Seth Willenson, a marketing, finance and distribution executive who worked for New Line Cinema and Paramount, gave early career breaks to Jim Gianopulos, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard and produced Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging, has died. He was 74.
Willenson died Friday at his home in Los Angeles after a long bout with heart disease, his family announced.
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Willenson also was responsible for marketing the Warner Bros. family movie Shiloh (1997), which became a top-selling video and spawned sequels released in 1999 and 2006.
“Seth took our little movie and created a unique strategy for it and was instrumental in turning it into a big success,” writer-director Dale Rosenbloom said in a statement. “He was passionate about the arts — and had a brilliant understanding of the business side, too — a rare combination.”
After attending the Bronx High School of Science and graduating in 1968 from Cornell University, Willenson began his 52-year career in show business in 1970 when he became the second hire at New Line Cinema.
Using the anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness (1936), Willenson came up with a “Midnight Movie” theatrical marketing concept that helped the young company thrive. New Line then capitalized with screenings of such other films as Sympathy for the Devil (1968), Pink Flamingos (1972) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Willenson worked from 1973-79 as a senior vp at Films Inc., then the exclusive 16mm nontheatrical distributor for MGM, Paramount and Fox, and he employed a sales and marketing team that included Barker and Bernard, now co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics, and Larry Estes, who went on to work in home video at Columbia/TriStar and as a producer.
From 1979-83, he served as a vp for RCA SelectaVision Video, where he hired Gianopulos.
“Over 40 years ago Seth Willenson took a leap of faith on a young job applicant and in the process gave me a career. I looked up to him then, and have ever since, and I have never stopped being grateful for the opportunity he gave me,” the former Fox and Paramount studio chief said in a statement.
“I quickly came to realize that he knows more about every aspect of movies than anyone I have met since, and his abiding love of the art form combined with his extraordinary intellect have motivated and mentored all who have known him. Long ago my professional respect turned into deep affection, and I have always valued his friendship and wise counsel.”
After working as senior vp programming and promotion for United Satellite Communications, Willenson moved to the West Coast to take a job as a vice president for the Paramount TV Group, which acquired Lasse Hallström’s My Life as a Dog (1985) and the Edward James Olmos-starring Stand and Deliver (1988) under his watch.
He subsequently served as a producer on such indie films as Anders’ Gas Food Lodging (1992) — he received a Spirit Award nomination for that — and Top Dog (1995), starring Chuck Norris.
In 1988, he returned to New Line as president of telecommunications & planning.
As president of Seth Willenson Inc., he spent the past two decades as a producer and media and marketing consultant for Saul Zaentz and Harry Thomason and for companies including Paramount, New Line, GoodTimes Home Video, Working Title Films, Scholastic Entertainment, Nelvana Films, PolyGram, Blockbuster Video and the Disney Channel.
His final project as a producer, MK Ultra, directed by Joseph Sorrentino, recently finished postproduction.
Donations in his memory can be made to the Johnson Art Museum at Cornell toward the acquisition of artwork for its photography collection.
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