I’m a little late to the table on the death of big-time marketing hotshot Marvin Antonowsky, who left three days ago (4.7) at age 86. He was a good friend within a certain bandwidth and a reliable source of information to me between the early ’90s and early aughts. Marvin used to read box-office figures to me on Sunday mornings (remember those days?) and sometimes share tracking information on upcoming films. I used to love hearing him bark that this or that film “isn’t tracking!” He once had David Poland and I over to his home in Manhattan Beach to give us an early peek at a major film, although I can’t remember what it was. (I’ll never forget how Poland once threatened to “out” Antonowsky as the source of my tracking info — a real sweetheart move.) Marvin and I were also occasional screening pallies in the late ’90s and early aughts.
Antonowsky was closely allied with Frank Price during most of his Hollywood career. I first got to know him sometime around ’82, or during a period when he served as an upper-echelon marketing exec at Columbia from the early to mid ’80s. In ’84 he went over to Universal as marketing president, toughing it out with studio chief Price until the Howard the Duck fiasco of ’86. Antonowsky then shifted over to TriStar as a marketing consultant in the late ’80s, and then went back to Columbia in ’90. His last major gig was as marketing president with Price Entertainment.
In my mind Antonowsky, who came from television, was one of the first big marketing guys to push those pat little narrative slogans that began to appear on movie posters in the early ’80s. (Or was a bit earlier than that?) The slogans would always say something along the lines of “a woman from a small town who found her soul in the big city.” Or “she never knew how much he loved her…until she prosecuted him for murder.” Or something like that. I’m not putting this approach down, which for all I know was a genius move from a selling standpoint. But the slogans implanted summaries that were basically trite.
Here’s some Antonowsky copy for Sydney Pollack‘s Absence of Malice: ‘Suppose you picked up this morning’s newspaper and your life was a front-page headline? And everything they said was accurate, but none of it was true? The D.A., the Feds and the Police set her up to write the story that explodes his world. Now he’s going to write the book on getting even.”
Give Antonowsky credit for being shrewd enough to understand that as the culture was becoming more and more banal and Hollywood films were becoming more and more “high-concept”, selling movies was becoming more and more like selling Big Macs. He knew that a successful campaign was all about connecting with people who weren’t all that hip.
I knew Marvin well enough to be scolded by him from time to time. I once missed a lunch that we’d scheduled, and to make up for it I sent him a basket of fruit and muffins and sent him a series of emails in which I profusely apologized. I had always presumed that on some dark day I would attend Marvin’s memorial or funeral service, but I never heard a word from anyone about his passing. A lot of people reading this probably have no recollection of his name or his power in the ’80s and ’90s, but Marvin really mattered back then. That’s Hollywood for you. People have short memories. It’s always about the now and the next.
In ’08 Antonowsky donated $2.5 million to his alma mater, Baruch College in Manhattan, to support an expanded Baruch Performing Arts Center, which was renamed the Marvin Antonowsky Performing Arts Complex.