“I like to make my own decisions, and some of us are built as entrepreneurs,” says Elizabeth Sheldon, founder of the Princeton-centered international film distribution company Juno Films.
Sheldon founded the company in 2017 after racking up 20 years of film distribution acumen that led to her place on POV’s list of the “50 Most Powerful People” in the area of documentary film.
She made the list for her work with a New York City distribution company working with documentaries. “We had a robust release schedule. I was a go-to person for documentary. So with Juno, we have some documentary. It’s part of our DNA.”
Other parts include the distribution of African films, new international films, a series of British films produced in the 1940s and ’50s, educational films, and new feature film releases.
The latter includes “Radium Girls” set for the Princeton Garden Theater’s virtual screenings beginning Friday, November 13.
According to its website, Juno “specializes in the development and execution of bespoke finance and distribution strategies on behalf of producers and filmmakers.”
“Bespoke,” says Sheldon during a recent telephone interview, means tailored-made and indicates an individualized approach.
Another signal is the company’s name. “She’s a Roman goddess,” says Sheldon. “The traits of Juno are the ones we have. She’s a warrior, but she is also very nurturing. I think filmmakers need some maternal support. They need someone to take their babies into the world.”
But in the warrior mode, Sheldon wants to maximize revenue and audiences and uses what she calls an “invisible mechanism for each successful film.” That includes film festivals, theatrical releases, streaming and TV on demand, partnerships with Netflix and HBO, educational releases, and DVDs.
Summing her warm heart and cool head approach, she says she looks for films that are moving and have an ability to touch audiences.
Yet, she says, she has to keep alert. “I fall in love with films all the time. I say oh my god it is beautiful. But you can’t allow your passion to cloud your good judgment.”
And unlike large Hollywood-centric distributors that involve investments and commercial ventures, Juno’s income is dependent on distribution services and shared revenues of works by filmmakers whose eyes are more often on the number of reviews and screenings than box office receipts.
Accessing the company’s placement, Sheldon says, “We negotiate and interact with partners on all sides, the filmmakers and all of our business partners,” including streaming and broadcast companies.
“Radium Girls” is a working example of how Juno functions.
The film focuses on the real-life situation of a post-World War I young woman working in a New Jersey clock painting company.
It focuses on two sisters who realize they are being poisoned by the radium in the paint and go on a quest for medical help and justice.
The Hollywood Reporter summed up the film’s impact with, “Despite the stylistic glitches, ‘Radium Girls’ proves engrossing, thanks to its powerful real-life tale and the excellent performances by leads [Joey] King and [Abby] Quinn, who make us fully care about their characters’ fates.”
Juno’s involvement with the film reflects several of Sheldon’s interests and criteria.
One is telling stories about people who have traditionally been overlooked — especially women. Another is the film’s quest to have universal appeal and the ability to interest women and men of varied races. And third, she says, “It had a story that in itself was told interestingly.”
It also had some artistic strength and backing. King, who appeared in “The Kissing Booth” (2018) “The Act,” and Quinn, “Good Girls Get High” and “Landline,” play the sisters. Established television and film producer Lydia Dean Pilcher is one of the producers and co-directs with writer, director, and visual artist Ginny Mohler. Television, film, and stage performer Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner, Tomlin’s collaborator and wife, are executive producers.
While Sheldon will sometimes look and attempt to engage a filmmaker, she says the all-female “Radium Girls” production team assembled by Pilcher’s Cine Mosaic Company approached Juno because of the types of films she was representing.
First they made an agreement. “Generally speaking, we license the content. There may or may not be a licensing fee, but there may be a revenue share on the backend,” says Sheldon.
She then created a release strategy. “We were supposed to release the film in April and had 23 venues,” Sheldon says. The pandemic caused them to re-strategize for a hybrid release using simultaneous physical and digital screenings around the country.
Although the Garden Theater presentation will be virtual, Sheldon reasoned that physical theaters elsewhere would want the film because Hollywood distribution and filmmaking had been stopped by the pandemic.
Additionally, she says, a key component for audience development is to involve groups interested in the subject, including environmental, women’s, and justice organizations.
The film will then be available to a large audience when it premieres on Netflix in January.
Sheldon also adds thoughts on Juno’s interest in producing films.
“Generally the filmmakers will bring an idea to me that has enough development so I can evaluate it. I like to come on board to raise finishing funds.”
She also believes “it helps to be involved in an earlier stage.”
As an example, she focuses on Juno’s involvement with a new Swedish-produced film, “Tiny Tim: King for a Day.” Its subject is the legendary 1960s singer Tiny Tim.
An original and quirky personality best known for playing a ukulele and his quivering voice rendition of the 1920s ditty “Tip Toe Through the Tulips With Me,” he had become highly popular, played Las Vegas, and broke television ratings when he got married on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.”
“I thought Tiny Tim was a fascinating character and they had access to Tiny Tim’s widow and diary. That’s what makes the film interesting. We got to the point in production and we didn’t have a voice for the narrator, and I suggested (Weird) Al Yankovic.”
The Robert Ebert review site summed up the choice by saying the documentary’s “master stroke” was having Yankovic provide Tiny Tim’s interior monologue and slyly making a connection between “Tim” and “Al” — two idiosyncratic performers oblivious to the concept of conformity.
“We were involved with the final edit,” says Sheldon, indicating that her involvement reflects a business philosophy that mixes business and art.
It is also a sensibility of her study of philosophy.
Raised in Oakland, California, where he father taught chemistry at a junior college and her mother was a mortgage banker, Sheldon points to two aspects of her upbringing that influenced her.
One was that her father, whom she has called a “trail blazing feminist,” took on the traditionally maternal duties while she was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s. “He brought the groceries, did the cooking, and took me to ballet classes. He also thought that gender made no difference in a person’s potential.”
Another was her interest in film. “I grew up in the bay area. From the time I could ride my bike or take a bus, there were art houses, and I went in every weekend to watch films.”
Regarding attending the all-female Mills College, she says, “I didn’t go into college knowing what I wanted to major in. I toyed with mathematics, calculus, and comparative literature.
“I found the philosophy department was engaging, and the curriculum at that time was history of Western thought. It helped me develop strong analytic skills, logic, and an interest in rhetoric. Many people I meet in the film world are philosophy majors.”
After she graduated from Mills, Sheldon was a Fulbright scholar at Humboldt University in Berlin where her reading of philosophy sparked an interest in German literature.
She then attended Princeton University, where she received an MA in German studies.
“After Princeton, I decided that the pursuit of a PhD would require a time commitment — and I was married and had a child — and it didn’t make sense.”
She said her career in film started when she got a job with the Princeton-based Films for the Humanities and Science and was involved with acquisitions and distribution — an activity she calls “the intersection of creativity and business.”
Five years later she took a business development job in Philadelphia before being recruited by a startup film distribution company in New York that eventually merged with Kino Lorber.
Regarding Princeton as her film headquarters, Sheldon says, “For many years my husband and I worked in New York. We came to Princeton and graduate school, and our son went through the Princeton school system.”
Another reason is personal: “I also am a rower and have access to water,” she says about her status as a competitive masters rower and her involvement with Princeton rowing associations.
It has also served as a catalyst for philosophical reflection, which shows in her online rowing blog, where she has written, “Proper speed comes not solely from how hard you pull the oar through the water but the rower’s ability to allow the boat to glide underneath the seat without hurry . . .”
Although connected to New York, she says she and her husband, Juno partner Alexander Kandaurov, decided to live outside “the metropolitan center of the world” and now reflects on how that center and the film industry has changed.
“The epicenter of the film world used to be in New York. The majority of people working in film have left New York. (Some film centers) are no longer there.
“I think we‘re going to see some consolidation in the marketplace. We’re going to see less content being produced. The art house cinema world, many are nonprofit, will stay open. But they’ll need content. There will be an opportunity for the independent distributors to meet that demand” — as well as the demands from digital outlets such as Netflix and Amazon.
That also includes finding films that people will talk about and “to make sure it connects with audiences.”
For more information on Juno Films, visit www.junofilms.com.
To view “Radium Girls,” visit www.princetongardentheatre.org.