William Becker, who with a partner acquired Janus Films in 1965, expanded its catalog of arthouse and Hollywood classics and broadened the distribution of that catalog to audiences at universities and to movie fans via DVD, died Saturday from complications of kidney failure in Southampton, N.Y. He was 88.
Becker was a theater critic, a culturally oriented financier and close associate of writers and directors whose passion for the art of film motivated him at least as much as a desire to make money.
Janus, which had been founded in the 1950s by a pair of Harvard alumni, exposed American moviegoers to the then mostly unfamiliar work of groundbreaking directors such as Italians Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni; Ingmar Bergman; Frenchmen François Truffaut and Robert Bresson; Luis Buñuel; and Japanese masters Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.
After acquiring the company, Becker and his partner Saul J. Turell secured the rights to an enormous cache of international films, including Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” and Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin,” as well as key American works like Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and the original “King Kong.”
Janus had been a small, financially shaky company; they transformed it to one that’s still prospering by expanding the means of distributing its films, from celluloid to streaming.
In 2006 the company celebrated its first half-century by releasing the DVD boxed set “Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films.” New York Times critic Dave Kehr compared this collection to the 50-volume set of the world’s literary canon selected a century earlier by Harvard president Charles William Eliot.
“Janus Films does not have quite the clout of Harvard,” Mr. Kehr wrote, “but it says a lot about the central role Janus has played in American film culture that the selections made by a modestly staffed for-profit distribution house have come to assume almost as much canonical authority as Mr. Eliot’s choices.”
Arthur William John Becker III was born in St. Louis. He enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis at the age of 15 and began corresponding with Henry Miller, the renegade author of heavily erotic novels such as “Henry and June.” Becker spent some time studying at Duke but graduated from Harvard in 1948 and, as a Rhodes scholar, earned a doctorate at Wadham College, Oxford, penning a thesis on the poet William Butler Yeats.
After a stint in the Navy, he became a drama critic for literary journal the Hudson Review in the early 1950s and a partner of Broadway producer and real estate powerhouse Roger L. Stevens, who helped Becker buy the theater magazine Playbill.
Becker and Turell, who was securing the rights to films for what became the Walter Reade Organization, bought Janus from its original owners, Cyrus Harvey Jr. and Bryant Haliday, two actors who were programming art films at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass. They expanded to a Manhattan venue in 1953 and founded Janus three years later.
In 1957, after screening two films by Fellini, they achieved their first breakthrough hit with Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.”
By the early 1960s, however, Janus was weakening, and the company was sold in 1965. During the 1960s and ‘70s, the new owners vastly expanded Janus’ library, which contained only 30 films, securing relationships with foreign distributors and acquiring rights both to experimental films and an array of classics that could be screened together in festivals as a new, younger audience embraced film not merely as entertainment but as art.
Janus benefited amid an arthouse revival, the growth in college enrollment and the introduction of an increasing number of university film courses. Later it capitalized on the nascent home video market by releasing its catalog first on laser disc, and then on DVD. It also merged with Voyager, which evolved into the Criterion Collection, and eventually expanded into distribution on cable TV and online.
Eventually Becker’s son Peter became president of Criterion. (Turell’s son Jonathan became managing director of Janus and Criterion CEO).
In addition to his son Peter, Becker is survived by his wife, choreographer Patricia Birch; another son, photographer Jonathan; daughter Alison Price Becker; a sister; and six grandchildren.