Rob Epstein is a director, writer and producer who has been crafting moving, thought-provoking and socially relevant content for over three decades. Since 1987, Rob and his producing partner Jeffrey Friedman have worked under the Telling Pictures banner, traversing the worlds of non-fiction and scripted narrative. Rob has produced films that have screened worldwide, in cinemas, on television, home video and digital platforms, at museums, and at leading film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York. Rob has received two Academy Awards®, five Emmy Awards, three Peabodys and both a Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowship. Rob continues to explore and cultivate the unique brand of socially relevant storytelling that is embodied in his pioneering and award-winning range of work.
Rob moved by bus from New York City to San Francisco at age 19. His first job in the city was as an usher at the Castro Theater back when there was still a smoking section. While taking a filmmaking class at San Francisco State University, he became a production assistant on a documentary in early development where he met his mentor, Peter Adair. He quickly rose to co-director, with the other members of the Mariposa Film Group. The film became the landmark documentary Word Is Out, released in theaters in 1978, airing nationally on prime-time public television, and recently restored and re-released by Milestone.
Rob’s next project was the Oscar-winning feature documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which he conceived, directed, co-produced and co-edited. The film touched audiences immediately, becoming an international festival sensation starting at Berlinale, and winning the Academy Award® for Best Feature Documentary as well as the New York Film Critics Award for Best Non-Fiction Film of 1985. Making history, the documentary was the first LGBT-themed film to receive an Academy Award, and Epstein was the first openly gay director to receive an Oscar. In 2013, the Library of Congress selected it for the National Film Registry, and the film is now part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. The Times of Harvey Milk was recently named one of “25 most influential documentaries of all time” by the Cinema Eye honors and in 2017 received the Legacy Award.
Rob won his second Oscar for the documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, made with Jeffrey Friedman. Rob's other films with Jeffrey include the box office hit The Celluloid Closet (Emmy Award for directing), the HBO documentary Paragraph 175 (Sundance Film Festival Jury Award for Directing), Where Are We?, And the Oscar Goes to for Turner Classic Movies and most recently Killing the Colorado, a feature documentary about the drought in the Western U.S. premiering on Discovery Channel in August 2016. In 2019 their documentary short End Game was nominated for an Academy Award.
In making the transition from documentary to scripted narrative, Rob participated in the American Film Institute Directing Internship Program on the Martha Coolidge movie Rambling Rose, starring Laura Dern. He and Jeffrey collaborated on the narrative feature HOWL, starring James Franco, followed by Lovelace, starring Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard and Sharon Stone, and released by The Weinstein Company’s Radius-TWC. Both films premiered at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. HOWL was developed at the Sundance Institute Writer's Lab, where Rob and Jeffrey were Sundance Screenwriting Fellows in 2009, and was released theatrically by Oscilloscope Laboratories. It received the Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review.
Rob has received several Peabody and Emmy Awards, as well as Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowships. In 2008, Rob was recognized with the Pioneer Award from the International Documentary Association (IDA) for distinguished lifetime achievement. He has also received achievement awards from Frameline (1990), Outfest (2000) and the Provincetown International Film Festival. In 2016, Epstein was awarded the Kenneth Rainin Foundation Screenwriting Grant by the San Francisco Film Society for his original screenplay Dogpatch (working title). In 2018, Rob received the George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award from the San Francisco Film Society in conjunction with longtime collaborator Jeffrey Friedman, in recognition of their distinguished service to cinema.
Career retrospectives honoring Rob’s work have been presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London (ICA), the Taipei International Film Festival in Taiwan, the Cinémathéque Québécoise in Montreal, and the Pink Apple Film Festival in Zurich.
2019 was a productive year for the team: their documentary short End Game was nominated for an Academy Award; Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival; and State of Pride premiered at South by Southwest. They are currently researching and writing a hybrid non-fiction feature about the late photographer Peter Hujar.
In addition to his filmmaking career, Rob is a professor at California College of the Arts, where he serves as Co-chair of the Film program. He has been a visiting professor at the Graduate Film Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has served on the Sundance Institute's Board of Trustees. He is a member of the Directors Guild of America as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Documentary Branch where he served as an elected member of the Board of Governors for three terms. He currently serves on the board of BAMPFA.