New Yorker Films, 1965-2009

A film programmer's tribute to the legendary distributor
by David Schwartz  posted February 26, 2009
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Like some kind of nightmare haiku, the following 11 words appeared on the website of New Yorker Films this past Monday: "After 43 years in business, New Yorker Films has ceased operations." The news was so stark as to be surreal. The film distribution company founded by exhibitor and cinephile Dan Talbot in 1965 had steadily built a library of films that formed an art-house pantheon. How could it "cease operations"? New Yorker Films seemed both an eternal and essential part of film culture in America. Many of the films that opened theatrically in one of Talbot's theaters¡ªthe New Yorker, the Cinema Studio, and the Lincoln Plaza¡ªwere added to the collection. Over time, cutting-edge new movies became enduring classics. As Film Society program director Richard Pe?a put it in an email, "The roster of great filmmakers associated with New Yorker Films speaks for itself. There will never, ever, be anything like it."

The names do speak volumes; a scan down the alphabetical list of directors¡ªlast names only, printed in simple block letters on the back cover of the company's annual catalogue¡ªwas the only evidence needed of New Yorker Films' stature: Almod¨®var, Antonioni, Fassbinder, Godard, Herzog, Tarkosvky. Over the years, new masters were added to the mix: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhangke, Abbas Kiarostami.

For any film programmer who's been around long enough to remember flipping through the pages of a printed catalogue rather than clicking through a website, the New Yorker Films catalogue was the bible, the primary tool for anyone putting together a quality college film series or a repertory theater retrospective. For one thing, there was really nowhere else to go. Formed just two years after the New York Film Festival, New Yorker virtually cornered the market in major new directors as various new waves or singular filmmakers emerged. If you wanted to show Fassbinder, for instance, you could get a print of Despair from New Line, but for all the other titles, and there were two or three new ones per year, New Yorker had a monopoly. Like a champion player of the board game Risk, Talbot took control of key territories around the world, expanding his reach outward from France to capture the best movies from Brazil, Japan, India, and Senegal, and even the United States.

My first film programming stint started in 1979, running the International Film Series at Purchase College. Like many programmers, I had a love-hate relationship with New Yorker. (Loved the films, hated the idea that you were at the mercy of the film booker who set the price, and you had to hope that the last college that showed the film didn't scratch up the 16mm print too badly.) When the new catalogue arrived, I¡¯d flip through the front pages, to see the new releases. Each new film was given a full page, a densely written and enticing description, and the ominous words "Rental: Apply." This meant that the film was going to be too expensive, and you¡¯d have to figure out whether you could drain $600 from the student senate film budget to show The Marriage of Maria Braun.

To balance out the luxury shopping, you¡¯d flip to the backlist in the back pages, scouring for cinematic bargains among a very high-level B-list: Alea, Dos Santos, Makavejev. How about a Gorin instead of a Godard? And you'd rely on the New Yorker stamp of approval; before the advent of home video, you couldn't see many of the films until you had rented them. So you¡¯d take your chances on Godard¡¯s Les Carabiniers, trusting both the director's track record and Talbot's. (Of course, if you have a Netflix account and want to see Les Carabiniers now, you can literally do it on this very screen, in about a minute, in streaming video.)

Continuing through the catalogue past the film descriptions, you'd flip to the programming guide and indexes in the back of the book, where the collection was divided by director, country, and theme. What these index pages made clear was that the New Yorker collection was highly curated and thoughtfully assembled. Although it was a for-profit company, ultimately at the mercy of the marketplace and perhaps doomed by the mismanagement of its parent company, New Yorker Films had a nonprofit mentality, passionately promoting high-minded film culture.   

The illusory promise of the digital age is that all great movies will be preserved and made accessible. The collapse of New Yorker Films is bracing proof that film collections, even the ones made of classics, are ephemeral. We can only hope that the New Yorker library will remain intact, that it won¡¯t be dispersed, or worse, that many of the titles won't disappear from the marketplace. As great as the individual titles are, the New Yorker Films library is greater than the sum of its parts. And it is a testament to one person's taste and judgement about which films would not just sell tickets but enrich our lives. Thank you, Dan Talbot.
 

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THE AUTHOR

David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

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