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Eric Pleskow, Exec at United Artists, Orion Involved With Best Picture Winners, Dies at 95

Eric Pleskow Dead
WIkipedia Creative Commons

Eric Pleskow, who was a key management player in United Artists and Orion Pictures over a 30-year period and was involved in the production of 14 Oscar best-picture winners, including “West Side Story,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Platoon” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” died on Tuesday. He was 95.

The Vienna International Film Festival annouced his death.

“His death is a great loss for all of us,” the festival said in a statement. “Eric had a fulfilled and long life and we appreciated him as a longtime friend and companion of our festival. As president and patron of the Viennale, he has always carried us with his humor and foresight.”

The Viennese-born executive rose through the ranks at UA under Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin and eventually became president and CEO at Orion Pictures, a motion picture company formed by Pleskow, Krim, Benjamin, William Bernstein and Mike Medavoy after the team resigned in protest from UA in 1978.

Pleskow briefly replaced Krim as chairman of Orion until the company filed for bankruptcy in 1991.

Orion’s greatest successes under his leadership were the films “Amadeus,” “Dances With Wolves” and “The Silence of the Lambs.”

In 1992 he and former Nelson Entertainment head Barry Spikings signed a three-picture commitment with French financier Initial Group to make “event” movies, though the arrangement came to naught.

But by that time, the cordial and well-spoken Pleskow had already been involved in the production of more than a dozen Oscar best-picture winners.

In 1951, he was hired by former entertainment attorneys Krim and Benjamin, who were in the process of turning Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford’s United Artists into a money-making operation. After a time as foreign department executive, he went on to be manager in South Africa and Germany and finally continental manager, based in Paris.

In 1962, Krim brought him back to New York as VP of international distribution. Eleven years later he became president and CEO of United Artists in recognition of his contributions to the company, which had risen from last place in 1951 to first place in 1977, when UA posted $318 million in film rentals, then an industry record. Pleskow had also helped engineer UA’s 10-year distribution agreement with MGM, a company that would come to own UA in later years. While he was president of UA, the company won the best picture Oscar three years running: in 1975 for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” in 1976 for “Rocky” and in 1977 for “Annie Hall.”

Pleskow was in tune with UA’s attention to the global market and to exploiting assets such as the pre-1948 Warners and RKO film libraries.

After he joined the exodus of executives from UA in 1978, protesting interference from parent company Transamerica Corp., Pleskow was key in helping to set up $100 million in financing for Orion, including distribution through Warner Bros. He was named president and CEO, a post he held until 1991.

In 1982, Orion purchased Filmways, a film, TV, manufacturing and publishing operation, and dissolved its distribution arrangement with WB. Unlike United Artists, Orion weathered almost constant financial setbacks as the Krim style of management failed to translate into the global market for films requiring expensive key talent elements and costly marketing techniques to sell it.

In 1998 Pleskow began a long reign as president of the Vienna Film Festival.

Andrea Eckert’s 2006 documentary about Pleskow, “I’m About Winning — Der Filmtycoon Eric Pleskow” was presented at the festival.

In February 2007, he was awarded honorary citizenship of Vienna.

Pleskow came to the U.S. at age 15 in 1938 and studied engineering at City College of New York. His education was curtailed by the onset of WWII. After his Army duty, he served as a civilian adviser to the U.S. War Dept.’s motion picture division. In 1948 he joined the Motion Picture Export Assn. in Germany as an assistant general manager. He also worked as a continental representative for Sol Lesser Prods.