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Seymour Wishman, the producer and president of New York-based independent distribution company First Run Features, died Jan. 29 at his family home in Bridgewater, Connecticut. He was 79.
Wishman’s family confirmed his death to The Hollywood Reporter on Monday. A cause of death was not shared.
First Run Features, formed in 1979, distributed projects including Michael Apted’s 28 Up (Wishman eventually brought the entire Up series to the U.S.); Spike Lee’s first feature, 1983’s Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads; In the Shadow of the Stars, which won an Academy Award for best documentary feature in 1992; and 2009’s The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.
The company has been involved in films from directors such as Peter Jackson, Alex Gibney, Michael Winterbottom, Jane Campion, David O. Russell and Claire Denis. On its 30th birthday, First Run Features was honored by the Film Society at Lincoln Center for its “remarkable courage to distribute cutting-edge and sometimes controversial works.”
Wishman co-directed and produced Sex & Justice, a 1993 documentary on Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Due to his commitment to personal, political and alternative content, First Run Features was a founding members of Ovid, a streaming service for independent films.
“He was a champion of the underdog and of stories that are daring, honest, and creatively told,” Wishman’s daughter Samantha wrote in a statement to THR. “But what really kept him engaged for almost 40 years in the film business was his admiration for the filmmakers he represented. There’s no one who understands that more than Marc Mauceri, who’s worked at First Run for almost 34 years and will take over as president, carrying on his legacy and ushering in a new chapter for First Run Features.”
In a statement obtained by THR, Mauceri described Wishman’s passing as “a great loss” to himself and his colleagues at First Run Features. “I learned so much from him not only about film distribution but also about his various and wide-ranging passions, from Shakespeare to horse racing, from politics to the Talmud. And always, most interestingly, what it was to grow up in a Jewish family in Newark in the mid-1900s. The stories he told were insightful, compassionate, clever and usually hilarious. And at the bottom of it all was his unending love for his wife and daughter. He will live forever in all who knew him.”
The son of Jewish immigrants, Wishman was born in the South Bronx and raised in Newark, New Jersey. He studied at Rutgers Law School and went on to practice criminal law in New York and New Jersey, specializing in civil rights cases, before embarking on his film career. In 1977, Wishman served as deputy assistant to President Jimmy Carter at the White House.
“Seymour had the mind of a great lawyer, the courage of a successful entrepreneur and the heart of a mensch,” Martin Doblmeier, president of Journey Films, said in a statement. “More than twenty-five years ago he took a chance on me and it changed my life. I know a lot of filmmakers who can say the same.”
In addition to his daughter, Wishman is survived by his wife, Nancy Burr Evans, and his brother, Harvey Wishman.
8:10 p.m.: Added statement from Wishman’s daughter, Samantha.
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