“Hungarians have a sense of superiority to Romanians,” says Lantos, dryly — it’s been a running joke between them for years. Yet, the two McGill students formed a bond. Lantos would hitchhike to school. Loewy picked him up.
Together, in the early 1970s, they had formed a tiny company named Vivafilm and managed to acquire the Canadian rights to the “Best of the New York Erotic Film Festival” — it was their first hit.
“My main interest was to make films, and Victor’s main interest was to make money. So we matched up perfectly,” says Lantos.
From a tiny office filled with borrowed furniture, the duo launched an empire. Lantos was the wordsmith and Loewy handled all the graphics for their ads and ran around town putting up posters and delivering the cans of films to theaters.
“It was so homemade,” Lantos says.
Those were the early days.
The film industry in Canada barely existed then, with just a few Quebecois films made each year, and the occasional English-language film thrown into the mix. Canadian distributors were essentially marginal players in their own domestic market, which was dominated by big Hollywood studios.
Since Loewy and Lantos’ company was the smallest, they had to be the smartest. After all, they weren’t merely competing with Hollywood studios, but also with other Canadian companies who had a lock on American independent films.
Their initial strategy, until they could build the resources to outbid other Canadian companies, was to scout for overlooked films from Europe, pics such as Dusan Makavejev’s “The Coca-Cola Kid” and Lasse Hallstrom’s “My Life as a Dog,” which were subsequently picked up for U.S. distribution because of their success in Canada.
“We had to outsmart everyone with less money,” Lantos recalls proudly. “Find jewels that hadn’t been spoken for.”
Their strategy worked, eventually leaving them with Canadian distribution rights to most non-studio films made in the U.S.
“Victor built his strength from Canada,” says Charlotte Mickie who had worked in international sales for many years at the Loewy-Lantos outfit Vivafilm Intl. and later at their Alliance shingle, which they launched in 1985. “He showed that you can have a powerhouse independent English language distributor. Which I don’t think had really been the case before.”
During Alliance’s peak years, it had grown not only to have the largest market share in Canada of all the Canadian distributors, but also on par with big Hollywood players.
“It would have been completely unthinkable in previous years, prior to building up the company,” says Lantos. Alliance grew into a production company, an international company, a broadcaster, and owned movie theaters and TV stations before being sold.
“Victor is one of a kind. The Godfather of Canadian distribution for sure but also an invaluable partner with a global perspective and his ferociously sharp creative instincts,” says Stuart Ford, chairman and CEO of AGC Studios.
Loewy was completely obsessed with and fascinated by marketing films. He had a knack for winning over the press, too.
For Loewy, distribution was a bit like a chess game — and he loved to win.
“What theaters are you going to go to, how do you get them to hold the film, how do you position your print strategically so that you manage the market for as long as possible, when you put the advertising push on, all that stuff, he loved figuring that stuff out,“ says Mickie.
“He has a very astute marketing mind,” says Lantos, “And a sense of how to position and how to market the film —adaptable to what the film is. He also has over the years built a tremendous reputation in the industry worldwide as one of the savviest film distributors anywhere, and a very deep network of relationships with filmmakers and other distributors all over the world.”
“I really loved how candid he was,” says filmmaker Atom Egoyan with a laugh, “It takes you by surprise sometimes, but it’s actually really interesting to have someone who lets you know exactly how they feel. That was really refreshing in the Canadian film industry.”
He is not American-style brash, insists Egoyan. “He’s got that European sensibility. An openness and sensitivity combined with hard business logic. It’s a hard alchemy. Not a lot of people who fit into this mold.”
Loewy has been an instrumental part of Egoyan’s career, teaching him about the world of international distribution and the commercial side of it, starting in the early days when Vivafilm distributed “Speaking Parts,” his first film to go to Cannes.
Egoyan recalls being on a film festival jury and having Loewy be particularly angry with him for not giving an award to a film Loewy was particularly passionate about. He was similarly incensed when Egoyan’s “Exotica” was in competition at Cannes with no French distributor attached — and no distributor friends of his would see the value he saw in the film. It ended up becoming the most successful film Egoyan had made in comparison to its budget, and was eventually picked up by ARP Selection in France, and Miramax in the U.S.
“He’s just really passionate about the things he believes in and is unafraid to express opinions,” says Egoyan
“His personal taste is impeccable,” Lantos says. “He has an educated palate and his personal taste is for [high-brow] films that have important stories to tell, but he also has a first-class nose for what can make money. …The Victor I know can like a film for either of those two reasons.”
As to Lantos’ favorite memory with Loewy? Walking down the Croisette in Cannes the first time they were there in 1974. “That’s my single fondest memory, I have that picture on my wall for that very reason. Landing in the Croisette. Here we are, ready to conquer.”