Bleecker Street Media CEO Andrew Karpen Rebounds From Harrowing Brain Cancer Diagnosis

On January 2, Andrew Karpen headed from his Connecticut home to the New York headquarters of Bleecker Street Media. He was eager to get a start on what he figured to be the most ambitious year for the independent distribution company he founded in 2014. He had 11 films set for release, its most ever, and a Sundance Film Festival trip to plan.

Karpen had been feeling a bit off, stumbling while he and his wife played pickleball with friends over the holiday, and a numbness in his right leg made walking a bit difficult. At his desk that day, he suddenly had difficulty typing with his right arm. He called his doctor, figuring an appointment in the coming weeks was wise, before Sundance. He was told to get back on the train and head home, immediately.

More from Deadline

That was the last time life felt normal. A CAT scan and MRI revealed he had glioblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer that is aggressive, and often fatal.

Andrew and his wife Pam found a lifeline in Dr. John Boockvar, a neurosurgeon at the Brain Tumor Center at Lenox Hill Hospital, a pioneer in treating glioblastoma, which is considered an incurable disease. The surgeon, whose work was featured in two Netflix docuseries, did more than a fine job. Andrew and Pam, who had resigned themselves to a slim hope he’d be around to see his oldest son get married this July, just got stunning results. This following a four hour surgery, and a course of chemotherapy and radiation.

“It takes a month after you finish chemo and radiation to get your MRI,” Karpen told me. “And two weeks ago, I got my MRI, and we called the doctor. I’ll let Pam tell you the rest.”

“There is no evidence of an active tumor at this time,” she said they were told by Dr. Boockvar. “We honestly never thought we would hear those words.”

Andrew and Pam are discussing his condition because they have joined the host committee for the 2024 10th Anniversary Lenox Hill Brain Tumor Center Gala taking place Thursday, June 6 in New York. The gala is sold out, but they are hoping to create awareness for the disease and elicit donations so that the center can continue its groundbreaking work.

The diagnosis of glioblastoma is so infrequent that it doesn’t draw the brilliant medical students or the research funding as do other more commonly diagnosed cancers. The center’s affiliation with The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, gives it the expertise of eight Nobel Laureates, but more funding is needed to advance the neuroscience research.

The Brain Tumor Center at Lenox Hill Hospital and Dr. Boockvar were recently featured in two acclaimed Netflix docuseries – Lenox Hill and Emergency: NYC – which showcased the work that goes into battling a terrible diagnosis.

It was a perilous path chosen by Dr. Boockvar. The first surgery was relatively brief, and the outlook not good. The first surgeon could not get deep enough into the brain to remove much of the tumor.

“It has been a road, I’ll tell you,” Pam said. “Andrew drew a pretty unlucky straw, I’m going to be honest with you. With his glioblastoma, he had a double whammy in that the location of the tumor was on his thalamus, which is deep in the center of his brain and difficult to access. The [first surgeon was] pretty hesitant to even do surgery at all. But I think you know Andrew well enough that he’s not someone who sits back and lets things happen to him. And with glioblastoma, if you do that…you die pretty quickly.”

The loss of motor skills was a tell of how deep in the brain the tumor was.

“His tumor was sitting on his motor center, which is why what was happening to him was an obvious symptom,” she said. “For some people, a seizure is the thing that sends them to the doctor. He never had a seizure. So at first they went in and tried to get as much of the tumor as they could, even though they were reluctant because it was so deep in his brain, sitting on the motor center. They were afraid they would leave him completely paralyzed. And so they were really unable to get very much of the tumor at all, and the tumor itself was what was really hindering his mobility.”

The first surgery was followed by a week of chemo and radiation, but the couple did not like the look of things. That led them to Dr. Boockvar.

“His symptoms were getting worse and I didn’t like what we were seeing,” Pam said. “And his doctors weren’t really responding to me. And then we found a new doctor, as extraordinary a human being as he is a surgeon. He said, I really think I can help you.”

Another surgery was a risk.

“It is a full craniotomy,” Pam said. “There’s no laser. You’re going in with tools.”

During the four-hour surgery that followed, Dr. Boockvar removed most of the tumor deep inside the brain, and eradicated the rest with another course of chemo and radiation. And suddenly, one of the stalwart executives in the independent theatrical film business was back, and thinking about the prospect of living.

I’ve known Andrew since he was co-CEO of Focus Features, before he peeled off in 2014 to launch Bleecker Street. We speak often, about matters involving the New York Football Giants and the independent film business, usually in that order. Karpen has season tickets – I later learned they came from Pam, whose family has had them since 1938 – and he’s a fixture at most home games, tailgating and cooking up a storm in the MetLife Stadium parking lot with fellow Big Blue fans. The Karpens have three children, Josh, Zack and daughter Sloan.

When he started Bleecker Street, Karpen took many of the Focus team with him; they have stepped up marvelously as he convalesced. Kent Sanderson, who was upped to company president, has guided the team through an uncertain moment, through the markets at Sundance, Berlin and Cannes, and the release of five of the 11 films in that time.

While still unable to travel much, Karpen feels back in a way that did not seem possible in February.

“I am walking with a cane, so I have the use of my right leg again,” he said. “I got back some use of my right hand. I was opening and closing it, but last week I lost it again. So I don’t have a lot of use of my right arm, but I’m able to take a walk by the marina, and I’m doing the best I can.”

He’s also recirculating within the industry.

“It took me a long time to start to be able to talk to people, to reach out again,” he said. “Being able to have a real conversation with you and be open about everything and honest about my life and what has happened, means so much. I’m so happy to be back working, living life. I might even go to the city Thursday. I’m Zooming and FaceTime-ing and in touch with people and re-engaging. This thing that happened last week, where there’s now no tumor…I mean, look, I still have the disease. Things can happen. We just don’t know if it is months, years, or whatever.

“I’m thankful for my team that has stepped up because everybody believes in this company,” he said. “What I’ve learned is to appreciate every day, appreciate the people you love. The outpouring from friends has been overwhelming. I’ve had to work really hard, but I do all my physical and occupational therapy, and I don’t take anything for granted anymore. Mike, I’ll be honest with you, there was a moment early on where I wasn’t sure, and I was thinking, do I want to live or not? Now, I wake up every day, and I focus on living. That doesn’t mean everything is easy; there are a lot of hard days, and a lot of tears. But I appreciate every second, and I want to live as long as I can.”

The Karpens do not labor under the illusion they’ve put his crisis in the rearview mirror forever. The tumor was a manifestation of a disease. It’s why they are throwing themselves passionately into fundraising, having seen up close the benefits, and being able to hope again.

“More research leads to a cure, to finding drugs that help fight it and help people live longer,” Pam said. “Because the sad…I’m saying this in front of Andrew, and he knows this…the sad fact of the matter, and the harsh reality is that the average lifespan from diagnosis is 15 to 18 months. I keep saying to Andrew, and I’m going to cry when I say this…you need to stay alive long enough for them to get to the next drug that can keep you alive long enough to get to the next drug, and the next, until they find the cure.”

Andrew is grateful for the time, and has resolved to handle whatever may come.

“The best news that came from the diagnosis is, I am going to be able to make it to my son Josh’s wedding on July 27,” he said. “Back in February, we weren’t sure. That wasn’t a given.”

The Karpens ask that those who donate here will acknowledge Andrew in their donation, along with their home address at 634 S. Benson Rd., Fairfield, CT 06824. This way, Pam can send thank you notes. The hope here is that the town will respond to this encouraging news about one of its own, and help pave the way toward more progress. I sure will, as I feared this would not be the story I’d be writing, when I first heard of Karpen’s struggle in early January.

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.