Ben Barenholtz (October 5, 1935 – June 27, 2019) was a Polish-born American film exhibitor, distributor and producer, who was a presence in the independent film scene since the late 1960s, when he opened The Elgin Cinema in New York City in 1968.[1]

He is known for his innovations distributing and screening films; having discovered first time directors such as The Coen Brothers, David Lynch, John Sayles and Guy Maddin, and the first American presentations of Cousin Cousine, and John Woo's The Killer.

Barenholtz appeared in the documentary The Hicks of Hollywood,[2] had a bit role in Liquid Sky, and appeared as a zombie in Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead. He was the subject in Stuart Samuels' 2005 documentary Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream.

In 2005 Barenholtz directed his first feature, Music Inn,[3] a documentary about the famed jazz venue, and was the producer of Jamie Greenberg's feature film Stags. In 2012, he produced Suzuya Bobo's first feature, Family Games.

In 2012 he directed and produced Wakaliwood: The Documentary,[4] shot in the slums of Kampala, Uganda.

In 2016, he received the Berlinale Camera award from the Berlinale Film Festival to honor his contributions to the independent film scene.

Barenholtz directed his first fiction film, Alina, starring Darya Ekamasova, which was released in the fall of 2017. At the time of his death he was developing the sequel to Alina as well as working on an autobiographical film, Aaron.[5]

Early yearsEdit

Ben Barenholtz was born Berl Barenholtz on October 5, 1935 in Kupiczów, Poland to Aaron and Paula Barenholtz, the youngest in a family of four. He has one older brother, Rubin. Being Jewish, the Barenholtz family spent the war years living in the forest in hiding from Ukrainians collaborating with the Germans.[6] They survived thanks to the help of Władysław Kotowski's family from the Gruszówka village, who sheltered them in the barn during the Ukrainian roundup.[7] In 1947 Ben and his mother immigrated to The United States. After four years of schooling, Ben decided it was not for him, and began working. In 1957 Barenholtz joined the army, in 1958 serving in Germany. He came back to New York in 1959, and landed his first job in film as the assistant manager of the RKO Bushwick in Brooklyn, New York.

The Village TheaterEdit

From 1966–68 Barenhotlz managed and lived in The Village Theater, which ultimately became The Fillmore East. At the Village Theater Barenholtz provided a home for the counterculture, with appearances by Timothy Leary, Stokley Carmichael, Rap Brown, Allen Ginsberg and Paul Krassner. Some of the first meetings of the anti-Vietnam War movement, including Poets Against Vietnam, were held at the Village Theater. It was also a major music venue, with performances by The Who, Leonard Cohen, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Nina Simone, and many others. It also provided a space for Yiddish Vaudeville, and Chinese operas.

In 1968 the theater was bought by Bill Graham, who turned it into the Fillmore East, and Barenholtz went on to acquire The Elgin.

The ElginEdit

In 1968 Barenholtz opened the Elgin Cinema. Approaching The Film-Makers' Cooperative, Barenholtz suggested the Elgin would be a good place for experimental films, and was given Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls and $48 to get the theater started. The following month Barenholtz decided to book the theater himself.

The Elgin became the world's most innovative specialty and revival house, re-launching the films of Buster Keaton and D. W. Griffith, running a variety of independent films by young American directors, and screening cult, underground, and experimental films for the emerging counter cultural audience.

The films of Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, and Jonas Mekas, as well as early works by Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese, all played at The Elgin. The First International Cat Film Festival, and early Woody Allen tribute (pre "Sleeper") were also held at the Elgin.

Barenholtz developed new ways of screening movies. He began screening dance and opera films on Saturday and Sunday morning, and created the "All Night Show" movies starting at midnight and ending at dawn. Most notably, Barnenholtz originated the "Midnight Movie" in 1970 with Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo, which ran for six months, seven days a week, to sold-out audiences. John Lennon eventually bought the film. John Waters' Pink Flamingos followed El Topo at midnight then Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come.


Barenholtz's first foray into distribution began with King of Hearts by Philippe de Broca. Still in exhibition, he bought the state rights for New York, and began exclusively playing the movie at The Elgin, and another theater near Lincoln Center.

His next film, and his first full film in distribution, was Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville, an old film that had been re-released. While acquiring the film, he created his own distribution company Libra Films, which was later bought by The Almi Group, which he stayed with until forming Circle Releasing in 1984.

Libra FilmsEdit

In 1972 Barenhotz formed the specialty distributor Libra Films. The first Libra Films distributed was a revival of Jean-Pierre Melville's Les Enfants Terrible, followed by Claude Chabrol's Just Before Nightfall, and Jean-Charles Tacchella's Cousin, Cousine, which became one of the highest-grossing foreign films in the United States and was nominated for three Academy Awards. Around this time Barenholtz left The Elgin.

While at Libra Barenholtz also launched and distributed, among others, George Romero's Martin; John Sayles' first feature, Return of the Secaucus Seven; David Lynch's first feature, Eraserhead; Karen Arthur's First feature, Legacy; Earl Mack's first feature, Children of Theater Street; and Péter Gothár's Time Stands Still, which won the New York Film Critic's award for best foreign film.

Barenholtz sold Libra Films to the Almi Group in 1982, but stayed with the company, becoming President of Libra-Cinema 5 Films. After a year and a half he left Almi, and formed Circle Films, in partnership with Jim and Ted Pedas, which continued distributing, presenting the Coen Brothers' first film Blood Simple, among others.

Films in distributionEdit

Film Director Year Company
Les Enfants Terribles Jean Pierre Melville 1950 Libra Films
Night of the Living Dead George Romero 1968 Libra Films
The Witness Péter Bacsó 1969 Libra Films
Where There's Smoke André Cayatte 1973 Libra Films
Just Before Nightfall Claude Chabrol 1975 Libra Films
Le Secret Robert Enrico 1975 Libra Films
Touch and Go Philippe De Broca 1975 Libra Films
A Woman's Decision Krzysztof Zanussi 1975 Libra Films
Maitresse Barbet Schroeder 1975 Libra Films
Camouflage Krzysztof Zanussi 1976 Libra Films
Eraserhead David Lynch 1976 Libra Films
Cousin Cousine Jean-Charles Tacchella 1976 Libra Films
The Judge and The Killer Bertrand Tavernier 1976 Libra Films
Caro Michele Mario Monicelli 1976 Libra Films
Nea, The Young Emmanuelle Nelly Kaplan 1976 Libra Films
Children of Theater Street Robert Dornhelm and Earl Mack 1977 Libra Films
Sebastiane Paul Humfress & Derek Jarman 1977 Libra Films
Consequence Wolfgang Petersen 1977 Libra Films
Martin George A. Romero 1978 Libra Films
Themroc Claude Faraldo 1978 Libra Films
Jubilee Derek Jarman 1978 Libra Films
Asparagus Suzan Pitt 1979 Libra Films
Meetings With Remarkable Men Peter Brook 1979 Example
Eboli Francesco Rosi 1979 Almi
Return of The Secaucus 7 John Sayles 1979 Libra
Ashram Wolfgang Dobrowonly 1981 Libra
Blood Wedding Carlos Saura 1981 Libra
The Atomic Cafe Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty 1982 Libra
Time Stands Still Péter Gothár 1982 Almi
Irezumi Yoichi Takabayashi 1982 Almi
A Woman in Flames Robert van Ackeren 1983 Almi
Il quartetto Basileus Fabio Carpi 1983 Almi
The Family Game Yoshimitsu Morita 1984 Circle Releasing Corp.
Blood Simple Joel & Ethan Coen 1984 Circle Releasing Corp.
My Sweet Little Village Jiří Menzel 1985 Circle Releasing Corp.
Letter to Brezhnev Chris Bernard 1985 Circle Releasing Corp.
No Surrender Peter Smith 1986 Circle Releasing Corp.
Rouge Baiser (Red Kiss) Vera Belmont 1986 Circle Releasing Corp.
Thérèse Alain Cavalier 1986 Circle Releasing Corp.
The Go Masters Junya Sato & Duan Ji-Shun 1986 Circle Releasing Corp.
Pavoratti In China DeWitt Sage 1986 Circle Releasing Corp.
Salvation Beth B 1987 Circle Releasing Corp.
The Houses are Full of Smoke Allan Francovich 1987 Circle Releasing Corp.
Beirut: The Last Home Movie Jennifer Fox 1988 Circle Releasing Corp.
Distant Harmony DeWitt Sage 1988 Circle Releasing Corp.
36 Fillette Catherine Breillat 1988 Circle Releasing Corp.
A Winter Tan Jackie Burroughs, John Frizzel, Louise Clark and John Walker 1988 Circle Releasing Corp.
The Navigator Vincent Ward Vincent Ward Circle Releasing Corp.
The Beer Drinker's Guide to Fitness & Filmmaking Fred G. Sullivan 1989 Circle Releasing Corp.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital Guy Maddin 1989 Circle Releasing Corp.
The Killer (1989 film) John Woo 1989 Circle Releasing Corp.
The Interrogation Ryszard Bugajski 1989 Circle Releasing Corp.
Bye Bye Blues Anne Wheeler 1990 Circle Releasing Corp.
Diamond Skulls Nicholas Broomfield 1990 Circle Releasing Corp.


Barenholtz's involvement in film production began with Wynn Chamberlain's Brand X starring Abbie Hoffman in 1974, before he left The Elgin. A few years later in 1978 he produced George Romero's Martin. The bulk of Barenholtz's production began in ‘1984, when he formed Circle Releasing with Ted and Jim Pedas.

Circle FilmsEdit

In 1984, after leaving Almi Barenholtz joined with Ted and Jim Pedas to form Circle Releasing. Among the films released by Circle were Yoshimitsu Morita's The Family Game, Guy Maddin's first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Vincent Ward's The Navigator, John Woo's The Killer, Catherine Breillat's 36 Fillette, DeWitt Sage's first feature, Pavarotti in China, Alain Cavalier's Thérèse, and Blood Simple, the first film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

With Blood Simple, Barenholtz and the Pedas brothers formed a relationship with the Coens, and began producing their next films, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, and Raising Arizona. Barton Fink won the Palme d'Or at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, as well as awards for Best Director and Best Actor. This was the first and last time the three top honors have all gone to the same film at Cannes.

Barenholtz Production Inc.Edit

Created in 1983, the company began producing films after Barenholtz left Circle Releasing, including George Romero's Bruiser, J Todd Anderson's The Naked Man, and Adek Drabiński's Cheat, which was Philip Seymour Hoffman's first appearance in film. He executive produced Gregory Hines' directorial debut, Bleeding Hearts, and Ulu Grosbard's Georgia, which earned an Academy Award nomination for Mare Winningham. He served as co-executive producer of Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, which earned Ellen Burstyn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 2000.

Films as a producerEdit

Film Director Year
Raising Arizona Joel Coen 1987
Millers Crossing Joel Coen 1990
Barton Fink Joel Coen 1991
Georgia Ulu Grosbard 1995
The Naked Man J. Todd Anderson 1998
Bruiser George A. Romero 2000
Requiem for a Dream Darren Aronofsky 2000
Distress Blue Kraning 2003
Music Inn Ben Barenholtz 2006
Wakaliwood: the Documentary Ben Barenholtz 2013
Family Games Suzuya Bobo 2015


  1. ^ "It Must Be Midnight And Must Be Weird". The New York Times. July 7, 1995. Retrieved October 19, 2010.
  2. ^ Levine, Sydney. "Ben Barenholtz, A Life in Film International Film Business". Indiewire. Retrieved 4 April 2014.
  3. ^ "Music Inn – A documentary film". Retrieved 4 April 2014.
  4. ^ "IMDB: Wakaliwood".
  5. ^ Barenholtz, Ben. "Barenholtz Productions Inc". Archived from the original on 7 April 2014. Retrieved 4 April 2014.
  6. ^
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External linksEdit