Cinema’s Champion: A Tribute to Boxoffice Pro Executive Editor Kevin Lally in His Final Issue

Kevin Lally (second from right) with the Film Journal International team of Andrew Sunshine, Rebecca Pahle, Bob Sunshine. Image Courtesy Film Expo Group

The story of Boxoffice Pro isn’t complete without mentioning Film Journal International, the cinema exhibition trade publication that was in print for 84 years before merging with Boxoffice Pro in 2019. And the story of Film Journal International isn’t complete without Kevin Lally, the man who served as its executive editor for its last 35 years in existence. This issue marks the last of Lally’s tenure at Boxoffice Pro, where he served as executive editor for three years following the Film Journal International/Boxoffice Pro merger. It’s only fitting, then, that we take this opportunity to pay tribute to a man who brought kindness, strength of character, and—above all—a desire to champion film to his nearly 40 years of covering the exhibition industry.

Lally grew up in Dumont, New Jersey, where he was a stone’s throw from local movie palaces—the Claridge and the Wellmont, both in Montclair, were particular favorites—an assortment of smaller cinemas, and all the brilliant theaters to be found in New York City. Trips to the movies were frequent; as he grew, he graduated from Disney (“I’d say like 50% of what I saw as a child was Disney.”) to seeing the likes of Klute, The Godfather, and Hitchcock’s Frenzy with his father, whom he describes as his “movie buddy.”

Going to college at Fordham University in the Bronx brought Lally closer to the city’s art house scene; he jokes that he “minored in repertory cinema.” He would go to Manhattan’s Elgin Theatre, his all-time favorite cinema (it now operates as a dance theater, the Joyce), for special summer screenings of Buster Keaton movies. At Radio City Music Hall, he caught Abel Gance’s Napoleon with a live orchestra. “That was the heyday of Carnegie Hall Cinema, Bleecker Street Cinema, the Thalia, the New Yorker [Theatre], all these great rep houses in New York,” he says “They would program all the classics—Fellini, Bergman. I was going down to Manhattan like three times a week to get my own personal film education.” In a foreshadowing of his later career, he was the arts editor of the Fordham newspaper; through Warner Bros., who at the time “was very active in pursuing college press,” he was further immersed in the local film critic scene, going to screenings and talking to directors (including Martin Scorsese, for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore).

Then came “the best and worst decision of my life”: Entering the distribution game. A fellow critic by the name of Ray Blanco had started a company called Bauer International, and Lally joined the team, “which was a huge mistake because we had no capitalization at all.” Their big star was Wim Wenders, who distributed his first six films through Bauer, a decision Lally still can’t claim to understand.

At the ripe old age of 22, Lally found himself at the Cannes Film Festival for Wenders’s Kings of the Road, which—though now widely considered one of his best—was panned by the Times upon opening in New York City. “We took such a financial bath with that movie, and we never recovered.” Bauer “limped along” for a few more years and then shuttered, leading Lally to move back to film criticism, working for a small newspaper in New Jersey. Not too long after, a publicist friend let him know about a job opening at Film Journal International, then owned by the trade show organization Film Expo Group. By the age of 30, he was running one of the two (along with Boxoffice) premier North American publications dedicated to the theatrical exhibition industry.

There, he worked under Bob Sunshine and his brother, Jimmy Sunshine, who let Lally pursue the films and stories he was interested in so long as the other half of the publication—that relating to the nuts and bolts of the cinema business—ran smoothly. “I have to give credit to Bob Sunshine,” says Lally. “He was trying to get this show going—what’s now CineEurope but started as ‘Cinema Expo International.’ I remember at the time, I thought, ‘Boy, is that an ambitious idea, to bring an American-style exhibition convention to Europe. If they can really make this work. …’ And they did. I think his priority was growing that side of the business, and he was just happy that he had somebody competent who could get the magazine done every month.”

Working under the Sunshines, Lally had “incredible freedom” to champion films both big and small. “If I liked a movie, I did a piece on the director. Didn’t matter what box office potential it had. If it was a worthwhile movie, I had the freedom to cover it.” Under Lally, Film Journal International covered early films from directors like Kathryn Bigelow and Cary Joji Fukunaga. The partial list of filmmakers Lally personally interviewed extends into three single-spaced pages and includes such names as Clint Eastwood, Robert Altman, Saul Bass, and the great Billy Wilder, whom Lally spoke to for his 1996 biography Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder. (Wilder, resistant to being interviewed, had to be convinced by his agent. “This was the time of the Mideast peace talks,” Lally says. “According to [the agent], Wilder said, ‘Well, if Arafat and Rabin can shake hands, I guess I can meet with Mr. Lally.”) His favorite interview was with Liv Ullman, whom he spoke to in her Upper West Side apartment. Giving the excuse that she’d just had garlic for lunch, she sat on the floor while Lally took the sofa. “So Liv Ullmann sat at my feet.”

Through it all, Lally stayed—and stays—an avid moviegoer, both writing about and experiencing the transition of cinemas from the days of sloped floors and 35 mm to power recliners and digital projectors. “The generation now has no concept of what it was like back then,” he says. “Sometimes if you went to a repertory house, you’d go see a classic film and the print had turned all red.” He was at the helm of Film Journal International through the days of digital conversion and, earlier, the “digital sound wars. You had Dolby, DTS, and Sony, all with these three competing digital audio systems, each one claiming it was better than the other. It was very tricky as a publication. How do we cover this and stay objective?”

The technology changed, but Film Journal International leadership—Sunshine, Lally, and later Rex Roberts, the magazine’s long-time designer—remained consistent, joined by a rotating cast of associate editors. His first associate editor, Wendy Weinstein, “showed me what I needed to do. We became great friends. We’re friends to this day. She actually left a year later—she got pregnant, decided she wanted to raise a family. But she was just the perfect person to show me how to do film journalism.”

Since then, Lally hasn’t been stingy about passing his knowledge on to others. “I have a lot of proteges,” Lally says. “I’m very proud.” Full disclosure: I am one of those proteges, having served as Film Journal International’s associate editor in the last four years before its merger with Boxoffice Pro, and can thus add a personal note that Lally is one of the kindest men this industry has been lucky enough to employ. I also personally benefited from Lally’s decades of dedication to championing independent and repertory cinema; many is the film I never would have seen had I not read a positive review in Film Journal International, which many times was one of a mere handful of publications to review a particularly niche film.

It’s the films that require a bit more work to find their audience—whether a low-budget indie title or something non-I.P.-based from one of the major studios—that Lally remains concerned with; he’s a big believer in the importance of offering a diverse array of films to moviegoers and thinks that, where that’s concerned, the film industry has strayed from the path. “I think it was a very sad day when Disney swallowed up Fox,” he says. “Because Fox was making a lot of mid-budget movies—like Hidden Figures—that found an audience and did well. That’s not a priority for Disney.” One evolution that Lally can 100 percent get behind is the conversion to recliner seating, “one of the smartest things [cinemas] did in the last decade.”

You’ll find some of Lally’s writing in our Centennial issue, with his features on A Journal for Jordan and Flee. What comes through in those pieces—and in all Lally’s writing—is his love and knowledge of the art of filmmaking. That’s not coming to an end any time soon: There may be another book in his future, about character actresses. And it’s a legacy he leaves behind him, both in this publication and in a film community that was very lucky to have him as a perpetual advocate.

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