Studio exec and international distribution pioneer Norbert Auerbach, who served as president of United Artists in the late 1970s, died Dec. 12 in Prague after a brief illness. He was 87.
The multilingual exec traveled Europe with the Beatles to help promote “A Hard Day’s Night,” helped bring Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels to United Artists and was brought in to help stabilize UA during the “Heaven’s Gate” debacle. As an international distribution exec, he oversaw international releases for films such as “And God Created Woman” with Brigitte Bardot, as well as several installments of the James Bond and Pink Panther franchises.
A fixture at the Cannes Film Festival for nearly three decades, “He fairly twinkled at festival time, exuding practiced charm in English, French, German and Czech,” related Steven Bach’s book “Final Cut,” about the making of “Heaven’s Gate.”
After serving as UA’s head of international distribution, Auerbach was named president of United Artists; he made the announcement at the 1981 Cannes fest that UA had been purchased by MGM. He soon ankled MGM/UA to become president of United Intl. Pictures, which distributed films overseas for Universal, Paramount, United Artists and MGM. Filmgoing was at a low point in the U.K. and European territories at the time, and Auerbach and co-prexy Pana Alafouzo played a part in helping to increase the importance of international box office for U.S. studios.
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Born in Vienna, Auerbach grew up in a luxurious villa on the grounds of the Barrandov Studios in Prague, the son of a prominent Czech producer. His family left Prague just before the Germans invaded, landing first in Paris and then Brazil before settling in Maryland.
After starting at UCLA, Auerbach enlisted in the U.S. Army, then returned to college to study business. Originally intending to manage his father’s orange orchards in Israel, he studied soil science but instead turned to working on his father’s film productions. Striking out on his own, he began working in international distribution, principally for United Artists. According to an interview he gave with a Czech website, Auerbach advised the studio seek out more internationally oriented action franchises and consider adapting Fleming’s novels.
Auerbach retired to Prague after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and became chairman and consultant for Lucerna Film, as well as a consultant to Barrandov Studios.
In recent years he published a book in Czech, “From Barrandov to Hollywood,” about his experiences, and participated in a Czech documentary about his life. He was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the Czech Motion Picture and TV Academy.
He is survived by his wife, Alena; four sons; and two sisters.