Ben Barenholtz, a veteran of the distribution and exhibition world who plucked David Lynch from obscurity and invented the concept of the midnight movie, died last night in Prague after a brief illness. He was 83.
Over the course of more than 50 years, Barenholtz was a major figure in the independent film community who wore a lot of hats. He began his career in the late sixties running the now-defunct Village Theater (later the Filmore East) followed by a successful stint launching the Elgin Cinema. It was there that he pioneered the concept of buzzy midnight-movie sensations, including a six-month stint for Alejandro Jodoworsky’s “El Topo” and John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos.” He also took big gambles on daring cinematic achievements, such as the six-hour Russian production of “War and Peace” and Ken Russell’s “The Devils.”
Barenholtz then ventured into distribution with Libra Films, which boasted an adventurous slate throughout the 1970s that included Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” which he bought after watching only half the movie. In 1977, while putting the finishing touches on his film, the Los Angeles-based Lynch lived with Barenholtz at his home on 33rd Street and Third Avenue while working with the lab on the final print.
During a tribute to Barenholtz at the Hamptons Film Festival in 2010, Lynch delivered an eccentric video tribute to his longtime colleague, speaking in the subtitled background speech famous from “Twin Peaks.”
“Ben saved my life in films,” Lynch said. “To oversee getting a good print, Ben gave me a room in his house. He gave me money to get food. He said I only ate McDonalds and only drank coffee. Thank you, Ben. You deserve awards.”
Following “Eraserhead,” Barenholtz released a range of films from major directors over the next several decades, including Joel and Ethan Coens’ debut “Blood Simple” and John Sayles’ first feature, “Return of the Secaucus Seven.” After Barenholtz sold off his distribution company in the early eighties, he moved into producing, with credits on everything from the Coens’ “Raising Arizona” and “Barton Fink” to Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” and George A. Romero’s “Bruiser.” (In Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” Barenholtz cameoed as a zombie.)
“Ben was our guide,” said Joel Coen at the Hamptons tribute. “He taught us to take work seriously and that you can have fun doing it.”
Later in life, Barenholtz transitioned into filmmaking himself. His 2007 debut “Music Inn,” which took five years to complete, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary focuses on the Massachusetts artists’ refuge that launched the influential Jazz Festival in the 1950s. He followed that up with “Wakaliwood: The Documentary,” the portrait of a filmmaker who lives in the slums of Wakaliga, Uganda.
In 2017, at the age of 80, Barenholtz made his narrative feature debut with “Alina,” a low-budget New York production starring Russian actress Darya Ekamasova. “People started bugging me about retirement, which pissed me off,” he told The New York Times at the time.
In 2010, Barenholtz revealed one more chapter to his eclectic life: Holocaust survivor. In a series of blog posts, Barenholtz detailed his experiences escaping into the Polish countryside with eleven other people at the age of eight. He lived in the woods for two years before the war came to an end, and his father was killed during a raid by Ukrainian fascists. “I’ve stopped believing in a grand plan that let me survive for some greater purpose,” he wrote. “My friends, I am compelled to continue on my quest to ask questions that will not get answered.”
Barenholtz is survived by his brother Rubin, who lives in Israel. Barenholtz had been living in Prague at the time of his death, according to his longtime friend, Sony Pictures Classics executive Tom Prassis, and died in his sleep surrounded by friends. His will requested his finances to be donated to children’s charities. He was cremated and had requested an Irish wake, which is expected to be organized in the coming days.