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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

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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