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

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

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”

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).

At Cannes 2013, when Bouchareb’s wife told Cohen that “Timbuktu” made her cry, he acquired the Mauritanian anti-Taliban drama, which grossed $1 million domestic after landing an Oscar nomination. The next year, France-Turkey’s “Mustang” was another Cannes pickup that became the surprise French submission for the Oscar — and also scored a nomination.

Cohen has suffered other films “that have not performed as well as we would have liked,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t believe in them. But we find homes for them, and we have long licenses. And they are not neglected children. We value our relationships with Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, and KCET. So there are outlets, and now the Quad Cinema creates another one.”

Vincent Cassel

With film festival acquisition bids rising, Cohen said he’d rather pay to produce films himself. At the moment, Cohen is in production on a half-dozen films with a diverse set of directors who include Will Gluck (“Easy A”), 1999 Oscar nominee John Madden, and Agnes Varda. Jacques Doillon is directing an Auguste Rodin biopic, while Eduoard Deluc directs Vincent Cassel in a widescreen, Tahiti-set profile of painter Paul Gauguin.

Next up, Cohen will open a documentary about artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel in May. And on June 2 he will take Toronto pickup “Churchill,” a World War II drama starring Brian Cox as Britain’s cigar-chomping Prime Minister, to some 200 screens — well ahead of Focus Features’ awards-bound November release “Darkest Hour,” starring Gary Oldman.

Cohen also owns about 700 classic titles, most in perpetuity. The library’s spine is 21 Merchant Ivory films, the Rohauer Library of Buster Keaton movies, and nine documentaries. As each is restored, it will receive a rollout that includes some form of theatrical release; recent titles include Merchant Ivory’s “Howards End” and Julie Dash’s 1991 “Daughters of the Dust.” VOD only is not an option.

READ MORE: ‘Howards End’: Emma Thompson and James Ivory Reveal 5 Lessons Hollywood Should Learn From The Classic

“We’ve probably restored over a third of those films already,” Cohen said. “And every film that we release has to have, religiously, a theatrical profile. We have to have a theatrical release, whether it’s a one-off show or it’s a regular run at the Film Forum.”[VOD] seems to not give the filmgoing experience its due and the respect it requires, and the appreciation for the hard work that the filmmaker wants to get from the theatrical experience. So, I am with the filmmaker.”

CMG lieutenants include former Unifrance USA executive director John Kochman, First Independent Pictures founder Gary Rubin, and veteran sales executive Bill Thompson, but Cohen takes a hands-on approach that yields some churn. CMG president Daniel Battsek left for Film4 a year ago; he was never replaced. “It’s Charles’ way or the highway,” said one distributor. “He’ll spend anything on a certain tile for the Quad lobby. But you got to take a cab.”

Emma Thompson and Vanessa Redgrave in “Howards End”

Companies that he might view as competitors don’t necessarily see him that way; many consider Cohen’s mission to be, in effect, philanthropic. “They seem to be driven mostly by film as an art form, and not by too much of a profit motive,” said one specialty distributor. “By being so stodgy with their foreign film choices, they miss a beat.”

Cohen would disagree. CMG makes money, he said: “We have income coming from all different sources. We’ve got theatrical income, physical income, streaming income, broadcast income, and we’ve got clip sales which have always been lucrative for us. Anyone who is a producer finds a product, develops it. So, we even go a step further. We don’t just license the underlying material, we develop it as well. The more control over the more elements, the more likelihood of financial viability and ultimate production.”

And the risk? “Risk doesn’t bother me,” he said. “My day job, in the real estate development business, is all about managing my own expectations. If I don’t believe in myself, then no one else will. So I have no problem putting my time, energy, and capital behind what I believe in and behind the people that I believe in.”

Eventually, Cohen wants to move away from partnerships into something like Filmstruck, the streaming vertical created by Criterion and Turner Classic Movies. “We are talking about it now,” he said. “We have some good relationships in the tech world. We’ve got the content and we want to find a platform to give us what we need in order to keep doing what we’re doing. I look at it as an asset-building business with intellectual properties that are a continuing source of income. There are ways to exploit them and reap more benefits over an extended period of time, to find ways to program them so that people can see them, appreciate them, and enjoy them.”

At the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, Cohen unveiled a restored 4K “King of Hearts.” He owns the beloved French heart-tugger for 30 years worldwide.

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