United Artists Classics: Short Run, Enduring Legacy

Our salute to the 100th anniversary of United Artists continues.

Its heyday was brief, but its legacy remains strong to this day. United Artists Classics, initially a label for rereleases of UA library titles, became a first-run specialty distributor in 1981, led by Nathaniel T. Kwit. Over the next three years, the banner released films by François Truffaut (The Last Metro, The Woman Next Door), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Lola, Lili Marleen, Veronika Voss), Robert Altman (Streamers), Jean-Luc Godard (Passion), Andrzej Wajda (Man of Iron), Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva), Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (The Night of the Shooting Stars), Eric Rohmer (Le Beau Mariage), Lindsay Anderson (Britannia Hospital), Peter Greenaway (The Draughtman’s Contract), and John Sayles (Lianna), among others. A notable sleeper success was Phillip Borsos’s The Grey Fox, starring Golden Globe nominee Richard Farnsworth.

Tom Bernard was head of sales and Ira Deutchman was head of marketing; they were later joined by Michael Barker and Donna Gigliotti. In 1982, Deutchman left United Artists Classics to co-found Cinecom Pictures, whose six-year run brought audiences Stop Making Sense, Swimming to Cambodia, and Oscar Best Picture nominee A Room with a View. Deutchman was later a co-founder of New Line Cinema’s specialty division Fine Line Features, distributor of The Player, Short Cuts, Hoop Dreams, and My Own Private Idaho.

In 1983, following a dispute with their bosses at UA, Bernard, Barker, and Gigliotti left to take the reins of Orion Pictures’ newly formed specialty label, Orion Classics, joined by Marcie Bloom. (UA Classics was rebranded MGM/UA Classics and released nine features after their departure.) Among their many art house successes at Orion were Pauline at the Beach, Another Country, Ran, My Beautiful Laundrette, Manon of the Spring, Babette’s Feast, Wings of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Camille Claudel, Slacker, and Raise the Red Lantern. Then, in late 1991, Bernard, Barker, and Bloom left Orion to form Sony Pictures Classics, one of the foremost specialty film distributors of the past three decades. For her part, Gigliotti became an Oscar-winning producer (Shakespeare in Love, Silver Linings Playbook, Hidden Figures) and was the co-producer of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.

United Artists Classics had a short run, but the impact of its graduates on the world of specialty film is incalculable. 

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