Marvin Antonowsky, an advertising and TV programming executive who revolutionized Hollywood marketing
at Universal and Columbia, died April 7 at age 86. At his funeral service on Friday morning, his friend and mentor Frank Price, who brought him into the studio system at Universal TV after he left NBC programming, and relied on Antonowsky’s encyclopedic and voracious knowledge of the industry said, “Before there was Google, I had Marvin.”
They worked as a duo at Universal, Columbia, Tri-Star and Price Entertainment.
I relied on Antonowsky as well. He was a thorough and obsessed movie maven who tried to see every movie in theaters and also kept up with Broadway and opera. Late in his life he joined the board of the L.A. Opera and advised them on marketing campaigns to bolster attendance. He taught me a lot as a reliable and quotable source over the years. He applied a rigorous business sensibility–he knew demographics as head of the research department at ABC– to analyzing what made people want to see movies, and how to persuade them to show up. He did not rely on old methods but was constantly reevaluating how to best achieve results. He loved to figure out what made movie stars tick: was Nicole Kidman cold? Was she someone who put butts in seats? Would women want to see her, or men?
Back in the 70s, Hollywood movies took the long slow rollout first perfected in the 30s, from platform release in major cities through theaters in mid-size to small towns. A specialty title like eventual Best Picture Oscar-winner “Gandhi” starring then unknown Ben Kingsley could take a year, recalls Price, who imported Antonowsky from Universal TV. He was an ad pro who updated the old-fashioned studio practices of marketing execs who usually rose up through publicity ranks. he questioned why take the slowest route on every picture when TV shows like Good Morning America and The Today Show reached millions instantly? You didn’t to take so long to build awareness of a movie in the television age.
“Basically, we went to wider platforming on several hundred screens,” Price said in a phone call. “The real final marketing was to get every screen you can and blast it out there to make sure you have enough seats to accommodate the demand you stimulate through advertising.”
Adds screenwriter Mike Mahern: “Marvin was the first marketing professional to achieve a position of power in the film industry. By showing how much better a savvy professional could do the job, he forced everyone else to modernize their marketing operations.”
Antonowsky, an intimidating six foot six, ran Columbia marketing from 1980-84, where he mounted campaigns for such films as “Absence Of Malice,” “Stir Crazy,” “Tootsie,” and “The Big Chill.” As Universal President of Marketing, he released “Out of Africa,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Fletch.” He went on to consult for TriStar Pictures on such campaigns as “Look Who’s Talking,” “The Bear,” “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” and “Steel Magnolia.”
After training for an accounting career at the behest of his family, Antonowsky went for an MBA at Manhattan’s Baruch College. He went to work at Kenyon & Eckhart ad agency, rising to Vice President of Marketing in 1957. In 1965 he became Vice President in charge of media research and spot buying at J. Walter Thompson, and after four years joined ABC as Vice President in charge of research. While a VP Programming at NBC, he helped to launch Saturday Night Live. In 1976, Price hired him as SVP for Universal Television before bringing him with him to the motion picture side.
After Antonowsky donated $2.5 million in 2008 to Baruch College, they named their Baruch Performing Arts Center the Marvin Antonowsky Performing Arts Complex.