The stealth king of the New York film biz is not a producer, financier or agent.
Dan Talbot manages a single asset: the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. The six-screen venue on Broadway between 62nd and 63rd sits on some of the most valuable real estate in the world. As a result, it has served for decades as a conduit to the Gotham intelligentsia and a matchless incubator of commercial and award success.
Companies clamor for bookings at the Upper West Side site, especially this time of year. Unlike the mass-scale megaplex deals hammered out for studio product, whatever screens at the Plaza is personally endorsed by Talbot.
“He is unequivocally the most independent exhibitor in America,” marvels Steve Gilula, distrib prexy at Fox Searchlight. “He’s kept it small, kept it lean and he’s about movies.”
To salute his work as an exhib as well as heading arthouse distrib New Yorker Films for 40 years, Talbot will receive the Gotham Awards’ Industry Lifetime Achievement Award tonight.
Talbot, who is in his mid-70s, spent his early career as a book editor, film critic and, briefly, a Warner Bros. development executive. Around 1960, he found his calling by managing, programming and eventually owning the old New Yorker Theater on Broadway.
“I had a 900-seat theater and I thought of it as my living room,” he says. “As a cinephile, I thought about playing movies that I wanted to see. I didn’t think about what would go over well.”
Star retrospectives were rare in those days, but Talbot popularized them, spotlighting such figures as Humphrey Bogart, Preston Sturges, W.C. Fields and Henry Fonda. Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich and Barbra Streisand joined the enthusiastic crowds.
Over the years, he also championed foreign filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose 1979 “Marriage of Maria Braun” played for a year straight. Palme d’Or winner “The Tree With the Wooden Clogs” (1978), from Italian helmer Ermanno Olmi, was one of New Yorker’s left-field smashes. Last year, doc “My Architect,” distribbed by New Yorker, played for 16 weeks at the Plaza (after an eight-week run at the Film Forum) and scored an Oscar nom.
The Plaza has changed with the times, splitting into two in 1981 and again in 1992 into its current six-screen incarnation. But Talbot’s ritual is the same: He often gets videotapes from distribs for a first look. (“I can tell from the first 20 or 30 minutes,” he avers.)
If the video holds up, he’ll request a screening on 35mm. In almost all cases, it’s an audience of one, though in the New Yorker days, his wife and her parents, who lived next door, helped run the theater.
Influence has sometimes begotten imperiousness, his critics assert — off the record, of course. He has reportedly insisted on release-date changes, or flat-out refused pics that manage to become huge hits. But even detractors acknowledge Talbot is unfailingly honest when settling accounts — always the most contentious end of the exhib biz.
At an age when many movie vets are perfecting their golf swing, Talbot is still wielding enormous clout from a darkened screening room. Without an heir apparent, he did sell a controlling interest in his businesses to Chip Selig, former head of Madstone Films. But Talbot still runs the show.
Shortly before chatting with Variety, Talbot spoke for half an hour to a well-known and desperate studio chief.
“He really needed a screen on the Upper West Side,” Talbot recalls. “I said it’s not going to happen. His film was too boring.”