I’ve just learned that Jonathan Weisgal, the former CAA agent who was a titan in the early days of the rise of the indie film business, passed away Sunday in Los Angeles at age 55. Weisgal, who died after a 2 1/2-year fight against pancreatic cancer, was buried in New Jersey.
Many of his Hollywood colleagues saluted him today at a memorial held at The Mark in Los Angeles, where testimonials were read from industry colleagues who benefited from Weisgal’s counsel including writer-director John Singleton.
Weisgal grew up in New York and attended Emerson College for six weeks before dashing off to Hollywood to pursue his dream of working in the business. At 18, he landed a job at the foreign sales company JAD Films; five years later he was regarded as one of the top foreign sales agents in the business and by 1986 was running New World International.
When Mike Ovitz decided to start a business to empower independent filmmakers, he brought in Weisgal in 1987, after he wrote a business plan. All this resulted in the formation of CAA’s Independent Finance Group, where Weisgal and pioneers like John Ptak established a formidable business. Early successes included the Madonna documentary Truth Or Dare and The Commitments, films built on a formula where small budgets were covered with foreign sales, leaving those films in profits once domestic deals were made, before the films were released.
When Phillips-owned Polygram chief Michael Kuhn made a move into entertainment in 1994, Ovitz sent Weisgal to be his guide. Acquisitions included Working Title and A&M Films, before the assets eventually were sold to Universal. Weisgal became Ruth Vitale’s lieutenant at New Line’s indie division Fine Line. Perhaps the shining moment in his three-year run came during the Sundance chase for the movie Shine. Weisgal saw it early and pursued it hard, ending up in a hotel room with the filmmakers. As legend has it, Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein found out and, in those days before everybody had a cell phone, called their room continuously, telling the filmmakers not to take the offer until he had his shot. Finally, Weisgal unplugged the phone and closed the deal. The film was a major art house hit, earning an Oscar for its star, Geoffrey Rush.
New Line founder Bob Shaye called Weisgal “a dynamic, quixotic talent, often brilliant, mercurial and loyal.”
Weisgal was a resourceful salesman, recalled his close friend, the Arlook Group’s Richard Arlook, who grew up in the business alongside his late pal. He recalled when Weisgal was conscripted to sell the New World library, not an easy task. After securing a giant suite in Tokyo, Weisgal arranged for delivery of five huge flower arrangements, each addressed to him. When prospective buyers saw them delivered as buyers came through, they asked Weisgal who sent the flowers. “Jonathan told them, ‘I really can’t say, but they are your competitors,’ ” Arlook said. “He made the deal. He was very good at working outside the box.”
Weisgal later started the indie shingle Jersey Shore for Jersey Films partners Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher. That extended a relationship that began at CAA, when he helped piece together the financing for Jersey’s Ben Stiller-directed Reality Bites. Weisgal struggled with substance abuse at times in his life. Shortly after getting sober three years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer.
Arlook said his friend bravely fought the disease, and didn’t tell many people. “He had gotten the light back in his eyes, and was ready for another chapter, but then the cancer happened,” Arlook said. “He never bitched and complained about it, though. He used to tell me, ‘Sure, I had some lows in life, but I also had highs in my career that very few people experienced.’ ”