Doing the Work: Sandra Schulberg, Saving American Independent Cinema

Doing the Work is a series profiling key recipients of HFPA Philanthropy.

The granddaughter of B.P. Schulberg, who ran Paramount Pictures in the 1920s, and daughter of producer Stuart Schulberg, Sandra Schulberg continues a longstanding Hollywood family tradition. Born in Paris and raised partly in France and Germany, she grew up with a rich sense of the past steeped in the lore of film history and is now a worldly woman of today, of broad cultural scope and artistic understanding. A visionary and a pioneer, she founded the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP), which gave rise to Film Independent in Los Angeles and The Gotham Film & Media Institute in New York. She produced and financed films for three decades from the 1970s to the beginning of this century, and has been active in New York, Los Angeles, and overseas. In 2008, she launched IndieCollect, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving American independent cinema.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in times of rapid change like ours, we feel the instinct to preserve what has been left behind, even if only tucked away in our memory. But for Schulberg, the matter is personal too. Although Dino De Laurentiis and John Heyman were the pioneers of international co-production, “I came not long behind them,” she says. “Thank goodness that the Europeans still have their own subsidy structures because the streaming services are putting a lot of pressure on independent filmmakers both in the United States and around the world.” In her opinion, companies like Netflix and other online platforms are having a dual impact – they open doors by emphasizing original foreign-language content but they also “close some doors,” especially when they opt to keep films out of theaters. Streaming “is starting to erode the traditional ways in which we always produced and exhibited our movies before they went on television … This pressure on the cinema owners and distributors to go straight to the online exhibition is inexorable. I’m very glad that, by chance really, I turned my career around and began to focus on restoration.”

She adds, “If I hadn’t become interested in my father’s work, I would likely have continued producing movies. But after my mother died, we discovered all these amazing documents in her loft about the making of Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, my father’s film about the first Nuremberg trial. The papers revealed a mysterious and fascinating story because it had been suppressed in this country. At first, I was just trying to research this on the side, but it sucked me in. I began to realize I couldn’t take on the restoration of this film and keep producing. I was at an age where I didn’t feel I had to prove myself anymore as a producer. I felt as though – for better or for worse – my body of work was there (although some of the films need saving), so I could change my focus.”

Thanks to archivists at the Academy Film Archive, National Archives, Library of Congress, Spielberg Film & Video Archive, and Bundesarchiv/Filmarchiv, Schulberg started to learn about the process of saving and restoring films. “I knew hundreds and hundreds of filmmakers who were my contemporaries, older and younger, and I realized … My God, the whole baby boom generation, the largest group of indie filmmakers in the world, who defined our understanding of American independent cinema, our films aren’t being saved. Anthology Film Archives and Appalshop are preserving an important tranche, and all of the five major archives care about independent films too, but as just one component of their collections. I decided to build on their efforts and try to vastly accelerate the number of indie films being collected, archived, and restored. Even with all their efforts and that of IndieCollect, thousands of indie films are bound to ‘go extinct.’ We must do even more to ensure these films won’t disappear.”

She didn’t invest all her time into the cause until 2014 after she had completed the digital edition of Nuremberg, and after receiving a crucial start-up grant from the Ford Foundation. “I’ve been at it ever since and it’s become my life’s mission to get as many films as possible converted into a digital format so they can be seen again. Ours is an activist approach, it is not ‘preservation’ in the old-fashioned sense of preserving and putting away … IndieCollect’s motto is ‘saved does not mean seen’.”

In 2016, IndieCollect acquired its own archival film scanner, “so we could set our own terms, and significantly lower the cost of high-quality digital restoration.” That has been the key to IndieCollect’s ability to restore close to 40 films in the last few years, keeping up with the fast-evolving art and science of restoration. Being small and flexible allows the organization to pivot quickly and adjust to the rapid technological changes. “We don’t have any secure funding,” Schulberg says, “on the other hand, we don’t have any bureaucracy. If I can raise the money, we can do it! … And the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has transformed what we’ve been able to do. In 2020, we were granted $100,000, which was a huge leap.”

The Library of Congress’s National Film Preservation Board funded the restoration of several important works including The Atomic Cafe (1982, documentary), Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959, documentary), and two films by Black women directors – Suzanne, Suzanne (1982) and I Am Somebody (1970) – to be restored in co-operation with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The Harvard Film Archive commissioned IndieCollect to restore Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists (1980, documentary), while the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) paid for the restoration of George Griffin’s historic animation film Lineage (1979).

Archive partnerships are vital, and not just for funding. “We are often a pipeline for film elements that need a permanent home,” she explains, “which is made possible by our collaborators at the Academy Archive, UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Library of Congress, MOMA, Eastman Museum, Black Film Study Center/Archive, Museum of African American History & Culture, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and about 40 smaller archives.”

How do the films make the cut? “The most important thing,” she says, thoughtfully, “is that a film be representative of the panoply of the independent American cinema. I think that this is one of the great strengths of independent cinema – that it is so diverse. Indie filmmakers can take chances that a studio would never permit, many more documentary films, art films, films that represent all the diasporas, films by African Americans – many of which have been terribly undervalued. We have been responsible for restoring three incredibly important feature films by African American directors: Cane River (1980) by Horace Jenkins, Nationtime (1972) by William Greaves, and now The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968) by Melvin Van Peebles – the last two with funding from the HFPA. But we also worry about Asian American, Latino, LGBTQ films and the vast number of films by women directors who never got the recognition they deserved.” Even though these films may have not been the most popular, “there is a cultural, historical and demographic mandate that drives the selection, first and foremost … Does it represent the diversity of American independent cinema? Is it a compelling film that we can bring audiences to, and, finally, can we raise the money? Those are the three criteria that we use.”

Growing emotional, she adds, “I’m proud of the choices we’ve made. I’m proud of the funders that have endorsed these restorations, and I’m very proud of our little team …[1] I would never put our work up against Grover Crisp’s restoration of Lawrence of Arabia in 8K! We are not working at that level, but we’re doing an awfully good job, especially given our limited financial resources, and we are making a difference. These movies matter. And the fact that they are seen again and getting incredible reviews is significant. Critics are saying that Cane River ‘is changing the way we see Black cinema’ or that Nationtime ‘is changing how we look at the history of Black power in America’, or that ‘Nancy Kelly made an incredible movie, why wasn’t she given the chance to direct another movie?’ These are the responses that keep us going.”

Despite the passion that the IndieCollect team invests in each work, it is still a great challenge to deliver the restored films to new audiences. “I feel a little like Peter Pan,” she says. “If we don’t clap to save Tinker Bell, we’re going to lose arthouse cinemas, and this would be a tragedy for all the films we are trying to keep alive. When you show a film in the cinema with a live audience, people engage with it in a different way. On the other hand, when Nancy Kelly’s Thousand Pieces of Gold (1990) was shown virtually, more people saw it than would have ever gone to the cinema in-person. You need both.

“If we can continue to feed arthouse cinemas these films, they will nurture new audiences. Netflix and Amazon, which are kind of the Behemoths in this space, and other television/online platforms are not so interested in restorations. This really points to the need for a channel to showcase hundreds and hundreds of these digital restorations – the ones that IndieCollect is creating and many others. The Criterion Channel is already contributing to this effort and I can only hope that it expands its offerings and gives rise to additional channels devoted to new restorations – maybe even our own IndieCollect channel. Let’s make sure that thousands of great and important independent films are not lost from view simply because we rely on the corporate entertainment distribution mechanisms that currently dominate exhibitions. I’m a Field of Dreams kind of person: if you build it, they will come.” 

Sandra Schulberg is living proof of the power of magical thinking combined with a large dose of perseverance. Throughout her career, she has been guided by a vision that encompasses film in its myriad creative manifestations. And when she stopped making films it was not because she had nothing more to give. On the contrary, her unabated passion is still propelling her to see film and use film to make the world more beautiful and more just; a world certainly worth saving in the universal stream of time. 


[1] Besides Sandra Schulberg, the IndieCollect team includes Israel Ehrisman, Anastasia Cipolla, Cameron Haffner, Bob Hawk, Matt Hoffman, Lucy Obispo, Oskar Miarka, Bella Racklin, Morgan Taylor, Yujin Yohe, Eva Yuma, and consultant Christopher Racster. The Board of Directors includes Jill Godmilow, Michael Hausman, Gerald Herman, Ted Hope, Ann Hu, Lyda Kuth, David Leitner, Amalie R. Rothschild, Catherine Wyler.