When prominent people die, obituaries often declare the end of an era. In the case of Irwin Young, who died this past Thursday at the age of 94, there’s an added poignancy to seeing his death through that lens, as we are living through a time when everything he stood for is under threat. Anyone who lived through the modern history of independent film can tell you: much of that history could not have happened without him.
My first encounters with Irwin were in 1975, when I started working at an independent distribution company called Cinema 5. Irwin was on the Board of Directors of the company, a role I found out later was due to an investment he had made to provide a possible avenue for the distribution of films made by his brother Bob. I was a lowly non-theatrical salesperson, but I had contact with Irwin when he made the occasional trip to the Cinema 5 office, and more frequently at Irwin’s film lab, DuArt, where we would screen films for possible acquisition, manufacture all of our film prints, work on subtitling and dubbing foreign language films, and produce trailers and radio spots for our films. Whenever we were in the building, Irwin would always pop in to say hello, make sure everything was all right and schmooze about what was going on in the film world.
Just walking into the DuArt Building, you could sense that this was someplace special. The smell of film processing chemicals was in the air as filmmakers — ranging from students to the already famous — streamed in and out, waiting patiently for the famously slow elevators, lining up for screenings on the 9th floor, waving as they caught glimpses of each other when the elevator stopped on nearly every floor. There were the mysterious floors that were locked off with signs that read “no exit.” That, it would seem, was where the real magic was happening.
At one point, I got my nerve up to ask Irwin a favor. I had made a bunch of 16mm films in college that I couldn’t show anyone because I could never afford to do the necessary lab work to make completed prints. I asked if I could get some kind of discount. He told me to bring in my materials and he would see what he could do. When I came in at the appointed time, he brought me to a part of the building I had never seen before. It was one of the “no exit” floors. We went through a thick door into a world that looked like something out of a science-fiction film. People hovered over workstations, wearing white lab coats and cotton gloves. He introduced me to a woman who was going to teach me how to cut my own negative; once I was done, DuArt would do the rest of the lab work for free. I was stunned. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the sort of thing Irwin did for filmmakers all the time.
That gesture, that favor, was the beginning of a friendship that lasted more than 40 years. Over the decades, Irwin did me so many favors I can’t remember them all, but here are a few examples of his generosity. In the 1980’s when I was involved with the startup of a new distribution company called Cinecom, Irwin extended us enough credit to do all the lab work necessary for our first year of operations, solely on the basis of our relationship. Without that, we never would have survived that first year and become the successful distribution company that we became. Many years later when I co-founded Emerging Pictures, a network of digital cinemas, Irwin gave us our office space, at first for free and then at a highly discounted rate. Might I point out that what we were doing — digital projection — was potentially the death knell for a film lab? It was all about the relationship.
Much like other recipients of Irwin’s generosity, I returned the many favors by being a loyal DuArt customer. Throughout my career, I steered as much work as possible to DuArt, even when my employers had other ideas.
Irwin’s generosity could get him into trouble at times, and he constantly talked about filmmakers who were given services on credit only to stiff him in the end. His employees were the heavies who had to collect from these filmmakers when they needed a final print for a festival deadline. But the final decision always went to Irwin, and Irwin could not say no.
Irwin’s brother Bob Young, a lauded independent filmmaker, was the inspiration for many of the innovations that Irwin brought to DuArt. As we all know, independent filmmaking is a tough vocation, and uncompromising filmmakers like Bob have it even tougher. Seeing the world through his brother’s lens gave Irwin a unique perspective that led to DuArt becoming the premiere film lab for 16mm (and super 16mm) to 35mm blows-ups, and to investing in extraordinarily expensive equipment to transfer digitally shot films to 35mm. These services were critical for small independent films to be eligible for Oscars and, for that matter, to have any chance at a commercial market.
During the ‘80s and ‘90s, DuArt was doing so much of this work that an enormous percentage of films that premiered at Sundance were going through the lab at the same time with the same deadlines. It became part of the job to prioritize the films so that none of them missed their premiere dates.
In the early years of Sundance, Irwin threw condo parties that were perhaps the largest gatherings of indie filmmakers, both above and below the line, anywhere — certainly larger than any official Sundance party. It was such a gigantic networking opportunity that, over the years, the parties got so big that Irwin finally decided enough was enough.
Irwin’s generosity extended to many of the other organizations for independent filmmaking, including taking an early lead role in what became the Independent Feature Project (now the Gotham); and serving as President of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers; President of the Association of Cinema and Video Laboratories; Chairman and Board Member of New York’s Film Forum; and President of Film at Lincoln Center. There were many awards along the way, from one of the earliest Gotham Awards to an honorary Oscar for Technical Achievement.
Throughout all of this, Irwin remained humble. He insisted that he was “just an engineer” and would demur about his importance. During the early 2000’s, when my office was on the 4th floor of the DuArt Building — one of those “no exit” floors before whatever went on there had been rendered obsolete — Irwin paid me a daily visit. He would complain about how technological change was eating into his business, but then invariably, he would want to reminisce about the early days, when independent film was new and exciting and how much fun it was to be part of it.
If there were a Guinness Book of World Records entry for most “thank you” credits at the end of films, I can’t imagine that anyone else could have more than Irwin. If you don’t believe me, check out IMDb. But even that impressive statistic doesn’t capture the impact that this one man had on a cultural movement that, at this moment, many would relegate to the past. People forget that the arts have always required champions, and this is as true today as ever. Irwin Young was one of those champions. The loss stings all the more for this.
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