Note: Bill passed away on October 19, 2012 at the age of 86. His contributions to the world of film are many, and he generously provided sponsorship for the digitization and uploading of his films (click the links immediately below). He will be missed by all of us. Read author Elmore Leonard's reminiscences on working with Bill.
View Bill Deneen's Atlantic Crossing: Life on an Ocean Liner (1967), Claudius: Boy of Ancient Rome (Latin Dialogue) (1964), Eskimo Family (1959), French and Indian War (1962), Frontier Boy of the Early Midwest (1961), Happy City, The (1959), Indonesia: New Nation of Asia (1959), Japan: Miracle in Asia (1963), Japanese Boy: The Story of Taro (1963), Latitude Zero (1961), Puerto Rico: Its Past, Present, and Promise (1965), Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Denmark (1964), Spanish Children (1964), and The Touch of his Hand (1956) on the Internet Archive
William F.Deneen, as writer, director, cameraman, film executive, and founder of the Learning Corporation of America, is an instrumental figure in revolutionizing the classroom academic film. Bill's career began as a writer, director, cameraman, and adventurer began first with his own company. He later became Vice President in charge of Production at Encyclopedia Britannica Films, considered by educational film historians to be among the most significant companies of the era. It was in 1967, however, that he founded Learning Corporation of America (LCA), as a Division of Columbia Pictures Corp., and created a company that changed the face of Educational Film by producing films that for the first time, on a large scale, mirrored the social and ethnic diversity of the classroom. View selected LCA films online.
One innovation spearheaded by Deneen was the use of well known professional actors from theatrical films and television as well as writers and directors from the entertainment media. Prior to the advent of LCA, most educational film had been made by academics and specialists in various subject areas. Another Deneen project was the founding of Highgate Pictures, whose "After School Specials" were produced for major television networks and later distributed to schools and libraries. Highgate also produced many high-quality mini series for television networks.
He was born in July 25, 1926 in Portland, Maine, to Frank Deneen, a paper merchant, and Marguerite Miller Deneen, whose love of the arts captivated her son at an early age. Bill Deneen's filmmaking career began at the age of 10 when his mother gave him a 16mm camera. The family had a summer home in Northern Michigan where in 1936 he wrote a script, cast a film with friends, and shot a silent he called ‘Do You Take Ice From Charlie?’ In the 1950's, after college, he formed his own company where he wrote, directed, produced, and often shot camera on a very large number of documentary films for the major networks, Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, National Geographic, and others, including the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) for whom he shot prizewinning documentaries on life in a leper colony in Kiangtong, Burma, ‘The Touch of His Hand’ and ‘The Happy City.’ His University of Detroit Jesuit High School friend Elmore Leonard also wrote the scripts for several of Deneen's early films.
Deneen lived an arduous, adventurous, and sometimes dangerous life while making films, traveling to over a hundred different countries, often alone in developing nations, on low budgets, leaving his wife and three sons behind in Michigan. He would often fly his own plane loaded with hidden film and camera equipment into desolate airstrips to avoid unscrupulous customs officials. Once, while filming a little-known tribe in the Amazon, his canoe overturned and he was attacked by piranhas. As he swam wildly ashore the natives stood howling with laughter on the riverbank. In Burma, insurgents tried to capture him as a hostage. In the outback of Australia he lived with Aborigines, and nearly drowned in a tin mine in Malaya. His films, many of which were edited by Grace Garland Janicz, were filmed in many countries, won numerous national and international awards.
In November, 1965, Encyclopaedia Britannica Films bought Deneen's company and he was persuaded to move to Chicago as Britannica's Vice President in charge of production. After a couple of years working in a difficult and unfamiliar corporate structure, Bill responded to call from Columbia Pictures which wanted to diversify and enter the then booming government-funded educational film world. He persuaded Columbia that to succeed, they should build a new kind of company and make a new kind of film aimed at more diversified markets, utilizing professional filmmaking talent from the entertainment media, as well as academics and subject matter experts who had customarily made classroom films.
Deneen argued that production budgets would have to be considerably increased, but costs would be much more than offset by increased sales and new markets. The new company was named Learning Corporation of America, and headquartered in New York City, in the Columbia Pictures building. LCA became the quintessential educational film company on the 1970's. Insightful, tender, hard hitting, and occasionally off-beat, the social films produced and/or distributed by LCA in the late 1960's to the mid 1980's served as a bellwether indicative of the massive social changes occurring in the United States. Acquisition of films by schools and libraries was increasingly funded by public laws such as the Elementary and Secondary Educational Act (ESEA) of 1965 which helped make the new LCA kind of film possible. Within a relatively short time the new company became highly successful and profitable outselling most of its much longer established competitors.
Many of the writers, directors, and actors who participated in LCA films came from the theatrical film world. Among them were directors Peter Medak, John Irvin, Richard Marquand, and actors Michael Douglas, Anthony Hopkins, Glynis Johns, Maureen Stapleton, Paul Sorvino, John Hurt, Charles Gray, Christopher Plummer, James Woods, Butterfly McQueen, and Christian Slater.
Much of Bill Deneen's talent was in utilizing the tremendous assets of Columbia Pictures for schools and libraries. A prime example was the ‘Searching for Values’ series, an elegantly-edited group of films taken from Columbia Features films, including ‘Bridge on the River Kwai,’ ‘On the Waterfront,’ ‘All the King's Men,’ ‘The Swimmer,’ and ‘To Sir with Love.’ LCA’s titles included films made by Bert Salzman, whose ‘Angel and Big Joe’ winner of the 1975 Academy Award for Best Short Subject. LCA films won hundreds of other awards world wide.
LCA also set the standard for excellence in the marketing of its films, from the richly-hued indigo film cans embossed with its logo, to a series of striking catalogues that were often given Dewey Decimal Numbers and deposited on library shelves. Lesson plans written by educational theorists such as John Matoian (who later headed Home Box Office), inserted in LCA's film cans, provided top notch instructional objectives for teachers, who often used LCA films as prime resources in teaching ethics, history, and diversity.
To modern audiences, many LCA films resonate as strongly today as they did when they were made reflecting Bill's insistence on top talent and production values. Geoff Alexander, director of the Academic Film Archive of North America, cites LCA as the company that was the exemplar in providing exceptional films that closely mirrored the educational changes that took place in American education in the late 1960's and 1970's. Mr. Alexander states: "Looking at these films today, the themes still resonate with audiences of all ages, and many, from a production and thematic perspective, are absolutely timeless. From all appearances, they could have been made yesterday."
In the early 1980's educational film funding began to erode and Columbia also faced financial problems, being forced to sell many of its assets. LCA was sold to the W.F.Hall Printing Company of Chicago which was soon bought by the giant Mobil Oil Corporation, and LCA became a subsidiary of Mobil. Soon after the Mobil acquisition, and with diminishing educational markets, Bill Deneen founded Highgate Pictures to produce for television and feature film markets. Highgate soon became commercially successful, producing a long stream of network after school specials, made for TV movies such as ‘The Gentleman Bandit,’ ‘Summer of My German Soldier,’ and long form mini-series like ‘Chiefs’ and ‘Harem.’
In 1987 the Mobil board of directors ordered Mobil to get out of all non energy related businesses, including Montgomery Ward and LCA/Highgate. Deneen personally bought his companies in a difficult buyout, and soon sold them again to New World Pictures which went on to sell and re-sell the LCA/Highgate library of over 500 films produced over a period of nearly 20 years.
While primarily known as an executive and executive producer, Deneen made a number of memorable films as an individual filmmaker. He shot the original footage on Ektachrome Commercial film (reversal color stock), which was then transferred to a master color negative. Prints for distribution were then made from the master. Of these, a Kodachrome answer print was made for Deneen's own collection. Distribution prints were made on a less-expensive film stock, typically Eastmancolor, which eventually color-shifted toward the magenta spectrum, ensuring that extant Deneen's in today's media libraries lave lost much of their original color. Deneen credits much of his success as a filmmaker to the exacting film editing done by Grace Garland Janisz.
Bill Deneen's documentaries as Writer, Director, Cameraman, 1950s - 1960s
The following six films were made for institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church
Touch of His Hand
The (1956, for the Pontifical Institute for Foreign
Encyclopaedia Britannica Films as Writer, Director/Producer, Cameraman, 1950s - 1960s
Arts and Crafts of Mexico I (1961)
As Producer (Sometimes writer/director too), 1970s - 1980s (Lead actor in parentheses)
Big Henry and the Polka Dot Kid (Estelle Parsons)
Feature Length and Long Form Series, 1975 - 1985 (Lead actors in parentheses)
Chiefs (Charlton Heston, Brad Davis, Billie Dee Williams, Wayne Rogers, Paul
In one way or another involved with the production of most films in the LCA catalog, and all Highgate Pictures output.
Additional technical note on the process used by Deneen to make a film, which was standard for the era. It consisted of the following steps:
1. Most films of the era were shot on either 16mm
Commercial Ekatachrome reversal color film or on Kodachrome. The difference
being Ektachrome was a faster film needing less light and was less contrasty
making it more suitable for making release prints.