Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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Ask Your Jewish Grandmother About “The Sturgeon Queens”

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In case you haven’t yet heard of the one documentary that features an intimate confessional by a Supreme Court Justice (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and the most hilariously hyperbolic-yet-profound description of caviar ever uttered on screen (from Mario Batali), you might want ask your Jewish grandmother about it. That’s because Sturgeon Queens, the story of Manhattan’s fabled smoked fish store Russ & Daughters, has been making the rounds of the Jewish film festival circuit, selling to sold out audiences.

It’s a fun film, and, as a big fan of Russ & Daughters, I enjoyed its loving depiction of the family’s four generations and their perseverance, good humor, and great taste. You can find the film at a Jewish film festival near you on the website and it will be airing later on some PBS stations.

I thought filmmakers might appreciate learning from director Julie Cohen’s experiences reaching out to such a specific demographic.

What kind of audience are you trying to reach with Sturgeon Queens?

I definitely have some niche audiences I’m trying to target:  Jews… older audiences… immigrants of all stripes and their progeny (there’s a major Latino subplot in the film)… people who love pickled herring. But, of course, ultimately I’d like the audience to be as broad as is humanly possible.

Judging from your schedule, you appear to be (becoming?) an expert on the Jewish film festival circuit. Please describe your experience reaching this audience.

I knew very little about the Jewish film circuit before The Sturgeon Queens (this is my tenth documentary; most of my other work has not been Jewish-themed). But I’m learning a lot about this world and learning some surprising things. There are a TON of Jewish Fests (around 100) and many of them have extremely big, committed audiences. These festivals are packed. We had 500 people come to the screening at the Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Fest in West Bloomfield Michigan. Who knew? And there are some people in these audiences who are going to literally every film their festival offers. Many of the Jewish festivals pay filmmakers screening fees. The amounts are modest, but for a low budget documentary maker like me, it’s a big help to make a few hundred dollars for a screening. Obviously, I wish more festivals operated this way. (Most of the Jewish fests don’t charge a submission fee, even to unsolicited films. That makes it a lot easier to submit widely.)

One thing I didn’t expect was the major interest in Jewish documentaries (especially upbeat ones like mine) from venues that aren’t traditionally Jewish. Once the film appeared on slates of Jewish fests and the trailer ran on Gothamist, I started getting emails from art house theaters in places like Dallas, Omaha, upstate New York wanting to book the film. I was also contacted by 4 distributors in a short timeframe. I hadn’t been seeking distribution since I already had TV plans and wanted to sell DVDs myself. But one of the distributors, L.A.-based 7th Art Releasing, was persistent without being too controlling, and agreed to a deal where BetterThanFiction, my production company, could retain some rights. So I signed with them, and they’re doing a terrific job booking for events, educational etc.

Is the Jewish fest circuit enough? How are the foodies connecting with your film?

I made a deliberate decision to make the Jewish Film Festivals the priority and those were the ones I submitted to first. Since many of the general interest fests require premieres, that often knocks me out of contention. But I’m a bird-in-the-hand kind of person (for purposes of this film, I could say “herring-in-the-hand,” but that would be gross).

That said, I just found out the film has been accepted to the Lower East Side Film Festival (where else?) in June. Really psyched about that one since they specialize in super low budget films (which this is) and screen at the Landmark Sunshine and the Anthology Film Center. I’ve also submitted to the Hamptons Film Festival and I’m really, really hoping to get in there since I know this would be so up the alley of their audience. Is it uncool for filmmakers to beg? Oh well.

Glad you asked about foodies. Even before it really started screening, the film got great attention from food blogs like Eater and Braiser and the food sections of Yahoo and Huffington Post and some foodies on Twitter with lots of followers. These venues have voracious audiences and have done a lot to spread the word. I just saw a festival on Withoutabox called “Devour” and thought, how are we not submitting there? So now we are.

Do you have a broadcast deal in place yet? Please describe.

I have an agreement with the New York area PBS stations: WNET (in NYC) WLIW (Long Island) and NJTV (New Jersey) to run the show in late fall in its entirety and then as a pledge show. I’m hoping it will eventually air on PBS stations all over the country.

What’s your favorite thing to eat at Russ & Daughters?

This is an excellent, exceedingly difficult question requiring Talmudic-level considerations. Call me old fashioned, but the creamed, pickled herring really can not be beat. It brings back the sense-memories of the herring I had as a kid that came out of a jar, except that it’s sweeter, moister and exponentially more delicious.

What’s a hidden gem served at Russ & Daughters?

The chopped beet, apple and herring salad is unexpected and sensational. The cafe (just opened May 7) has introduced all kinds of great new stuff. Just mentioning the halvah ice cream with salted caramel makes me want to put my laptop on “sleep” and go get some…

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki