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Shapira still in pickup game

'Early adopter' continues on, extends husband's legacy

LONDON — Those who feared that the death in February of legendary Israeli distrib David Shapira might mean the end of his 35-year-old company reckoned without the resilience of his wife and business partner, Dahlia.

Dahlia Shapira left the American Film Market on the first day when news of her husband’s sudden illness came through from their home in Tel Aviv. But three months later, she was back at Cannes and buying in bulk.

Shapira Films picked up more than 20 movies before and during the Croisette event, from blockbusters such as “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Aviator” and “The Singing Detective” to Cannes prize-winner “The Barbarian Invasions.”

“David has left a huge void. He was a huge personality,” his widow says. “I have to try my best to continue. David was one of the top distributors in the world. His ideas were so inventive, so creative. I’m lucky that he trained the young ones in the office.”

Since they founded the company together in 1967, David took care of releasing their movies in Israel, while Dahlia was the one who traveled the world to buy them, becoming a fixture on the international festival circuit.

The company started out handling Gallic giants such as Truffaut, Melville, Malle and Tati (it’s staging a Tati retrospective at next month’s Jerusalem Film Fest), moving on to Fellini, Visconti and Leone from Italy, then Wenders from Germany.

Over the years, the company has pre-bought 14 movies that went on to win the Academy Award for foreign-language film, as well as other Oscar winners including “Dances With Wolves,” “Traffic” and “The Pianist.”

A classic “early adopter,” Dahlia Shapira often was the first distrib anywhere in the world to sign up for a project. She took on the likes of “Saving Grace” and “sex, lies and videotape,” then talked them up to her colleagues in other countries.

This earned her the loyalty of key sales agents such as Guy East, Graham King and Ralph Kamp (“I consider them my family,” she says), and made her far more influential than the size of her territory would dictate.

“What I liked about her was that she was with me when I was making these smaller B movies, and she would tell other clients to go and buy from me,” King recalls. “I think it’s great that she has stepped up with me to my bigger films.”

Phillip Noyce came to Israel for the premiere of “Rabbit-Proof Fence” because he heard Shapira had recommended the movie so enthusiastically to other buyers.

Such relationships will be vital to help Shapira Films through the tough transition to life after the death of its co-founder. These are hard times for all distribs in Israel, with the turbulent political situation and an economic recession doing serious damage to box office takings.

But Dahlia Shapira is determined to sustain her husband’s legacy. “He loved what he did and he did what he loved. Now we are trying to do what he has done.”

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