Seymour Wishman, President of
First Run Features, Dies at 79

Seymour Wishman, a longtime film distributor, producer, writer, and lawyer, died on January 29 at his family home in Connecticut. He was 79.

Over the past 38 years, Wishman served as president of First Run Features. During his time at the N.Y.-based independent film distribution company, Wishman brought Michael Apted’s “28 Up” (and later the entire “Up” series) to North America and helped Ross McElwee finish and release “Sherman’s March” – as well as McElwee’s other films, including “Time Indefinite” and “Bright Leaves.” First Run also released Spike Lee’s “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads,” the director’s graduate school thesis.

Other notable releases include Cynthia Scott's "Strangers In Good Company," Lizzie Borden's "Born in Flames," Jan Svankmajer’s “Alice,” Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman,” and "Before Stonewall," which First Run re-released in 2019 to mark the 50th anniversary of the uprising that was a watershed moment for the LGBTQ rights movement. First Run's history also includes several Oscar winners and nominees such as "In the Shadow of the Stars," "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," and "War Photographer."

On the production side, Wishman co-directed “Sex & Justice,” about the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and produced “Shakespeare’s Women & Claire Bloom.” Perhaps his favorite project was producing the English language version of the charming animated short film "Linnea in Monet's Garden," which went on to sell more DVDs than any previous First Run release.
“In the films he distributed there is, I think, a common sense of humanity – and some optimism, outrage certainly of injustice, but a belief that through truth and through art you could make a better world,” said his daughter, Samantha, who is also a producer and screenwriter.

Wishman, a son of Jewish immigrants, was born in the South Bronx and raised in Newark, N.J. He attended college and law school at Rutgers University, and later spent two years in Lima, Peru as a legal advisor to the Peace Corps. He then went on to practice criminal law in New York and New Jersey. In 1977, Wishman headed to the White House, where he became a deputy assistant to President Jimmy Carter.
Samantha noted the impactful blend of her father's passion for creative production and his background in law.

“He was creative and a writer, that was his soul, but he also was a lawyer. And to be in distribution, particularly of independent films, I think it took both sides of his personality,” said Samantha. “His clients were the filmmakers and he was an advocate for their best interests.” She added, “He was a champion of the underdog and of stories that are daring, honest, and creatively told. 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 addition to his careers in film and law, Wishman wrote multiple books, including “Confessions of a Criminal Lawyer,” “Anatomy of a Jury” and “Question of Consent.” He also practiced painting and sculpting.

In addition to his daughter Samantha, Wishman is survived by his wife, Nancy Burr Evans, and his brother Harvey Wishman.
Reminiscences from Filmmakers

"Seymour Wishman was instrumental in launching and nourishing the independent documentary movement in the U.S. He took on the films of Black, Latino, Asian, Jewish and LGBT filmmakers, as well as the occasional lost Southerner who showed up with an overlong movie about nuclear weapons proliferation and the possibilities of romantic love in the South. I will miss his warmth and sense of humor."
-Ross McElwee, Sherman's March, Time Indefinite, Bright Leaves

"He took four of my films over a decade and his enthusiasm and passion for each was sheer pleasure for me…Seymour was funny, courtly, abrasive, loyal, opinionated; he was a New Yorker and a truth teller. He will be greatly missed."
-Josh Aronson, Orchestra of Exiles, To Be Of Service

"I am among those fortunate filmmakers whose work Seymour championed. I owe so much of their success to his creative spirit."
-Julia Newman, Still a Revolutionary: Albert Einstein, Into the Fire

"Seymour had the mind of a great lawyer, the courage of a successful entrepreneur and the heart of a mensch. More than 25 years ago, he took a chance on me, and it changed my life. I know a lot of filmmakers who can say the same."
-Martin Doblmeier, Bonhoeffer, The Power of Forgiveness

"SEYMOUR WISHMAN: tough, tender, courageous, creative, progressive and surprisingly traditional, multifaceted in all dimensions, loyal beyond words. A legend in his time. It was my amazing good fortune that he found and supported my work."
-Barbara F. Freed, A Model for Matisse
Three Recommended Obituaries

Please visit our website to see the entire collection.

Email Marketing by ActiveCampaign