Daniel Talbot, a distributor and exhibitor of enormous influence over specialized exhibition and distribution as well as the international film world, died Friday in Manhattan. He was 91. A memorial was held Sunday, December 31 at the Riverside Memorial Chapel with a capacity audience including many leading New York specialized players. Talbot’s wife and business partner, Toby Talbot, as well as daughters Nina, Emily and Sara attended the memorial, where the family spoke fondly about Talbot’s love for the comedian W.C. Fields.
Another more public post-holiday event marking the closing of the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas is scheduled on January 28 in New York. The last few weeks have seen Talbot’s legacy celebrated with reaction to the unexpected announcement that the six-screen Upper West Side theater would close at the end of January, at the expiration of its lease. Milstein Properties, who have been the Talbots’ co-partners in the theater since its opening in 1981, has stated that it hopes to reopen the theater after structural work to the building, with programming in line with Talbot’s legacy.
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Talbot was seen at the theater within the past week to watch “Happy End,” Michael Haneke’s most recent film. Haneke, the acclaimed Austrian-German director, was typical of the kind of international auteur who Talbot as an exhibitor and founder of New Yorker Films celebrated.
In a tweet, New York Times critic Janet Maslin begged the Academy not to forget Talbot at the Oscars:
It’s still only December. You have more than enough time to make sure that this year’s “In Memoriam” montage honors Dan Talbot, whose nearly 60-year career exhibiting and distributing great art films influenced generations. Please give him his due.
— Janet Maslin (@JanetMaslin) December 30, 2017
After an early career in book publishing, Talbot took over the New Yorker Theater in 1960. He programmed it as a repertory theater showing older films. That was not uncommon at the time, but he added a level of curation and care as well as the ability to reach an audience that were hallmarks of his exhibition career.
The theater, which championed both foreign art films as well as domestic studio fare, soon became the training school for many budding cinephiles and directors (Peter Bogdanovich was a regular attendee). Talbot soon founded New Yorker Films, which early on with masterpieces like Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s early “Before the Revolution” extended his business into distribution.
He also just before his foray into distribution produced Emile de Antonio’s seminal documentary, “Point of Order” about the Army-McCarthy Senate hearings. Ironically, it was distributed by Continental Releasing, owned by Walter Reade, whose chain of theaters at the time was central to both New York and national art house cinema.
To look back at the titles New Yorker championed is to see as significant a collection of contemporary titles and directors as any American distributor ever handled. Without Talbot it is likely they might never have seen showcased so prominently. By 1970, key films by Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, Jerzy Skolimowsky, Chris Marker and other cutting edge European directors deemed less viable by other art house distributors bore the New Yorker imprimatur. After Talbot acquired and showcased in New York such then unknowns as Senegalese Ousmane Sembene, Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, as well as key American independents, from Robert Kramer to Jim McBride, they went on to screen nationally in more daring venues (often campus film societies projecting 16mm).
As invaluable as the handling of these and other films (from such auteurs as Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette, Nagisa Oshima and Jean Eustache), New Yorker — which often acquired films more than a year after initial showings — came into its own as a mainstream specialized player in the mid-1970s with its championing of new German cinema. It became the primary source for early films from Werner Herzog (“Signs of Life,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“Merchant of Four Seasons,” “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul”) and Wim Wenders’ first American success “The American Friend.”
Those films elevated New Yorker to a major player in the specialized scene, which was then dominated by subtitled films. Wider-appeal titles like the Brazilian “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” Claude Chabrol’s “Violette,” Errol Morris’ early “Gates of Heaven,” and the Australian “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” broadened their draw while major efforts like Fassbender’s “The Marriage of Maria Braun” and Godard’s “Every Man for Himself” continued earlier relationships. Established arthouse directors like Fellini (“City of Women”) and Rohmer (“The Aviator’s Wife”) also joined Talbot’s pantheon.
But perhaps the most unlikely hit came in 1981 with Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre.” The straightforward filming of a dinner conversation between writer friends Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory became, after a slow start, the company’s biggest success. It grossed the equivalent of $16 million in 2017 ticket values. Later that decade, Claude Lanzmann’s monumental Holocaust documentary “Shoah” became a sensation (with its nearly ten-hour running time, primarily at non-theatrical locations).
The early 80s saw a growth spurt in the specialized industry, parallel to an increased interest in American independent film. By the mid-1980s, multiple new distributors were entering the market, and New Yorker faced more competition for acquisitions. But New Yorker continued to stick to top-end directors, adding more to its incredible catalog as its non-theatrical arm helped to sustain the operation for some years. But at a time when the independent film world was fueled by home video revenues, foreign language titles began to show less appeal.
Talbot sold New Yorker Films to up and coming Madstone Productions (I was the film buyer for Madstone Theaters during this period), which ended up shutting down with the collection scattered and Talbot’s days as a distributor over.
But he remained a leading exhibitor until his death. By the 1970s, he took over the Cinema Studio on upper Broadway (later twinned), which became a leading first run specialized theater for both New Yorker and other distributors’ titles. At that point, most first-run exclusive subtitled films opened on the Upper East Side towards midtown. This led to Talbot’s long partnership with Milstein Properties with the Lincoln Plaza Theaters in the basement of a new apartment complex across from Lincoln Center.
It eventually grew to six screens, and quickly became the dominant uptown Manhattan art house. And post-New Yorker Films, the theater remained beyond question the most important venue for releasing subtitled films (along with other demanding and acclaimed specialized titles). In recent years, most titles also opened at a downtown location, but with less competition and a younger audience not as attuned to foreign films, the Lincoln Plaza remained the one essential theater in New York to book (the Royal in Los Angeles is its closest equivalent).
The recent announcement of its temporary closing brings no guarantee of its return as a theater with the same risk-taking, personal booking policy that Dan Talbot showed until the end.