Richard Del Belso, a longtime research executive who worked with a bevy of big filmmakers both at Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. and really changed the course of how movie research was conducted, died March 5 after a year-long battle with lung cancer. He was 76.
His death was confirmed by his husband, jazz singer and lyricist Mark Winkler. Del Belso, who worked on films from Animal House to The Deer Hunter at Universal and on such pics as The Matrix, Chariots Of Fire and the Lethal Weapon series (to name only a few) at Warner Bros., often influenced the final cut of the film based on the research he conducted and his keen understanding of data.
“Richard was the best research guy I’ve ever come across,” said former Warner Bros. chairman Bob Daly. “He was smart and thorough; he spoke his mind, and he was right 90% of the time. He was also just a really good person. He certainly will be missed.”
In communicating data results to filmmakers and executives, Del Belso was unbiased, constructive, analytical, and non-judgmental. When the situation warranted, though, he could be quite blunt (he once told a producer, “Let’s face it. It’s a turkey!”) His reports, always signed “RDB,” were clear and concise.
Filmmakers Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon, The Goonies) and Lauren Shuler Donner (Free Willy, Dave, You’ve Got Mail) worked with Del Belso for years. “Richard was very special. On a personal level, he was just fun to be around; on an executive level, his research and insightful interpretations were absolutely invaluable to Lauren and me during our post-production and marketing phases,” they said in a statement.
Del Belso began his career in the early 1970s in New York at Benton & Bowles before moving to Grey Advertising (one of many executives to come from Grey into the entertainment industry — and into Warner Bros.). At Grey, he handled automobile and national brand packaged-goods campaigns.
He moved to Los Angeles after Universal Pictures hired him to become their research director in 1976. Among the notable films he worked on there were the aforementioned Animal House, The Wiz, The Jerk, Oscar Best Picture contender Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Oscar Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter.
In 1978, it was Del Belso who sought the outside services of Joe Farrell (now deceased) and Catherine Paura, partners in what was then the newly formed National Research Group (NRG). Together, he and NRG were the first to take research methods used in their previous fields — political research at The Harris Poll and traditional advertising — and creatively apply them to movies.
Those new techniques changed the face of movie market research and are now standard practice — test screenings, trailer and TV commercial testing, seasonal preferences by audience, socio-demographics analyses, as well as then patented weekend tracking studies predicting opening-weekend box office numbers.
Del Belso moved over to Burbank-based Warner Bros. in 1980 as VP Market Research and was then promoted to Senior VP Market Research and Strategy Development at Warner Bros. Pictures. After that, he became an integral part of every major Warners title for the next 25 years, including four Academy Award Best Pictures — the aforementioned Chariots Of Fire, Driving Miss Daisy, Unforgiven, and Million Dollar Baby — as well as the franchises of Mad Max, Harry Potter, Batman, Superman, the aforementioned Lethal Weapon, and The Matrix.
Those who knew him best said his unique perspective on the business came from his world travels and extensive knowledge and love of the arts — from classical music to jazz, art, opera, theatre and classic films.
Del Belso was an active member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, serving on the Screening Committees for Foreign Films and Animated Features and was board president of the 18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica’s artist residency program. He was an avid movie poster aficionado with a collection that totals more than 2500, including film noir, Westerns, Hollywood musicals, and the films of Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut, and Michael Powell, among others.
He was born Richard Michael Del Belso on August 9, 1939, in Albany, NY. He attended Vincentian Institute where he was the valedictorian of his graduating class, then earned a Bachelor’s degree from Fordham University and a Master’s degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from New York University School of Arts and Entertainment. In addition to his husband and partner of 35 years, he is survived by a sister, Laraine Del Belso of Albany; two brothers-in-law, Richard Winkler of Sherman Oaks, CA. and Robert Winkler of Thousand Oaks, CA.; and a nephew Michael Winkler of Los Angeles. His parents Angelo and Margaret, and a sister, Beverly, predeceased him.
A celebration of Del Belso’s life is scheduled for Wednesday, March 23, 11 AM at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles with a reception following nearby at Catalina’s Jazz Club. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made in his name to the Washington Humane Society (support.washhumane.org), The American Film Institute (afi.com/membership), and The American Cancer Society (donate.cancer.org).