Don Harris, the former president of domestic distribution at Paramount and before that at DreamWorks and a former exec at AMC Theaters, has passed away after battling brain cancer, his family said. His children, his wife and twin brother were by his bedside when he passed on April 1. He was 65. Harris was a well-known name in both the distribution and exhibition industries but also was a big philanthropist which many in the industry were not aware of.
Harris, through Variety, The Children’s Charity, worked to help better the lives of Ukrainian gypsy children. In the first year working with orphaned children in the Ukraine (about four years ago), Harris helped gather donations to clothe the kids and also to build a facility so that they could receive healthcare. That first year he became involved was the first year no child died. He continued to work to better their lives up until the time of his death. Harris got involved in the organization because of his father, John Harris, who owned the Sheridan Theater in Pittsburgh where an abandoned baby was found. That child, Catherine, was then taken under the care of the Variety Club where John was President and after that, Variety, The Children’s Charity grew and flourished.
Harris was a past Variety International Board Director and active member of the Variety International Children’s Fund.
In addition to the industry charity, he worked tirelessly behind the scenes with his championship softball teams to help several young women get into college and receive scholarships. Those girls, since graduated, came to visit him in hospice to thank him for the impact he made on their lives. Harris would often say, “You should leave the world a better place than you found it.”
“I co-own movie theaters in Palm Desert, and in the process of booking films, I got to know Don,” said ESPN’s Steve Mason, a friend of Harris’ for over a decade who also worked with him on the Variety International Ukraine project. Mason said that Harris flew to Budapest and went into the orphanages to make sure the money was being properly spent for the kids.
Interestingly, Harris’s family has quite a lineage in the exhibition business. In fact, his grandfather John P. Harris opened the first theater that exclusively showed motion pictures in the United States in Pittsburgh, PA. He opened it with his brother, Harry, in 1905.
“I considered him to be my best friend. He was a guy of great principle,” said Mason. “When he took over at Paramount, he decided he was going to not honor certain film clearances and took a really bold position that other studios are now just catching up to, like Fox. He stuck up for the little guy in exhibition. He always said that he thought everybody should compete but wanted to make it a fair fight.”
The trajectory of his professional career began when he was a film buyer for AMC Theaters and then became president of film at AMC. He then left that job to oversee distribution for DreamWorks SKG in 1995 when the company was really just starting out and needed someone with exhibitor experience to get their films into the best theaters. They chose Harris for the role.
“He not only taught me everything about this business specifically, but taught me how to be a business person and how to balance being a strong executive, a parent and a friend. That’s the most important thing I learned from him,” said ArcLight Cinemas exec VP of programming Gretchen McCourt, who was Harris’ niece and worked for him for six years at AMC. “No one in Don’s life ever felt like they were being short-changed. When you were with him, you felt you were getting 100% of his attention, and that was truly a gift.” She has been at ArcLight for nine years.
When DreamWorks sold to Viacom, he moved with the company to over see the domestic sales division for the Motion Picture Group, working alongside another veteran distribution/exhibition executive named Jim Tharp. He stepped into Tharp’s role and distributed some great films over those 14 years that he was at the studio.
He worked on tentpoles like the Mission: Impossible series, other franchises like the Anchorman, the Jackass and Paranormal Activity series (all profitable), as well as the critically acclaimed Saving Private Ryan and The Wolf Of Wall Street.
“Don was a mentor and a friend,” said Kyle Davies, president of domestic distribution at Paramount. Davies stepped into the job previously occupied by his friend. “I worked with him at DreamWorks and at Paramount and I consider him one of the best strategists in the business. I learned so much from him. I will miss him.”
Harris, who graduated from USC, also was a die-hard football fan. “He loved USC football,” said Mason, who hosts the USC pre-games for ESPN. “In the end, he and I went to every USC game together for 8 or 9 years. In the last two years when he was sick, we figured out how to get him to watch the games and he loved going. Even though he was very, very sick, he never missed a game.”
Harris, also a father of three girls — Lindsay, Kelly and Bailey — coached all of them in softball.
He is survived by Susan, his wife of 42 years, his beloved girls, his two granchildren Kolton Carter Kazdoba and Karson Don Kazdoba, his brother Dennis and sister Donna Greenfield. In Don’s memory, the Harris family is asking for donations to be sent to the charity he loved Variety, The Children’s Charity to continue his legacy. Memorial plans will be announced at a later date.