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. Continue reading “Seth Willenson, Innovator and Good Guy”
Upon hearing of the death of Irwin Young at the age of 94, I wrote a heartfelt remembrance of the man who played such an enormous role in the lives of so many independent filmmakers. It was originally published in Indiewire. I am reprinting it here it its entirety.
When prominent people die, obituaries often declare the end of an era. In the case of Irwin Young, who died this past Thursday at the age of 94, there’s an added poignancy to seeing his death through that lens, as we are living through a time when everything he stood for is under threat. Anyone who lived through the modern history of independent film can tell you: much of that history could not have happened without him. Continue reading “Irwin Young – Godfather of Independent Film”
Within a month of when I started working at Cinema 5 in 1975, Joan Micklin Silver’s first feature, Hester Street, opened at the Plaza Theater on 58th Street. The Plaza was one of the Cinema 5 theaters and it was located around the corner from our offices. Every night, on the way home from work, I would see the lines of people stretched all the way down the block toward Park Avenue. The film was a huge hit. Around that time, I first met Joan and her husband Ray when they came to our offices to make a deal with us to distribute the film to the non-theatrical market. I learned that my boss, Don Rugoff, had turned the film down for theatrical distribution because he thought (as many others did) that the film was “too niche.” But now that the film was a hit, he wanted in.
My job at the time was as a non-theatrical salesperson, so I was on the phone all day with colleges, libraries and other organizations, trying to get them to book our library of films. Hester Street would not only be a valuable addition, but would be of particular appeal to Jewish organizations, which we were already servicing with such films as Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Sorrow and the Pity, among others. Continue reading “A Tribute to Joan Micklin Silver”
For the next month or perhaps longer, the state of Wisconsin will be one of the most scrutinized parts of the country. It’s an important swing state that could determine the outcome of the election, while simultaneously being one of the worst hotspots for the coronavirus. In the meantime, the good folks at University of Wisconsin in Madison are helping to keep their community sane by having an online film festival.
The Wisconsin Film Festival was meant to be part of the “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” national tour last spring, and of course was cancelled along with the rest due to the pandemic. The festival has now morphed into a series of screenings available virtually, only for the UW community. Not only are they showing my film, but they are also showing “Gimme Shelter,” which was originally released by Don Rugoff through his company Cinema 5. In conjunction with those screenings, I was interviewed for their Cinematalk Podcast. It’s a pretty in depth interview and was a lot of fun to do. You can listen to it below. Thanks to the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque for their interest.
I’ve just been made aware of the passing of Evangeline Peterson. Some of you may know Evangeline as the wife of Don Rugoff, the subject of my film “Searching for Mr. Rugoff.” It is no exaggeration to say that Evangeline was (is) the star of the film. She added parts of the story that no one else would have known, and her intelligence and radiance jump off the screen.
When I first thought about making a film about Don Rugoff, I had no idea how his family would feel about it or if they would be willing to cooperate. I first reached out to Don’s son Ed and, over an extended lunch, we discussed the project. It seemed as if he was willing. He also mentioned that his mother, Evangeline, was still alive and living in Medford, Oregon. I remembered Evangeline from brief encounters at the Cinema 5 offices when I worked there in the ’70s. She was a beautiful and classy woman; one wondered what she saw in Rugoff, who was not the least bit attractive and a not-very-nice person. Ed promised that he would approach his mother about doing an interview for the film. Continue reading “Evangeline Peterson – Rest in Peace”
Throughout this Oscar season, as I watched the smart and aggressive campaign that the folks at Neon were mounting for “Parasite,” I couldn’t help but think about the campaign that Don Rugoff orchestrated for Costa-Gavras’ film “Z” in 1970.
Before Rugoff, no one had attempted to get a foreign language film into any of the main categories, and Rugoff pulled it off by doing some things that Oscar marketers are emulating to this day–touring the filmmaker to theaters all over the country, spending lavishly on trade ads, holding private screenings for Academy members and most effectively, getting enormous amounts of press to position the film as the long shot people could root for. The end result was a literal bombshell in its time. “Z” was the first film ever nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, and also received nominations for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing. It walked away with two wins–Foreign Language and Editing.
Big news in my personal universe today! I’m pleased to announce that the documentary film that I’ve been working on for the last five years is completed and will be having its World Premiere at DOCNYC. The title is Searching for Mr. Rugoff and it’s the story of art film maverick Donald Rugoff, the legend behind the mid-century film exhibition/distribution company Cinema 5 and a notoriously difficult (some would say crazy) person. He was my first boss in the film business and the movie is about my search for the truth about the man who had such a major impact on my life and on the history of art films in America.
I’ve also just launched the official website for the film at http://mrrugoff.com. Check it out, and get tickets for the premiere. Here’s the info:
In my speech at the Art House Convergence, I talked a great deal about Don Rugoff, who was a crazy, arrogant, difficult genius, and was my first boss in the movie business. Given the impact the man had on the business, it astounds me that he is almost a forgotten figure at this point. Reid Rosefelt wrote about him back in 2011, and ignited my urge to share more of what I knew about the man. So for those of you who would like to know more about the history of independent film marketing, here is a bunch of material to chew on.
This first piece is an audio recording of a seminar that Don did in 1976. It was moderated by Julian Schlossberg, who at the time was a VP at Paramount and had a radio program called “Movie Talk.” You’ll notice that during the Q&A, some of the questions from the audience were not intelligible, so whoever put this tape together dubbed them in. This is a fascinating glimpse into Don’s way of looking at the distribution business, the exhibition business, and mostly about his unique take on marketing specialized films. This was the school I went to, where I learned just about everything I’ve used throughout my career. Continue reading “More About Don Rugoff and Cinema 5”
Below is the video of the keynote speech I gave this past January at the Art House Convergence, an annual event that brings together many of the independent art houses from all over the U.S. and with some representation from the rest of the world. I used the opportunity to give a kind of personal history lesson about the distribution and marketing of indie films, and to draw some lessons for the world we currently live in. A big thank you to Russ Collins of the Michigan Theater for giving me the opportunity to speak, and to Doug Tirola and his team at 4th Row Films for recording it.
These video originally appeared on Thompson on Hollywood, part of the Indiewire network.