William Becker, Who Helped Janus Films Prosper, Dies at 88

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.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • 'Bombay Rose,' Venice Premiere, Debuts Trailer

    'Bombay Rose,' Venice Film Festival Premiere, Debuts Trailer (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the trailer for animated film “Bombay Rose,” which will have its world premiere opening Venice Critics’ Week on Aug. 28. The film, written and directed by Gitanjali Rao, will also play in the Contemporary World Cinema strand at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 7. “Bombay Rose” is [...]

  • Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu speaks during a

    Alejandro G. Inarritu on the Need to Preserve Poetry in Cinema

    Alejandro G. Iñárritu is urging the film industry to guard against the influence of television storytelling in cinema, a looming crisis he said could strip film of the beauty and poetry that make it a unique artistic form of expression. Attending the Sarajevo Film Festival to receive the Honorary Heart of Sarajevo award, the Oscar-winning [...]

  • Levan Akin on the Impact of

    Levan Akin on the Impact of ‘And Then We Danced’

    Georgian-Swedish filmmaker Levan Akin is already enjoying success with “And Then We Danced,” his acclaimed social drama about a young dancer struggling with the confines of tradition and forbidden love. The film, which premiered in Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, went on to win three top awards at the Odessa Film Festival, including best film and [...]

  • Brian Oliver'Black Mass' Premiere, Toronto International

    'Rocketman' Producer Developing Comedy 'Inward Bound' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Brian Oliver’s New Republic Pictures, the company that co-financed and produced “Rocketman,” is developing a female ensemble comedy “Inward Bound.” The announcement comes on the heels of Universal’s “Good Boys” becoming the first R-rated comedy to open in first place at the North American box office  in three years, as well as the biggest opening [...]

  • Heroic Losers

    Watch Clip from Ricardo Darin’s Toronto-Bound ‘Heroic Losers’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given access to an exclusive clip and poster from Toronto Special Presentation “La Odisea de los Giles” (“Heroic Losers”) which, starring Ricardo Darín, has just scored in is native Argentina a standout opening weekend of Peso 58.8 million ($1.1 million) and 316,300 admissions for Warner Bros. Pictures. With “Heroic Losers” having released [...]

  • "The Hunt"

    'The Hunt' Director Breaks Silence on Film's Cancellation (EXCLUSIVE)

    Craig Zobel, director of “The Hunt,” hopes that the controversial political thriller will eventually be seen by audiences, and argues that its message has been misrepresented in media reports. Zobel spoke for the first time since Universal canceled the film’s release on Aug. 10, in the wake of a series of mass shootings and amid [...]

  • Mark Damon, CEO & Chairman, Foresight

    Mark Damon's DCR Finance Receives $150 Million for Financing Georgia Films (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mark Damon’s DCR Finance Corp., co-headed with financer Adi Cohen, has received a $150 million investment from Go Media Productions for Georgia projects, Variety has learned exclusively. Damon, whose credits include “2 Guns” and “Lone Survivor,” made the announcement Monday with Cohen. The deal calls for Atlanta-based Go Media Productions to join a private placement as [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content