Seth Willenson, the influential marketing executive and producer of films and home video, died March 18 in Los Angeles, a rep confirmed to Variety. According to their statement, Willenson died from heart disease. He was 74.
Willenson began his career in 1970, as an early hire at the then-young New Line Cinema. He was responsible for one of the company’s earliest successes, by promoting the 1936 anti-cannabis propaganda film “Reefer Madness” as a “midnight movie” to college campuses. As a result of his work, the film became a cult classic, and he would later be responsible for the marketing of other “midnight movies” that New Line distributed, including “Pink Flamingos,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” After leaving the company in 1973, he would return over 20 years later to become the president of telecommunications and planning in 1988.
In between, Willenson worked as a senior vice president at Films Inc., then the exclusive non-theatrical distributor for production companies like MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox. After working there until 1979, he was hired as the corporate vice president of acquisitions for RCA SelectaVision Video. There, he gave an early career break to Jim Gianopulos by hiring him for a role.
“Over 40 years ago Seth Willenson took a leap of faith on a young job applicant and in the process gave me a career,” the former 20th Century Fox head and Paramount Pictures CEO said in a statement. “I looked up to him then, and have ever since, and I have never stopped being grateful for the opportunity he gave me. I quickly came to realize that he knows more about every aspect of movies than anyone I have met since, and his abiding love of the art form combined with his extraordinary intellect have motivated and mentored all who have known him. Long ago my professional respect turned into deep affection, and I have always valued his friendship and wise counsel. Cinema will endure, as will Seth’s legacy, but his loss will always be felt by the industry he loved.”
Other major roles that Willenson held includes senior vice president of programming and promotion for United Satellite Communications Inc., as well as vice president for Paramount TV Group. At Paramount, Willenson helped the company acquire the acclaimed, Oscar-nominated films “My Life as A Dog” and “Stand and Deliver.”
For the past two decades, Willenson worked as the president of Seth Willenson, Inc., acting as a producer and media and marketing consultant for several companies, such as New Line, GoodTimes Home Video, Working Title Films, Scholastic Entertainment, Nelvana Films, Paramount Pictures, PolyGram, Blockbuster Video and The Disney Channel.
In 1997, Willenson led the marketing campaign for the family film “Shiloh,” about an abused beagle puppy that goes on a journey to escape its owner. The film, which was released by Warner Bros., was the top-selling film on home video that year, and would later receive two sequels.
“Seth took our little movie and created a unique strategy for it – and was instrumental in turning it into a big success,” “Shiloh” writer and director Chip Rosenbloom said in a statement. “He was passionate about the arts – and had a brilliant understanding of the business side too – a rare combination. He became a great friend – and his love for his family and friends was inspiring. His passing is a big loss.”
As a producer, Willenson received an Indie Spirit award nomination for his work on the 1992 Allison Anders-directed “Gas Food Longing.” He also executive produced the Chuck Norris-led action comedy “Top Dog” in 1995. Willenson’s final project as a producer, the Joseph Sorrentino-directed “MK Ultra,” just finished post-production earlier this year. Its release date has yet to be announced.