if you have a print for exhibition it won’t really hinder interest, and if it seems to then make it password protected until you feel good about putting it up for anyone to see. Get a Vimeo Pro account and build a simple website, you can DIY distribution until something good comes your way. Send your films to Ann Arbor, meet curators, visit archives, see experimental work!


Denah A. Johnston


 No Future Now: A Nomadology of Resistance and Subversion

D. Johnston’s Vimeo page:
Website page for Publications and Curatorial Work:–curatorial-work.html

D. Johnston’s newest publication (an essay on Benjamin Christensen’s Haxan) is in the Abraxas Journal Special Issue #2 on the Esoteric in Cinema:


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