Seth Willenson, Innovator and Good Guy

Seth Willenson, who died this week at the age of 74, was a good guy. I know that sounds like faint praise, but in a business that thrives on over-stuffed egos, it actually means a lot. He was also someone who loved movies, understood the structural ins and outs of a complicated and constantly changing landscape, and found success seeing opportunities where others didn’t. He was also a great judge of talent and mentored many a young aspiring film executive.

I first met Seth when I had just started in the business. I was a non-theatrical salesperson at Cinema 5, a small independent distribution company. Seth was the head of sales at Films Incorporated, which was the largest non-theatrical distributor at the time, and handled films from MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, among others. For the uninitiated, “non-theatrical” meant renting 16mm prints of films to college film societies, public libraries and other such venues. It was a fairly large business at that time due to films having no other outlets after their theatrical runs. There was no such thing yet as home video, and television networks didn’t have that much movie programming.

I would see Seth a few times every year at various conferences that were held to show off our wares to college campus programmers. While we were theoretically competitors, all the New York-based non-theatrical distributors were remarkably collegial. We would lend each other prints of our films, so that each of us could have screenings for our friends in our living rooms. We also had a volleyball league where, once a week during the warm weather months, we had friendly games against one another in Central Park. Seth also invited us to screenings held by the studios that Films Inc. represented, which enabled me and others to get early glimpses of upcoming releases.

After I was laid off from Cinema 5, Seth tried several times to hire me. At the time, I was working on a feature screenplay and looked at my time in distribution as having been a distraction from my aspiration to be a filmmaker. So, I declined. But I also needed money to live on and Seth offered me some freelance work.

First, he hired me to set up a new theatrical division at Films Inc.  He had acquired Jerzy Skolimowski’s “The Shout,” and the company was unprepared for the differences between theatrical and non-theatrical distribution. I was sent to the Films Inc. head office in the Chicago area to sit down with the back-office personnel and teach them how theatrical deals were made.

A few years later, when Seth was working at RCA in the fledgling videodisc business, he hired me to write the liner notes for a bunch of classic movies that were going to be released on RCA Selectavision Videodiscs–a format that ultimately never caught on.  I thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to write about movies I loved, and eventually it led to other writing jobs.

In later years, Seth and I both lived on the Upper West Side and we would run into each other on Broadway all the time. We would compare notes and catch up on both personal and business matters. This continued even after he had moved to the west coast. He had apparently kept his Manhattan apartment and would still spend time there to reconnect a few times a year with his roots.

The last time I saw Seth was around four years ago, when I made a trip to L.A. to film some interviews for my film “Searching for Mr. Rugoff.” Seth was his usual warm and friendly self, but had clearly lost a step and admitted that he had some health issues.

In the interview, he reminisced about his youth in New York and credited Rugoff, the subject of my film, for having inspired his career. Apparently, Rugoff’s Cinema 5 Theaters had a program where they gave out special discount passes to all NYC school children that enabled them to see films at the theaters for deep discounts. Seth described how this program got him into Manhattan to see a wide range of offbeat and international films, and inspired a love for cinema that he carried for the rest of his life. He also credited Rugoff with inspiring some of his business practices over the years.

Alas, that interview didn’t make it into the final film, but below is a short segment in which Seth ruminates on the current state of the industry as of that moment (pre-pandemic). As usual, he brought a long-term historical perspective and a keen mind to size things up and–spoiler alert–remained optimistic about the future of theatrical moviegoing. 

He will be missed.

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