Irwin Young, patron of independent filmmakers, is dead at 94

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Irwin Young, patron of independent filmmakers, is dead at 94
Some of the thousands of indie films housed in DuArt’s vault in New York, July 10, 2014. Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Irwin Young, who through his Manhattan film processing laboratory gave support to the early careers of directors such as Spike Lee, Frederick Wiseman and Michael Moore, died Jan. 20 in the New York City borough of Manhattan. He was 94.

His daughter Linda Young confirmed the death, at a rehabilitation facility.

Over nearly a century, DuArt Film Laboratories processed and printed studio features, documentaries, newsreels, boxing films from Madison Square Garden, network news footage and commercials. But Young, who took over the company when his father died in 1960, was best known as an ally of independent filmmakers, some of whom could not always pay for his company’s services on a timely basis early in their careers.

“He was the biggest mensch in the business,” documentarian Aviva Kempner, who produced “Partisans of Vilna” (1986) and directed “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (1998), said in a phone interview. “He really cared for the subject matter you were making a film about. If you needed a favor, he was there for you.”

Young deferred $60,000 in costs incurred by Moore for three years as he made “Roger & Me,” his documentary about the social damage caused by General Motors’ layoffs of 30,000 workers in Flint, Michigan. Warner Bros. later paid $3 million for the rights.

When Lee was a graduate film student at New York University, his films were processed and printed at DuArt. So was his first feature, “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986).

“I didn’t have the money, but Irwin let me develop the film, print the dailies, and he gave me some slack; he’d say, ‘When you get the money, pay me,’ ” Lee said. But Howard Funsch, DuArt’s treasurer, threatened to auction the negative if Lee didn’t pay. Lee said he found the money.

He added: “I don’t think Irwin knew that Howard was putting the squeeze on me. And it doesn’t detract from how Irwin believed in and supported young filmmakers.”

Young had a practical side as well. He made two investments in the 1970s that helped secure DuArt’s long-term future: He acquired the 12-story building in Midtown Manhattan where the laboratory had long been located, freeing it from the whims of a landlord; and he bought a two-thirds interest in a television station in Puerto Rico, which brought in a strong flow of revenue that helped improve DuArt’s bottom line.

He also oversaw DuArt’s expansion into a process that benefited independent filmmakers: blowing up 16-millimeter negatives into 35-millimeter prints, which have a better chance at being commercially viable.

And he added to DuArt’s photochemical film processing business by branching into film-to-video transfers and online video editing in 1970, and into digital work, including effects, titles and restorations, in 1994.

But last August, Linda Young, DuArt’s president and CEO since 2017, announced that its business was being shuttered because it was no longer economically viable to stay independent. Its building was recently put up for sale.

Irwin Young served with various organizations that dealt with independent filmmakers, including Film at Lincoln Center, where he was president, and Film Forum, where he was chairman.

In 2000, he received the Gordon Sawyer Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his technological contributions to the film industry.

Irwin Wallace Young was born May 30, 1927, in the Bronx. His father had been a film editor before he and other partners acquired a film lab that was going out of business. His mother, Ann (Sperber) Young, was a homemaker.

“I used to see film processed; amazing to a child,” Young told The New York Times in 1996.

The family name had been changed from Youdavich by his uncle Joe, the lyricist of songs including “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”

After serving in the Navy, Irwin entered Lehigh University. He graduated in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and then joined DuArt, where his roles included working in black-and-white film quality control and being part of the team that processed Eastman color negatives for the first time at any film lab. After his father died, Young became DuArt’s president and CEO.

Young’s interest in independent film was ignited when his older brother, Robert, was a producer and writer and the cinematographer of “Nothing but a Man” (1964), a feature about a Black couple dealing with racism in Alabama. Irwin Young provided all of the film’s laboratory work.

“I was attracted to independent filmmakers because of their spirit,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2003. “I came from a very political family, so I responded to a lot of their messages. We needed each other.”

Wiseman needed Young’s patience when his first documentary, “Titicut Follies” (1966) — about the way patients were treated at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts — was banned by a state court on the grounds that it violated the inmates’ privacy.

“I didn’t pay him for six years because all my money went into the lawsuit,” Wiseman said. “And he was always friendly and helpful about distribution; he knew everybody.”

Young’s support of filmmakers led him to become an accidental preservationist: He stored their negatives, at no charge, some for decades, largely on the top floor of the DuArt building on West 55th Street. He reasoned that if he held on to the negatives, he might generate more business from making prints.

But, he told The Times in 2014: “I have trouble throwing away film. We never threw anything away. It’s because we were film people.”

Film cans were stacked, floor to ceiling, often without any idea what was inside or who the director was. In 2013, three years after Young closed down his traditional film processing business, a project was started to create an index of the thousands of negatives there.

Young began a collaboration with the organization IndieCollect, which sends orphaned film negatives to archives such as the Library of Congress and the Motion Picture Academy; restores them; and finds new audiences for the films.

“We went through 5,000 films — about 50,000 cans,” said Sandra Schulberg, the president of IndieCollect. “Irwin was happy to come up as we were doing the inventorying. Each can was like opening a locked treasure.”

She said that her group found homes for 3,500 of the negatives.

Negatives of films by Lee, Wiseman, Gordon Parks, Woody Allen, Jonathan Demme, James Ivory, Ang Lee and Susan Seidelman were found, as were forgotten works like “Cane River,” a 1982 love story dealing with race issues made by Horace Jenkins, an Emmy Award-winning Black director, who died shortly after the film’s premiere in New Orleans.

In addition to his daughter Linda, Young is survived by another daughter, Dr. Nancy Young; his brother; and four granddaughters. His wife, Diane (Nalven) Young, died in 2004.

Moore knew little about filmmaking when he began making “Roger & Me” and was told by another director, Kevin Rafferty, that he should bring his undeveloped film to Young.

“He said ‘Let me develop this for you,’ and he watched the first reels and said, ‘Listen, this is incredible, I’m going to help you, and you can pay me what you can,’ ” Moore said, recalling his first conversation with Young in 1987. “That was almost three years: from early 1987 to 1989, up until the last print was needed to go to the Telluride Film Festival.”

He added, “Without his patronage, I’m convinced there wouldn’t have been a ‘Roger & Me.’ ”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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