Updated Thursday morning:
Joseph Helfgot, founder of the leading movie research firm MarketCast, a sociologist-turned-sex-advice-columnist-turned-Hollywood marketing guru, died from complications of a heart transplant on Wednesday in Boston.
He was 60.
Helfgot founded MarketCast in 1985 and sold the company to Reed Business Information in 2000, but stayed on as president, while moving his family to Boston.
The son of Holocaust survivors born in a displaced persons camp, Helfgot lived an extraordinary American journey — a self-made individual and a feisty intellect who challenged Hollywood assumptions about movie marketing.
As the unexpected news filtered through Hollywood, Helfgot’s colleagues throughout the film industry recalled his contribution to the modern movie business.
Marc Shmuger, the chairman of Universal Pictures, said, “He leaves behind a significant legacy in the area of movie marketing. Joseph loved the pursuit of the elusive and non-obvious solution, which he would often find hidden deep within his mountains of data. It was impressive to witness and inspiring to be around. Like so many others, I will miss him greatly.”
Pam Levine, the co-president of marketing at Twentieth Century Fox, said: "It’s easy to forget that when (Joseph) first started out most people said he was on a fool’s errand. No one believed it was possible to successfully launch an alternative to NRG, which at the time had a monopoly. He essentially changed the face of research in our industry, and that success is a tremendous testament to his passion and intellectual curiosity."
Peter Adee, president of worldwide marketing at Overture FIlms, said: "What to say about this interesting and complex man? Joseph truly revolutionized research with his film positioning studies. He was smart, insightful, strategic, and highly opinionated. He was a very good friend who will be greatly missed."
Helfgot’s colleagues at MarketCast had this perspective: "What I will remember about Joseph is the incredible passion he brought to what we do," said Henry Shapiro, the general manager of MarketCast. "Joseph was so focused on our clients, on solving their marketing problems with smart research and insightful analysis. He did this with rigor, and always with humor. Joseph absolutely changed the face of entertainment marketing research, and his legacy and example live on in MarketCast today."
Karen Hermelin, Helfgot’s partner at MarketCast, first worked with him as an executive at New Line. "From my perspective, Joseph changed the face not only of marketing research, but marketing overall in Hollywood," she said. "He raised the level of the game for everyone, showing that rigorous analytic and strategic thinking could be applied to movie marketing problems to come up with real answers."
"I know he changed how we at New Line marketed movies," she said. "In fact, in contrast to the typical critism of research that it leads people to make bland decisions, Joseph’s research empowered us to make bolder marketing choices. The dark, gritty campaign for the movie Se7en was a direct result of Josph’s counsel, as were many other innovative cutting edge campaigns. His work was so good that in spite of the fact that when he started all of the major studios had exclusive contracts with NRG, marketing heads would still request that Joseph’s research be done and delivered in unmarked packages in the dead of the night. "
Born in Germany in 1948, Helfgot was the son of Auschwitz survivors. The family immigrated through Ellis Island in 1951 and opened a grocery on the Lower East Side of New York.
Helfgot, whose first language was Yiddish, thrived in school, gaining admission to Stuyvesant High. He won full scholarship to State University of New York, Stonybrook. Armed with a PhD in sociology, he became a professor of sociology at Boston University at age 23.
His entrepreneurial spirit landed him consulting jobs in market research for major jobs, including with Polaroid, American Express and Fidelity Mutual, testing consumer preferences.
Leaving academia, Helfgot formed Marketcast in 1985. A large scale project for General Cinema Corporation to determine video rental on box office attendance caught the eye of several Hollywood studios, and he soon found himself formulating market strategies for Orion Pictures, where he helped launch “Dances With Wolves,” and “Silence of the Lambs,” both earning Best Picture Oscars.
Helfgot’s innovation in market research principally involved his application of sophisticated statistical analysis to surveys and other social behavior tools, which challenged Hollywood’s main research shop, National Research Group.
His penchant for straight talk charmed some moguls, and discomfited others.
Marketcast was acquired by Variety’s owner Reed Elsevier, in 2000, and has grown exponentially, with offices in New York and London. Helfgot continued in his role and president until succumbing to complications after heart transplant surgery.
He is survived by his wife, Susan Whitman, and four children, Emily, Jonathan, Benjamin and Jacob.
Donations may be made to Team Rwanda.
Funeral services will be held Friday at noon at Stanetsky Memorial Chapel, 1668 Beacon St., Brookline, MA.