Barry Reardon, Former Warner Bros. Theatrical Distribution Chief, Dies at 92

The exec worked at Warner from 1978 to 1999 and pioneered the strategy of releasing summer blockbusters in early May

Barry Reardon
Barry Reardon, Warner Bros.' revolutionary distribution chief (Courtesy Warner Bros.)

Barry Reardon, the veteran film executive who served as Warner Bros.’ chief of theatrical distribution from 1978 to 1999, has died at age 92, the studio announced Monday.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, and a graduate of College of the Holy Cross and Trinity College, Reardon got his start at the printing company Litton Industries in 1957. A decade later, he made the jump to the entertainment industry with a job at Paramount Pictures as the associate to the VP of finance in their New York office.

From 1967 to 1975, he worked his way up to become the VP of marketing and distribution at Paramount before becoming the head of marketing and film procurement for General Cinemas, which at the time was America’s largest movie theater chain. He worked at General Cinemas for three years before being recruited by Warner Bros.

As president of film distribution at Warner, Reardon oversaw the release of many of the studio’s classic films of the 1980s and ’90s, from Best Picture Oscar winners like “Chariots of Fire” and “Unforgiven” to popular hits like “Batman” and “Space Jam.”

But beyond the big-name titles, Reardon was responsible for pioneering major changes to how studios develop and release films. Before box office numbers made the jump from trade publications to mainstream media, Reardon regularly tracked the weekend box office performance of Warner’s films and those of their competition every Saturday and Sunday.

In the ’90s, Reardon also pushed for the expansion of the summer blockbuster period, which used to run from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. His plans started with the 1993 Ivan Reitman comedy “Dave,” which he released on the second weekend of May rather than Memorial Day weekend, and then continued three years later with the disaster blockbuster “Twister,” which opened on May 10 to avoid competition with Paramount’s first “Mission: Impossible.”

That strategy would soon become popular with other Hollywood studios, culminating in Sony Pictures’ “Spider-Man” getting a release on the first weekend of May in 2002 and becoming the first movie to earn an opening weekend of over $100 million. Today, Marvel Studios regularly schedules one of its films for a release on the first weekend of May, kicking off the summer season with the strategy that Reardon first developed.

Reardon also worked with other Warner execs, including his successor Dan Fellman, to develop one of the first modern studio tracking systems to monitor the box office performance of films and actors, as well as track the production and marketing costs for all Hollywood productions. The system Warner Bros. developed would pave the way for the data-driven strategies that Hollywood film executives use today.

“Barry was my mentor for many years and I can tell you his understanding of numbers and the business is unparalleled,” 20th Century Fox chairman Tom Sherak told The Los Angeles Times in 1999. “He is one of the few people who really did change the game. Everyone who knows anything will tell you he revolutionized this business and he is a visionary. We all learned from him directly or indirectly, although a lot of us won’t admit it.”

During Reardon’s two-decade career, Warner Bros. was the top grossing studio at the annual box office five times and finished in the top three 16 times. After his retirement in March 1999, just two weeks before Warner Bros. released “The Matrix,” Reardon continued to serve as a mentor to other Hollywood executives, including Warner Bros.’ current domestic distribution president Jeff Goldstein.

“Barry will be long remembered for his wit, business acumen, tenaciousness and humanity. He was the O.G. ‘Dean of Distribution’ whose many accomplishments are legendary,” Goldstein wrote in a statement. “His mentorship has inspired generations of entertainment leaders. The impact of his legacy is long lived. Warner Bros. is a better company because of his leadership. Our lives were enriched by his friendship.”

Reardon is survived by his wife of 57 years, Marsha, and his daughter, Lisa.