Showbiz Celebrates 45 Years of Victor Loewy’s Impact on Independent Cinema

Victor Loewy overcame a childhood of adversity to make a mark on the landscape of Canadian cinema and worldwide film distribution.

“I grew up in Romania, and my childhood was not normal in any traditional sense,” Loewy says.

Both his parents’ families died in the Holocaust. His father left the family when he was only a year old, and he lived with his mother and sister in communist Bucharest until age 18.

Then, in 1964, they were allowed to immigrate to Montreal. Loewy went on to graduate with a B.A. in German and economics from McGill U. in 1971, before jumping head-first into an industry of which he wasn’t exactly.

“I was most intrigued by the business side of filmmaking, the dealmaking world and distribution. Before that, I’d seen films strictly as entertainment, but I figured I could do something exciting within the world of cinema.”

While music, food, clothing design and architecture were his original passions, Loewy’s love for cinema took root while he was a student at McGill. And that’s where he met long-time friend and business partner Robert Lantos. In 1971, acquiring the rights to “The Best of the New York Erotic Film Festival,” they founded Vivafilm.

“We were both studying at McGill during a period of intense political turmoil,” says Lantos, who is now a producer for Serendipity Point Films. “And Victor was fully focused on one thing — making money. He was a wheeler-dealer during a time when nobody else was. We started our first company in a tiny little office across from the campus, with chairs and desks that we took from the student union.”

From there, a relationship was forged that would become Alliance Films, which was founded in 1984. “Victor has the extreme entrepreneurial spirit of a penniless immigrant who had no choice but to sink or swim,” says Lantos. “He looked after his mother while he was a full-time student in college, working numerous jobs to make sure she was taken care of. He’s worked hard for everything in life. He’s the opposite of a millennial.”

A proud Canadian, Loewy credits the country with saving him on more than one level. “Canada is the country that gave me the dignity of feeling like a human being,” he says. And in exchange, Loewy helped to give his adopted country a strong independent film industry.

In 1994, something seismic happened. “One of the most important films of all-time is ‘Pulp Fiction,’ which was revolutionary because it changed the way people looked at the business side and the artistic side of filmmaking, and how those two worlds could merge,” Loewy says. “And the success of the film allowed us to do new things with our company. ‘Pulp Fiction’ made independent films fashionable again, and it changed so many careers. It really is one of the most influential pieces of cinema of all-time.”

Loewy also holds David Fincher’s 1995 blockbuster thriller “Seven” in very high regard. “That film changed the rules for the genre, and everyone wanted a piece of it.”

Loewy’s dual focus is yet another aspect to his career that inspires many.

“Victor is one of the most extraordinary film people I’ve met,” says filmmaker Denys Arcand, who worked with Loewy on the Oscar-winning “The Barbarian Invasions.” “He’s extremely generous and very knowledgeable about both the business and creative side of the industry.” Arcand’s wife and producing partner, Denise Roberts, recalls how “Victor made a few phone calls, and then all of a sudden we had four international distributors who came to Montreal to see ‘The Barbarian Invasions’ and made offers. Victor would go all out for the movies he believed in, and of course Miramax bought our film and we’ve been working with Victor ever since.”

Getting films seen by the people who wanted to view them has always been on Loewy’s agenda. “He’s been the champion for so many films and filmmakers that without his support and influence wouldn’t have found an audience,” says David Kosse, president, international, STX.

And that’s been the name of the game for Loewy after all of these years — bringing impactful films to a broad audience.

“He was one of the smartest international distributors, and each film was different in his eyes,” says Piers Handling, who serves as president and CEO of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival. “Victor was one of the key people to get the word out on TIFF, and became a key fixture at the festival. I’ve always loved his passion and full commitment.”

Loewy has also been seen as mentor figure to many successful film executives, not only in Canada, but also the world. “Victor always believed in me, even before I believed in myself,” says Robert Walak, president of Focus Features. “He’s helped so many people with getting their careers started. He thinks long-term, and has integrity in spades. He’s a very cultured man with many passions, and he’s got a real nose for anything of quality.”

And it’s Loewy’s sharp instincts that have set him apart. “He just knows when something is right, and he always went with his gut instincts, and would never over-analyze a situation,” Walak says. “The first time we screened ‘The King’s Speech,’ Victor was beaming. He immediately knew we had the goods.” Walak handled the films when he was an exec at Alliance Films/Momentum Pictures.

Prolific Canadian producer Niv Fichman (“Enemy,” “Hobo With a Shotgun”) can speak to Loewy’s sense of style, as well as his excitement for cinema. “Victor is my clothing mentor, as he’s always one step ahead of the curve. I always see him sizing me up and down and I never feel adequate! But it’s his love for everything that defines him.”

When Fichman was a newbie, it was impossible not to notice the mark that Loewy was leaving. “All roads led to him, and he was so far ahead of everyone else. When I was just getting started, he was at such a high level, and was already a legend. You wanted to work for him and to get to know him.”

The industry’s changing attitudes toward talent and content continue to intrigue Loewy, who feels “cautiously optimistic” about the future of Canadian cinema.
“So many great Canadian talents have been lured to Hollywood, which is of course understandable,” he says. “David Cronenberg and Xavier Dolan have been shining examples of what Canadian cinema truly means. There’s also the issue of the lack of available talent in Canada, and the country is making smaller and smaller films as a result.”

And in terms of more progressive distribution methods, Loewy isn’t necessarily convinced of the long-term prospects. “Netflix has picked up the slack, and I’m very happy that they’re funding the smaller, more character-driven dramas that the majors have all but abandoned,” he says.

His only issue with streaming: “I’m still not in agreement with their distribution model, because I do feel that movies deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. But I can’t begrudge Netflix from stepping up and taking chances, which nobody ever wants to do.

“Amazon is another outlet that has done some great work to help smaller productions, and they are seemingly interested in the theatrical experience, which is great.”

Victor Loewy’s passion for cinema runs so deep that when asked to name 10 personal favorite projects, he listed close to 20 but managed to whittle the list down a little. But that’s what happens when your hands have touched some of the most eclectic and important films from the past 40-plus years.

1 Victor Loewy and Robert Lantos invested $500 to bring the compilation film “The Best of the New York Erotic Film Festival” (1973) to the McGill Film Society. The screenings sold out and the movie ended up grossing $1 million at the Canadian box office, a record at the time.

2Loewy is incredibly proud of the Italian films he helped to introduce to Canadian audiences, including “Prova d’Orchestra,” “Il Postino,” “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” “Mediterraneo” and “Cinema Paradiso,” which Loewy discovered first, and went on to win an Oscar for foreign-language film.

3 Lasse Hallstrom’s tender coming-of-age drama “My Life as a Dog” became a huge success all over the world in 1995, and Loewy was one of the first people to see the potential in the generational tale of family and love.

4 Dusan Makavejev’s 1981 Swedish black-comedy “Montenegro” became one of the first big foreign-language box office hits of Loewy’s career, not to mention scoring huge with critics.

5 The adaptation of 1990’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” became a runaway box office smash all over the world, giving Loewy’s Alliance Films a tremendous boost, and cementing a long-standing output deal with New Line Cinema, with other successes including 1994’s “Dumb and Dumber” among many others.

6 Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 “Pulp Fiction” changed cinema as we currently know it, becoming one of the first “art films” to cross $100 million in American box office receipts, with $14 million more in Canada. The film changed the distribution business for specialty films and helped with keeping Alliance in top position as Canada’s major distribution company.

7 The Loewy-backed “The Barbarian Invasions,” which was directed by French-Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand, would win the 2003 Oscar for foreign-language film.

8 Loewy had his hands in all facets of the moviemaking process, and his collaborations with filmmaker David Cronenberg on “eXistenZ” and “A History of Violence” afforded him the chance to work on the development of the scripts, as well as the marketing plans.

9 Atom Egoyan’s heartbreaking 1997 drama “The Sweet Hereafter” stands as another favorite for Loewy, with the film screening to rave reviews all around the world, winning awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and scoring two Academy Award nominations.

10 Loewy credits the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy as being instrumental to the overall success of Alliance, as it generated more than $150 million at the Canadian B.O.

11 Tom Hooper’s award-winning 2010 drama “The King’s Speech,” which was mostly financed by Alliance/Momentum, became a massive financial success while also winning seven Oscars, including best picture and best director.

12 The French-Canadian 1985 drama “Le Matou” was a monster hit with domestic audiences and critics, and stands as the first Canuck film distributed by Alliance.

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