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Gary Winick dies at 49; director and digital film pioneer

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Gary Winick, a pioneering producer and director of independent digital films who found mainstream success with such movies as "13 Going on 30" and "Letters to Juliet," has died. He was 49.

Winick, who was diagnosed with brain cancer about two years ago, died Sunday at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, said Niels Mueller, a longtime collaborator.

When Winick went to the Sundance Film Festival in 2002, he didn't even have an agent. He screened the sixth film he made as a director, "Tadpole," a coming-of-age comedy made in two weeks with digital cameras for a reported $150,000.

After he earned the festival's directing award, and Miramax paid $5 million for distribution rights to "Tadpole," Hollywood came calling.

His first big-budget directing project was the 2004 fantasy-romantic comedy "13 Going on 30," a well-received Jennifer Garner vehicle about a 13-year-old girl who wakes up to discover that she is 30.

He followed that with "Charlotte's Web," a 2006 live-action remake that The Times called "lovely and gentle" in 2008. Winick considered it "the hardest thing I've ever done."

"Working with animals is cute for about 15 minutes, and then it becomes frustrating beyond belief," Winick told the Rocky Mountain News in 2006. A total of 47 pigs had been used to play Wilbur, the pig saved from slaughter, and it could take days to get a single shot.

After surgery for brain cancer, Winick directed his final film, "Letters to Juliet," released last year. The multigenerational romance-road trip movie was "a guilty pleasure," movie critic Betsey Sharkey wrote in The Times in 2010.

He also had directed the 2009 revenge comedy "Bride Wars" with Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway.

The two-plus years that Winick spent making "Charlotte's Web" pulled his attention away from InDigEnt — for Independent Digital Entertainment — the all-digital production company that he co-founded in 1999 that became the industry's digital filmmaking leader.

With InDigEnt, Winick "saw an opportunity to attract young talent by marrying the rock-bottom economics of digital video with the creative intimacy of the medium," Patrick Goldstein wrote in The Times in 2002.

InDigEnt gained notice for such Winick-produced films as Richard Linklater's "Tape" (2001) with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman; "Personal Velocity: Three Portraits" (2002), which won the Sundance grand jury prize; and the comedy-drama "Pieces of April" (2003), which earned actress Patricia Clarkson an Oscar nomination.

Small digital cameras pulled better performances out of actors, Winick contended.

"You really don't feel the presence of that big mechanism of film," he told the Washington Post in 2002. "Instead, you have this little plastic thing, which keeps falling on the floor."

Gary Scott Winick was born March 31, 1961, in New York City, to Alan Winick, a lawyer, and his wife, Penny.

After graduating from Tufts University in 1984, Winick earned master of fine arts degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and the American Film Institute.

In 1995, he gained attention for "Sweet Nothing," a cautionary crack-addiction tale that featured Mira Sorvino. Three years later, he made "The Tic Code," a drama about Tourette syndrome.

"I cannot tell you how many young filmmakers looked to Gary for guidance," said Caroline Kaplan, a producer of "Letters to Juliet." "He joyfully pushed everyone around him to be their best."

His only sibling, his older brother, Mark, died of a heart attack in December.

Besides his parents, Winick is survived by his fiancee, Emily McDonnell; his stepmother, Virginia Winick; and his stepfather Ted Williams, all of New York City.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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