From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Ben Barenholtz (October 5, 1935 – June 27, 2019) was a film exhibitor, distributor and producer, who was a key presence in the independent film scene since the late 1960s, when he opened The Elgin Cinema in New York City in 1968.
He is known for his innovations distributing and screening films; having discovered first time directors such as The Coen Brothers, David Lynch, John Sayles and Guy Maddin, and the first American presentations of Cousin Cousine, and John Woo's The Killer.
Ben Barenholtz was born Ber Barenholtz on October 5, 1935 in Kupichev, Ukraine to Aaron and Paula Barenholtz, the youngest in a family of four. He has one older brother, Rubin. The Barenholtz family spent the war years living in the Ukrainian forest. In 1947 Ben and his mother immigrated to The United States. After four years of schooling, Ben decided it was not for him, and began working. In 1957 Barenholtz joined the army, in 1958 serving in Germany. He came back to New York in 1959, and landed his first job in film as the assistant manager of the RKO Bushwick in Brooklyn, New York.
The Village Theater
From 1966–68 Barenhotlz managed and lived in The Village Theater, which ultimately became The Fillmore East. At the Village Theater Barenholtz provided a home for the counterculture, with appearances by Timothy Leary, Stokley Carmichael, Rap Brown, Allen Ginsberg and Paul Krassner. Some of the first meetings of the anti-Vietnam War movement, including Poets Against Vietnam, were held at the Village Theater. It was also a major music venue, with performances by The Who, Leonard Cohen, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Nina Simone, and many others. It also provided a space for Yiddish Vaudeville, and Chinese operas.
In 1968 Barenholtz opened the Elgin Cinema. Approaching The Film-Makers' Cooperative, Barenholtz suggested the Elgin would be a good place for experimental films, and was given Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls and $48 to get the theater started. The following month Barenholtz decided to book the theater himself.
The Elgin became the world's most innovative specialty and revival house, re-launching the films of Buster Keaton and D. W. Griffith, running a variety of independent films by young American directors, and screening cult, underground, and experimental films for the emerging counter cultural audience.
The films of Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, and Jonas Mekas, as well as early works by Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese, all played at The Elgin. The First International Cat Film Festival, and early Woody Allen tribute (pre "Sleeper") were also held at the Elgin.
Barenholtz developed new ways of screening movies. He began screening dance and opera films on Saturday and Sunday morning, and created the "All Night Show" movies starting at midnight and ending at dawn. Most notably, Barnenholtz originated the "Midnight Movie" in 1970 with Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo, which ran for six months, seven days a week, to sold-out audiences. John Lennon eventually bought the film. John Waters' Pink Flamingos followed El Topo at midnight then Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come.
Barenholtz's first foray into distribution began with King of Hearts by Philippe de Broca. Still in exhibition, he bought the state rights for New York, and began exclusively playing the movie at The Elgin, and another theater near Lincoln Center.
His next film, and his first full film in distribution, was Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville, an old film that had been re-released. While acquiring the film, he created his own distribution company Libra Films, which was later bought by The Almi Group, which he stayed with until forming Circle Releasing in 1984.
In 1972 Barenhotz formed the specialty distributor Libra Films. The first Libra Films distributed was a revival of Jean-Pierre Melville's Les Enfants Terrible, followed by Claude Chabrol's Just Before Nightfall, and Jean-Charles Tacchella's Cousin, Cousine, which became one of the largest-grossing foreign films in the US and was nominated for three Academy Awards. Around this time Barenholtz left The Elgin.
While at Libra Barenholtz also launched and distributed, among others, George Romero's Martin; John Sayles' first feature, Return of the Secaucus Seven; David Lynch's first feature, Eraserhead; Karen Arthur's First feature, Legacy; Earl Mack's first feature, Children of Theater Street; and Péter Gothár's Time Stands Still, which one the New York Film Critic's award for best foreign film.
Barenholtz sold Libra Films to the Almi Group in 1982, but stayed with the company, becoming President of Libra-Cinema 5 Films. After a year and a half he left Almi, and formed Circle Films, in partnership with Jim and Ted Pedas, which continued distributing, presenting the Coen Brothers' first film Blood Simple, among others.
Films in distribution
Barenholtz's involvement in film production began with Wynn Chamberlain's Brand X starring Abbie Hoffman in 1974, before he left The Elgin. A few years later in ‘78 he produced George Romero's Martin. The bulk of Barenholtz's production began in ‘84, when he formed Circle Releasing with Ted and Jim Pedas.
In 1984, after leaving Almi Barenholtz joined with Ted and Jim Pedas to form Circle Releasing. Among the films released by Circle were Yoshimitsu Morita's The Family Game, Guy Maddin's first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Vincent Ward's The Navigator, John Woo's The Killer, Catherine Breillat's 36 Fillette, DeWitt Sage's first feature, Pavarotti in China, Alain Cavalier's Thérèse, and Blood Simple, the first film by Joel and Ethan Coen.
With Blood Simple, Barenholtz and the Pedas brothers formed a relationship with the Coen's, and began producing their next films; Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink and Raising Arizona. Barton Fink won the Palme d'Or at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, as well as awards for Best Director and Best Actor. This was the first and last time the three top honors have all gone to the same film at Cannes.
Barenholtz Production Inc.
Created in 1983, the company began producing films after leaving Circle Releasing. Barenholtz went on to produce George Romero's Bruiser, J Todd Anderson's The Naked Man, and Adek Drabiński's Cheat, which was Philip Seymour Hoffman's first appearance in film. He executive produced Gregory Hines' directorial debut, Bleeding Hearts, and Ulu Grosbard's Georgia, which earned an Academy Award nomination for Mare Winningham. He served as co-executive producer of Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, which earned Ellen Burstyn an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actress in 2000.
Films as a producer
|The Naked Man
|J. Todd Anderson
|George A. Romero
|Requiem for a Dream
|Wakaliwood: the Documentary