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Film
Victor Loewy

Box-office bloodhound member of elite club

The former CEO and chairman of Alliance Films has been a larger-than-life presence in the Canadian film and TV industry for decades, helping shape the country's modern distribution landscape.

This article was originally published in 2009

It’s May 2005, and a who’s who of foreign distributors and financiers party at Cannes on Martinez Beach – French producer Philippe Bober and Venice festival artistic director Marco Mueller sip champagne, while Irish Film Board chief Mark Woods and Independent Film and Television Alliance head Jean Prewitt pick from a sumptuous buffet as a Brazilian band plays against a setting sun.

And in middle of the coin contingent is Victor Loewy, CEO of then Motion Picture Distribution LP, glad-handing, beaming that knowing smile. As Canada’s most powerful – and in recent years most headline-grabbing – box-office bloodhound, Loewy moves freely round this closed club of industry players, without a VIP wristband or care for black-clad security staff waving party-crashers away.

After more than 40 years in the business, Loewy not only has the Cannes thing down pat, he knows a thing or two about getting into a closed club.

Rewind to 1964 and an 18-year-old Loewy lands in Montreal from his native Romania, along with his mother and a suitcase.

He picks up English watching American TV shows, and does menial jobs, including cleaning toilets, to pay his way into McGill University.

And there, Loewy meets fellow McGill student Robert Lantos, and together they pick up a slate of short films from the New York Erotic Film Festival.

Lantos books the films into McGill’s film society, and Loewy successfully markets them using skills acquired while working as a paid advertising manager for the university newspaper.

To build on that success, Loewy and Lantos in 1971 form Vivafilm, while still in university.

And two years later, the duo attend their first Cannes festival in search of foreign film rights.

‘It was a big shock for us, two immigrants,’ Loewy recalls as the two new Canadians returned to Europe to cherry-pick from hundreds of foreign film titles.

What’s more, Loewy recalls the film business sidetracking him from an original ambition to complete a hotel administration course and run a restaurant or hotel so he could support himself and his mother.

‘I never thought [film] would lead to where I am today, that’s for sure,’ Loewy says.

He persisted, however, scooping French-Canadian film rights, even as Lantos in 1975 exited Vivafilm and movie distribution to form indie producer RSL Films with Stephen Roth.

Loewy set out to open the closed shop that was Quebec indie film distribution, then controlled by veterans like Pierre David, René Malo, André Link and John Dunning, the latter duo now Hall of Fame alumni.

His plan was to bypass releasing French films and pursue the rights to overlooked German and Italian films. Early Vivafilm successes included Italian director Ettore Scola’s Brutti sporchi e cattivi and Margarethe von Trotta’s Die bleierne Zeit. Loewy’s first breakout hit was Dusan Makavejev’s 1981 dramedy Montenegro.

In time, the non-French art-house titles began to out-gross French cinema in Quebec, making Loewy a mainstream Quebecois player determined to push others aside on his upwards march.

‘Everything in those days was driven by our hate of the other distributors in Quebec,’ recalls Loewy. ‘This was not about changing the world. It was all about how to fuck the guys that were there. This was all about stupid little boys playing in the sand.’

He next set about to secure a U.S. product flow. Loewy snagged a pipeline from New Line Cinema’s Bob Shaye, whom he had known from the New York Erotic Film Festival. He also got in on the ground floor with Focus Features. And in 1982, he caught wind of a concert film, The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, produced by two unknown Buffalo-based music promoters, Harvey and Bob Weinstein.

So Loewy flew to Buffalo and a nondescript Harvey & Corky Productions office to secure the rights to what was to become Miramax Films’ first movie hit.

By 1985, Loewy co-founded Alliance Communications with Lantos, Denis Héroux, John Kemeny, amongst others, becoming in effect the Canadian indie producer’s distribution arm.

The first major box-office hit for Loewy at Alliance came with New Line’s 1990 live-action film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He recalls entering the now-closed and forgotten Atwater Cinema in Montreal and witnessing a long snaking line of kids eager to enter the theater.

‘Oh my God, I said to myself, I actually have a hit. I called Alan Karp, who was running Cineplex Odeon, and was crying, with tears, ‘Alan, we have a hit. We have a hit,’ Loewy remembers.

Other hits followed, especially Miramax’s Pulp Fiction in the mid-’90s, and later the money-spinning Lord of the Rings franchise. Under Loewy, Alliance became Canada’s top indie distributor of Canadian and foreign films, especially from suppliers New Line, Focus and Miramax.

Then, following the 1998 merger of Alliance with Atlantis Communications, Loewy continued as CEO and chairman of the film distribution arm. He had to, unable to leave AAC for three years due to key-man clauses that meant if Loewy left, so too did New Line and Miramax.

‘So I stayed on, and when my three years expired, the people who ran Alliance Atlantis in those days were cordial and asked me to stay and I stayed, which was probably a big mistake,’ Loewy insists.

Victor Loewy, Martha Burns, Paul Gross TIFF 2008 at the Rosewater Club

Victor Loewy, Martha Burns, Paul Gross TIFF 2008 at the Rosewater Club

Here he foreshadows Alliance Atlantis turning the distribution business into the income trust, Motion Picture Distribution LP, which produced a 2006 boardroom showdown worthy of The Apprentice.

Loewy at one point quit after lieutenants Patrice Théroux and Patrick Laberge were fired by the board, but he returned as a special consultant.

Today he barely disguises his contempt for boardroom intruders and trespassers who cost the indie distributor dearly before it was sold to Goldman Sachs in 2007.

‘They nearly destroyed the company,’ says Loewy. ‘It took us two years to pick up the pieces and put them back together.’

The consolation for Loewy is, while the knives were out for him in Toronto, the U.S. film suppliers that long made him bullet-proof stayed loyal.

‘It was always the hopes and dreams of other people who left this company that they were going to walk away with some suppliers. That never happened,’ Loewy says, recognizing a new generation of young turks looking to bust wide open a closed-shop industry, much as he did a generation earlier in Montreal.

And while talk of Alliance Films becoming a has-been has never come to pass, Loewy insists the company is different: the head office has moved to Montreal, his staff is different, younger, more empowered.

More than anything, Loewy today runs a multinational, with subsidiaries in Britain and Spain, distributing films in all media from Canadian and U.S. suppliers, including The Weinstein Company, Overture Films, Relativity Media, CBS Films, The Film Department and Focus.

That said, it’s never Mission Accomplished for Loewy, nor possible to relax his guard, not when a chummy, back-slapping studio exec may decide to switch his Canadian distribution at one of those uber-exclusive parties in Cannes.

Asked whether he’s ever rested on his laurels after 40 years in the business, Loewy confesses: ‘I never knew that feeling.’

Editor’s note: In 2013, Entertainment One acquired Alliance Films for $225 million; today, Victor Loewy is a chairman at Toronto-based Elevation Pictures.

MILESTONES

1946: Victor Loewy is born in Bucharest, Romania
1964: Arrives in Montreal with his mother as new Canadian immigrants
1971: Graduates from McGill with a BA in German and Economics
1972: Co-founds Vivafilm with fellow McGill student Robert Lantos after they acquire the rights to The Best of the New York Erotic Film Festival
1973: Loewy and Lantos attend the Cannes film festival for the first time to acquire foreign film rights
1981: Scores with his first Canadian box-office hit, Dusan Makavejev’s Swedish/English-language dramedy Montenegro
1985: Co-founds Alliance Communications, which becomes Canada’s largest indie film distributor
1993: Honored by Cinematheque Canada for 20 years of service to the Canadian motion picture industry
1993: Alliance goes public on the Toronto Stock Exchange
1998: Loewy and longtime partner Lantos cash out of Alliance as it merges with then Atlantis Communications. Loewy remains with Alliance Atlantis Communications as head of its film distribution division
2000: Launches Momentum Pictures, also known as Alliance Films U.K., in Britain
2003: AAC spins its movie distribution arm into an income trust, Movie Distribution Income Fund, which includes 51% division Motion Picture Distribution LP (MPD), led by Loewy
2004: Alliance Films acquires Aurum Producionnes, the Spanish film distributor
2006: A boardroom tussle sees Loewy, the former MPD chairman who quit in July, return a month later as a special consultant
2007: Goldman Sachs & Co. acquires MPD and renames it Alliance Films, with Loewy at the helm as chairman.

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