Mark Urman, a distributor who championed independent films and documentaries, helping movies that might have faded into obscurity reach audiences and win major awards, died on Saturday in Newark. He was 66.
His wife, the writer Deborah Davis, said that the cause was respiratory failure and that Mr. Urman had recently learned he had bone cancer.
Mr. Urman was an important part of two distribution companies that focused on independent films: ThinkFilm, which was founded in 2001 and essentially shuttered in 2008, and Paladin, which he founded in 2009.
A distributor’s job is to market movies and place them in theaters. What distinguished Mr. Urman was his devotion to independent movies that can hardly compete with Hollywood blockbusters; he had to persuade moviegoers and theater owners to choose films with subjects that were unfamiliar and, at times, seemingly unappealing.
The challenges facing independent distributors have become more pronounced in recent years as the number of small films produced annually has spiked and the number of distributors to place them has declined.
With more independent movies vying to be shown in the same number of art-house theaters, they are getting less screen time, making it much harder for them to develop an audience through word of mouth or critical acclaim.
Mr. Urman helped draw attention to films through creative promotional tie-ins and release schedules, sometimes arranging for openings in cities off the beaten paths of New York and Los Angeles.
Some of his greatest successes were with nonfiction films. He distributed two Academy Award-winning documentary features: “Born Into Brothels” (2005), Ross Kaufman and Zana Briski’s look at children growing up in Kolkata’s red-light district, and “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007), Alex Gibney’s examination of United States policies on torture as told through the story of an Afghan taxi driver who died in American custody at Bagram Airfield in 2002.
Another success was “Half-Nelson” (2006), the story of a crack-addicted history teacher in Brooklyn, directed by Ryan Fleck, written by Mr. Fleck and Anna Boden, and starring a young Ryan Gosling as the teacher. The film’s complex characters, political undertones and stark depiction of addiction scared away many distributors.
Mr. Urman pushed “Half-Nelson” hard, sending out screener DVDs well in advance of awards season and enlisting a prominent publicist to alert critics and Motion Picture Academy members. Mr. Gosling was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor, and Mr. Urman told The New York Times’s Carpetbagger blog in 2007 that he saw the nomination as vindication.
“We needed to prove to the industry that we’re real,” he said. “A lot of actors make indie movies for prestige, not just money, to prove their chops. What better way to communicate our efficacy as a desirable home for these films than by landing an Oscar nomination for a low-budget movie about a crack addict?”
Mark Arnold Urman was born on Nov. 24, 1952, in the Bronx to Felix Urman, a tailor, and Michelle (Golubczyck) Urman, an office worker. His parents were Jewish Holocaust survivors who made their way to the United States from Poland after World War II.
The family moved to Brooklyn, and Mr. Urman graduated from James Madison High School there. He attended Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where he studied English and film and met Ms. Davis. He received his bachelor’s degree in English in 1973, and they married in 1976.
Mr. Urman’s career in the movie business began in the mailroom at Universal Pictures and continued at companies like United Artists, Columbia Pictures, Cinepix Film Properties and Lionsgate Films. Before moving to ThinkFilm, he was an executive producer of “Monster’s Ball,” for which Halle Berry won an Academy Award for best actress in 2002.
In addition to Ms. Davis, with whom he lived in Montclair, N.J., Mr. Urman is survived by a sister, Dorothy Urman Denburg; a son, Oliver Davis-Urman; and a daughter, Cleo Davis-Urman.
Two more of his notable releases at ThinkFilm were Werner Herzog’s documentary “Encounters at the End of the World” (2007) and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007), Sidney Lumet’s last film, which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney.
Ms. Davis said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that the connecting thread among the varied films Mr. Urman chose to distribute was the excitement he got from them.
“If it seized his imagination and he couldn’t stop talking about it,” she said, “he had to have it. And he felt that he could make other people excited, and make them feel like he felt.”
Follow Daniel E. Slotnik on Twitter: @dslotnik
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