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Charles Cohen on Repertory Cinema and the Quad’s One-Year Anniversary: Running a Theater ‘Is Not About Making a Fortune’

As the theater celebrates its first year, the real estate mogul and film distributor explains his ongoing interest in the theatrical space.

AtmosphereOpening of the Quad Cinema in New York City, USA - 12 Apr 2017

The Quad Cinema

Marion Curtis/Starpix/REX/Shutterstock

As debates about the future of moviegoing continue to accelerate, some arthouses are surviving on their own terms. When real estate mogul and Cohen Media founder Charles Cohen bought the abandoned Quad Cinema in the West Village for a reported $3 million and reopened the four-screen venue in 2017, the theater joined the network of independent venues in New York City known for showcasing a range of foreign language work and repertory programming, from Lincoln Center to the Metrograph. One year later, the city has lost two major venues for specialty releases — the Sunshine Cinema on the Lower East Side and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side — but the Quad, which celebrated its one-year anniversary on April 14, continues to fill its four screens with a mixture of first-run features and classics.

“You can’t go to the opera or ballet every night,” Cohen said in an interview with IndieWire. “We try to make the Quad a place you want to go, that has some magnetic attraction to it.” On paper, at least, the Quad has plenty to offer cinephiles looking for a night out: celebrated new releases, a range of retrospectives (Godard muse Anne Wiazemsky is currently the center of her own series, and it’s followed by another one on filmmaker Alan Rudolph), and $10 glasses of wine.

The theater may not be setting box office records — top-grosser “Faces Places” made $160,000 in its entire run — but the theater has nevertheless managed respectable figures on par with those reported by more established venues across town.

“It’s not about making a fortune,” Cohen said. “This is more about creating a culture resource — a community. It’s almost an act of philanthropy.” Cohen first took an interest in the film world as a producer on “Frozen River” 10 years ago, and the distribution arm of his company is now the biggest distributor of French language films in the U.S.

However, the Quad is far from his only investment in the exhibition space: Last year, he acquired the three-screen Larchmonth Playhouse in Westchester County, the Carefree Theatre in West Palm Beach, and the historic La Pagode in Paris. “I am slowly but surely finding interesting neighborhoods that will embrace what I find to be interesting to film lovers,” Cohen said. “If we do our job right, there’s a way to create commercial viability.”

Some longtime members of the New York film community remain skeptical of Cohen’s spending habits. The company — which released “Faces Places” last year — is known for being frugal with its releases (“I take that as a compliment,” he said) even as Cohen’s real estate habits point to deep pockets. However, many veterans of the New York exhibition scene said that the Quad had become a major asset that had found its place in the city’s network of art houses.

“The new Quad has added a needed dimension to the New York theatrical landscape,” said Kino Lorber CEO Richard Lorber. Like many distributors, Lorber was initially skeptical about playing movies at a theater owned by a company releasing competition titles. “Our anxieties about a distribution competitor dominating the theater with self-serving dates turned out to be completely unfounded,” Lorber said, noting that his company’s “Tom of Finland” and “Keep the Change” were among the top five highest-grossing titles at the venue over the past year.

Charles Cohen

Others noted that timing was key in imbuing the Quad, which was known in its prior life as a dumping ground for four-walled releases, with value for the local scene. “Losing the the five screens of the Sunshine — and the incredible presentation that it gave films — was a really big blow to the exhibition of arthouse films,” said veteran exhibition consultant Michael Tuckman, who credited director of programming Chris Wells and his team for having “championed certain films that might otherwise have fallen though the cracks, in the same manner in which the other downtown theaters also champion films about which they are passionate. This is what keeps the downtown arthouse exhibition scene thriving, and I’m excited for all the things ahead for the Quad’s future.”

Cohen acknowledged that the streaming market had changed the nature of distribution on an international scale, a development most recently highlighted by the showdown between Netflix and the Cannes Film Festival, which has barred titles from its competition that don’t have theatrical distribution in France.

While Cohen’s company launched an streaming channel on Amazon last month, he said he remained committed to exploring the role of theaters on a local scale. “Listen, if there was no SVOD market for distributors, there would be very few films that get distributed in this country, because that’s where the real money is coming from,” he said. “It’s a very important model, but is it the exclusive one? No. The theatrical experience shouldn’t be overlooked. People still want to experience a film with other people, not just in their living rooms.”

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