Seth Willenson, a longtime marketing and distribution executive and producer who pioneered the Midnight Movie marketing concept and mentored many industry leaders, died Friday at his home in Los Angeles after a long bout with heart disease. He was 74.
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Willenson began his 52-year career in 1970 as employee No. 2 at New Line Cinema. It was there that he innovated the theatrical marketing concept of the Midnight Movie. He began with the 1936 anti-cannabis propaganda film Reefer Madness and continued for more than a decade with soon-to-be classics such as Pink Flamingos, Sympathy for the Devil and blockbuster The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is still being enjoyed today in late-night showings, making its release the longest-running in movie history.
Speaking of long runs, about 20 years after his first stint at New Line, Willenson returned as President of Telecommunications & Planning. He subsequently served as a producer and EP on numerous indie films, most notably Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging (1992) and the Chuck Norris starrer Top Dog (1995).
Willenson was responsible for marketing the family movie Shiloh, released by Warner Bros in 1997. It became a top-selling video and resulted in two sequels.
The film’s writer-director Chip Rosenbloom remembered: “Seth took our little movie and created a unique strategy for it – and was instrumental in turning it into a big success. He was passionate about the arts and had a brilliant understanding of the business side too, a rare combination. He became a great friend, and his love for his family and friends was inspiring. His passing is a big loss.”
Willenson’s long career included a stint as Corporate VP Acquisitions for RCA SelectaVision Video, where he mentored future industry leaders, including a young Jim Gianopulos, who issued the following statement on Willenson’s passing:
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. 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.
Cinema will endure, as will Seth’s legacy, but his loss will always be felt by the industry he loved.
Earlier in his career, Willenson served as SVP of Films Inc, the exclusive 16mm non-theatrical distributor for MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox. While there, he assembled an impressive sales and marketing team which included future Sony Pictures Classics honchos Michael Barker and Tom Bernard as well as soon-to-be Columbia/TriStar Home Video exec — and now indie producer — Larry Estes.
After working as SVP Programming and Promotion for United Satellite Communications Inc, Willenson moved to the West Coast as VP Paramount TV Group, where he specialized in finding unique, award-winning product such as My Life as a Dog and Stand and Deliver.
For the past 20 years he led Seth Willenson Inc., lending his skills as a producer and media and marketing consultant to companies and people such as GoodTimes Home Video, Working Title Films, Scholastic Entertainment, Nelvana Films, Paramount Pictures, New Line Cinema, PolyGram, Blockbuster Video, Saul Zaentz, Harry Thomason and The Disney Channel. His final project as a producer, MK Ultra, directed by Joseph Sorrentino, recently finished postproduction.
In lieu of flowers, Willenson’s family suggests donations be made to the Johnson Art Museum at Cornell University toward the acquisition of artwork for the photography collection in memory of Seth Willenson ’68. Those donations can be made by clicking here.
Information on memorial services to come.
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