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Why Billionaire Charles Cohen Believes He Can Save the Riskiest Indie Films

Real estate mogul Charles Cohen makes his mark in classic and foreign film via distribution, the Quad Cinema, and TV's Cohen Collection.

Vanessa Redgrave and Charles S Cohen'Money Monster' premiere, 69th Cannes Film Festival, France - 12 May 2016

Vanessa Redgrave and Charles S. Cohen at Cannes 2016

James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock

In the annals of rich men who look to Hollywood to build a secondary empire, real estate billionaire Charles S. Cohen (Forbes net worth: $2.2 billion) is their Don Quixote. His Cohen Media Group is staking its claim in spaces renowned for their allergies to profit: He’s restoring classic films, releasing foreign-language titles, and moving into specialty exhibition.

One Oscar campaigner calls Cohen’s taste “older middle-of-the-road arthouse,” and that’s exactly the audience he wants. Three of Cohen’s French imports — “Outside the Law” (2010), “Timbuktu” (2014) and “Mustang” (2015) — received foreign-language Academy Award nominations. This year, Cohen (with partner Amazon Studios) took Iranian Cannes-prize-winner Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” all the way to the Oscar, much to the chagrin of established competitors Sony Pictures Classics (“Toni Erdmann”) and Music Box (“A Man Called Ove”).

Deniz Gamze Ergüven and the cast of "Mustang" at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival

Deniz Gamze Ergüven and the cast of “Mustang” at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival

Daniel Bergeron

However, where other billionaire businessmen have wanted to be studio moguls, or Harvey Weinstein, what Cohen really wants to be is a latter-day Robert Osborne. On Friday nights, Cohen promotes his library of 500 features and 200 shorts with Cohen Film Classics on KCET. Like Turner Classic Movies’ late and beloved Osborne, he introduces restored preservation prints from his library, from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1939 “Jamaica Inn” to David Miller’s 1952 film noir “Sudden Fear,” which are also available as Cohen Film Collection DVD/Blu-rays.

READ MORE: New York’s Quad Cinema Will Reopen on April 14

And on April 14, following the blueprint of IFC Films’ Greenwich Village flagship IFC Center, Cohen is re-opening New York’s first multi-screen cinema, The Quad. “We’ve seen his company’s learning curve evolve from what might have seemed a dilettante’s foray into a business,” emailed distributor Richard Lorber, “with clearly defined aspirations, great taste, and an embrace of underserved cinematic niches that helps build audiences for our efforts, too.”

Thus, the Quad is not only booking Kino Lorber’s first-run French imports (Bruno Dumont’s “Slack Bay” and Stephane Brize’s “A Woman’s Life”) but also a Lina Wertmuller retrospective. “He’s been able to parlay his library into a home entertainment position,” said BoxOffice Pro editorial director Daniel Loria. “And he’s creating an exhibition niche in downtown New York, as his new product releases complement the repertory.”

The Salesman

“The Salesman”

Cohen Media Group

Cohen maintains plush offices lined with giant movie posters atop his own property, the behemoth Pacific Design Center, where we met for lunch at Wolfgang Puck’s Red Seven. Cohen, 65, grew up in Harrison, New York, which had one arthouse cinema. “We had a single, independent theater that showed arthouse films,” he said. “And that was my exposure to Europe: to Fellini, Polanski, and Truffaut. This was a whole new world of reading subtitles and seeing parts of the world that I didn’t know about.”

He performed and produced high school plays, and made shorts through NYU and Tufts, before graduating from Brooklyn Law. After joining his family’s Cohen Brothers Realty in 1979 (which he later took over), he wrote the 1985 movie book “Trivia Mania.”

Cohen first entered the movie business as a producer on 2008 indie sleeper “Frozen River,” which Sony Pictures Classics took to $2.5 million domestic, scoring Oscar nominations for Original Screenplay and Melissa Leo. The experience inspired a not-unfamiliar Hollywood reaction in Cohen: I can do this better.

“Frozen River”

“I was feeling that I was, maybe, not being treated as fairly as I may have otherwise been,” he said. It inspired him to compete with SPC; said Cohen, “The foreign, independent film was our way in.”

However, that market opening stemmed from the fact that American audiences have shown little interest in French films. “He never met a French movie that he won’t buy, good or bad,” said one distributor. Even so, Cohen makes modest offers. (One respected seller said that even when Cohen was really interested in a film, he offered half of other bids.)

In Paris, Cohen met with StudioCanal, who offered him Rachid Bouchareb’s “Outside the Law.” To Cohen’s own shock, his first release landed a 2011 foreign Oscar nomination. Cohen went on to co-produce and release two English-language pictures from Bouchareb, 2012’s “Just like a Woman” starring Sienna Miller, and the 2014 “Two Men in Town,” a remake of the 1973 Alain Delon vehicle, this one starring Forrest Whitaker and Harvey Keitel. Both bombed.

However, Cohen scored on the release of Bouchareb’s 2012 production of cinematographer-turned-director Ziad Doueiri’s “The Attack,” which grossed $1.6 million. (This year Cohen will release his next co-production, “The Insult.”) His highest-grossing film is Israel Horovitz’s English-language “My Old Lady,” starring Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith and set in Paris ($4 million domestic).

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