Rob Epstein

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Rob Epstein
Rob Epstein.jpg
Epstein in 2015
Born Robert P. Epstein
(1955-04-06) April 6, 1955 (age 60)
New Jersey, United States
Occupation film director, producer
Years active 1978–present

Rob Epstein, also credited as Robert P. Epstein (born April 6, 1955), is an American director, producer, writer and editor. Epstein has won two Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature, for the films The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.[1][2]

Recently, Epstein has transitioned from non-fiction documentaries into scripted narratives, producing such biopics as HOWL, his award-winning film about Allen Ginsberg’s controversial poem by the same name (starring James Franco), and Lovelace, the story about the life and trials of pornographic superstar Linda Lovelace (starring Amanda Seyfried).

Early career[edit]

Epstein began his filmmaking career at the age of 19, after taking a Green Tortoise bus from New York City to San Francisco. Soon after arriving on the west coast, he answered a classified ad for a documentary seeking a production intern.

This led Epstein to become the youngest of six filmmakers in the Mariposa Film Group, the entity responsible for directing the landmark 1977 documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, considered to be the first feature documentary about the gay experience in America. The film played in theaters and was broadcast nationally on PBS, an unusual occurrence for a documentary at that point in time.

The Times of Harvey Milk[edit]

After Word Is Out, Epstein set out on his own to make a film about a series of events occurring in San Francisco in the late 1970s, which eventually became the film The Times of Harvey Milk. During the five years it took make the film, Epstein worked a series of jobs to support himself, including as a concessionaire at the Castro Theatre, and as an assistant editing on feature and documentary films. Written, directed, and co-edited by Epstein, The Times of Harvey Milk premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September 1984. USA Today called the film "the hit of the festival," and from there it went on to the New York Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival where it won a Special Jury Award, and the Berlin Film Festival. The film became an international sensation and is still in distribution throughout the world.

At the age of 29, Epstein won an Oscar for The Times of Harvey Milk along with producer Richard Schmiechen, becoming the first "out" filmmakers to do so on the Oscar broadcast. In addition to the Oscar, The Times of Harvey Milk went on to receive the New York Film Critics Award for Best Non-Fiction Feature, three Emmy Awards, and a Peabody Award.

In 2000, The Times of Harvey Milk was selected by the Sundance Institute and UCLA Film and Television Archive as a preservation project, and for the first time the film was blown up to 35mm. In 2011, the Criterion Collection released a newly digital re-master Blu-ray edition of The Times of Harvey Milk with numerous additional materials, including interviews with Gus Van Sant and others involved in his film Milk, which was inspired by the documentary.

Late 1980s[edit]

In 1986, Epstein made an early AIDS documentary for PBS with Peter Adair titled The AIDS Show, and in 1987, he was a producer/director on a public television series called We The People. This documentary TV series was the first time he worked with editor Jeffrey Friedman. Their sensibilities and creative styles clicked. In 1987, the two formed Telling Pictures, a San Francisco-based production company, and set about on their first collaboration, the HBO documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt founded by Cleve Jones. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, Common Threads tells the dramatic story of the first decade of AIDS in America through five stories memorialized in the AIDS Quilt. Epstein won his second Academy Award for Documentary Feature with Common Threads, as well as another Peabody. Bobby McFerrin receiving an Emmy for his all-vocal original score.


Epstein and Friedman's next film was a road documentary set in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War entitled Where Are We?, part of the documentary competition line-up at the Sundance Film Festival (1991).

In 1995, Epstein and Friedman wrote and directed The Celluloid Closet, based on Vito Russo's landmark book of the same title. Released by Sony Pictures Classics and narrated by Lily Tomlin, the film depicts 100 years of gay and lesbian characters in Hollywood movies. The Celluloid Closet premiered at the Venice Film Festival and then went on to the Toronto International Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival (Grand Jury Freedom of Expression Award), and the Berlin Film Festival (Teddy Award, Best Documentary). For its HBO television presentation, Epstein and Friedman won Emmys for directing, as well as a Peabody.


Epstein and Friedman's next feature documentary, Paragraph 175, premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Directing, and at the Berlin Film Festival where it won the FIPRESCI (International Film Critics Association Award).

In preparing to segue into narrative feature directing, Rob Epstein was accepted into the American Film Institute directing internship program where he was placed as a directing intern on Martha Coolidge's film Rambling Rose.

Epstein and Friedman were invited to be fellows at the Sundance Film Institute Writer's Lab with their project Howl about Allen Ginsberg's seminal 1955 poem of the same name. Howl opened the 2010 Sundance Film Festival as part of the dramatic competition. Filmed in New York in 14 days, Howl stars James Franco and features Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, Alessandro Nivola, and Bob Balaban. Howl received the National Board of Review Freedom of Expression Award. It was also part of the official competition at the Berlin Film Festival.

Partnered with Friedman, Epstein's latest film is Lovelace, a biopic about porn star Linda Lovelace, starring Amanda Seyfried (as Lovelace), Peter Sarsgaard (Chuck Traynor), and James Franco (Hugh Hefner).

Honors and professorship[edit]

Epstein is the recipient of numerous other awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the International Documentary Association's Pioneer Award for his contributions to the field, as well as the Outfest Achievement Award and the Frameline Film Festival Award. Epstein's films have played in festivals, theaters, television, and museums throughout the world. Career retrospectives have been held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival, and Camerimage in Poland.

Rob Epstein is a member of the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where he currently serves on the Board of Governors. He joined the Sundance Film Festival's Board of Trustees in 2013. He has taught in the Graduate Film Program at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and is currently a professor in film at California College of the Arts, in San Francisco.

In collaboration with Friedman and writer Sharon Wood, Epstein released a “how-to” book entitled The Art of Nonfiction Movie Making to help young documentary filmmakers achieve their cinematic goals. The book was published in 2012.



  1. ^ [dead link] "Rob Epstein Biography" Check |url= value (help). California College of the Arts. 
  2. ^ [dead link] "Rob Epstein Biography" Check |url= value (help). Sony Classic Pictures. 

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