Jonathan Dolgen, the tough-as-nails Paramount Pictures boss and a home video pioneer, died Oct. 9 in Los Angeles at the age of 78.
A former Wall Street lawyer, Dolgen took the reins of Paramount in 1994 when he was brought in as chairman of the Viacom Entertainment Group by Sumner Redstone. His mandate was to rebuild the ailing studio, which Viacom had just acquired. Dolgen came to Viacom with a reputation for abrasiveness and a track record of extreme cost-cutting and shrewd deal-making.
Working closely with studio chief Sherry Lansing, who had joined Paramount two years earlier, Dolgen succeeded famously. Over the pair’s 10-year run Paramount scored such huge theatrical successes as Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Titanic, Deep Impact, The Truman Show, Runaway Bride, and Mission: Impossible 2. The studio also became a major force in home video, under the auspices of Eric Doctorow.
“Jonathan was the smartest executive I ever worked for, and the toughest,” said Doctorow, who now runs his own independent film distribution company, Random Media.
Dolgen was born on April 27, 1945, to a working-class family in Queens. He graduated from Cornell University in 1966 before earning a law degree three years later from New York University Law School.
He began his career with the Wall Street law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, focused on corporate law. He moved into entertainment in 1976, shortly before the birth of the home video business, when he took a job as assistant general counsel for Columbia Pictures. In June 1978, the studio launched its own home video division, which released its first 20 movies on videocassette in November 1979. This initial batch of movies was distributed through a rental “club” run by Time-Life, but Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment, as the home video division was called, soon set up its own distribution arm.
In 1981, Columbia teamed with RCA to set up an international home video division, and in 1982 RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video was launched to service the North American market. Dolgen was involved in all these ventures, and in 1983 was promoted to president of the studio’s Pay Cable & Home Entertainment Group.
In January 1985, Dolgen left Columbia to become Senior EVP at 20th Century Fox. In July of that year the New York Times reported that Lawrence Hilford, president of CBS/Fox Video, “the largest videocassette distributor in the country, … would leave the company…. Recently, there have been reports of conflict between Mr. Hilford and Jonathan Dolgen…. Mr. Dolgen has played a key role at Fox since he joined the company in January, shortly after Barry Diller was named chairman in October. Among Mr. Dolgen’s responsibilities at Fox is the videocassette operation….”
Dolgen later served as chairman of 20th Century Fox Television before leaving the studio in 1990 to assume the presidency of Columbia Pictures.
After Paramount, Dolgen held various board seats, including at Expedia, the travel website. He also served as a senior consultant at the ARTISTdirect Network, a music destination website.
He also became involved in philanthropy. He was a big supporter of his alma mater, Cornell University, and served on the Cornell Major Gifts Committee. He was a founder of the Friends of the Cornell University Theater Arts Center and, in 2011, was celebrated along with his wife, Susan, as Foremost Benefactors of Cornell. Dolgen also has served on the boards of such nonprofits as the California Institute of the Arts, Claremont Graduate University and The Simon Wisenthal Center.
Dolgen is survived by his wife, Susan; two daughters, Tamar and Lauren; three grandchildren; and his brother, David Dolgen.