Art-film exhibitor has made career of good taste

Dan Talbot, the renowned art-film exhibitor and distributor, “never cared about the film marketplace,” he says. “How I managed to survive all these years with zero interest in the business end of things always puzzled me.”

Talbot’s lack of attention to commerce may have finally caught up with him — his 44-year-old distribution company, New Yorker Films, shuttered in March — but he still runs Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, one of Gotham’s preeminent arthouses. At 82, Talbot may be down one company, but he’s far from out.

If New Yorker’s demise marks the end of an era, the company’s legacy — and Talbot’s influence — continues. Talbot, in effect, paved the way for the contemporary indie industry, seizing upon new trends in international and American cinema and bringing the films to upscale audiences hungry for something new.

“It was a pretty fertile, fresh, open field,” says Talbot, who managed the old New Yorker Theater in 1960 and started his distribution efforts with the 1965 release of “Before the Revolution,” the debut film by Bernardo Bertolucci. “I had no interest in distribution,” says Talbot, who decided to take on the film when the producer refused to allow a single booking at the New Yorker Theater. “I made him a very small offer and I got the film, and that was the beginning of New Yorker Films.”

While “Before the Revolution” was not successful, Talbot followed up with a number of landmark art-cinema releases in the late ’60s and ’70s, including a handful of Jean-Luc Godard titles, and many of the works of Senegalese master Ousmane Sembene and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“I bought 11 Fassbinders in one shot, like rugs,” he says). Contrary to its reputation for foreign films, however, New Yorker’s biggest successes were actually American pics: Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre,” which played for a year beginning in 1981, and Wayne Wang’s “Chan Is Missing” in 1982.

Talbot credits the success of many of the company’s groundbreaking standouts (e.g., Fassbinder’s “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre: Wrath of God”) to a confluence of factors: The films of the French New Wave helped cultivate “a climate of excitement”; critics such as Vincent Canby and Andrew Sarris championed the films and kept them alive among the cognoscenti; more New York arthouses created an expanded environment for the films and sparked word of mouth; and audiences “were extremely literate, cultivated and traveled,” he recalls. “Most people spoke at least one foreign language.”

Ultimately, however, Talbot says, he didn’t have a magic touch: “I’ve always maintained that the real distributor of a film is the film itself. There is something inside successful films that’s not definable that makes them work. The role of a distributor, seems to me, is to get behind the film and not get in front of it and fuck it up.”

Jeff Lipsky, New Yorker Films’ general sales manager from 1979 to ’83, says Talbot’s “uncannily good taste” — not to mention excellent relationships and loyalty from his directors — was a major plus, as well as the company’s strategic U.S. distribution pact with French studio Gaumont. “It really put us in the catbird seat,” Lipsky says.

Today, Talbot disparages the “casino”-like, ultra-competitive climate of the indie industry, contemporary audiences (“the cell-phone generation,” he calls them) as well as the films themselves.

“I think there’s less attention paid to the deeper, moral political issues that the great filmmakers dealt with in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” he says.

Even so, Talbot blames New Yorker’s expiration on himself — not the sale of the company to Madstone Films, the now-defunct entity that used portions of New Yorker’s library as collateral for a loan.

“I take full responsibility for the economic decline of New Yorker Films,” Talbot admits. “We always had cash-flow problems, but then there was always a film or two that came along that carried the whole load. But the last few things didn’t work,” he shrugs. “If this guy (Madstone’s Chip Seelig) didn’t come along, the same thing would have happened.”

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