It’s called the “now what” moment. It’s that moment of truth for filmmakers who, having won applause at the Sundance Film Festival and perhaps even secured distribution, now have to ask themselves that dreaded question: How will their film avoid instant oblivion? How will it find an audience?
For Charles Cohen, the “now what” moment at the 2008 Sundance prompted, not defeat, but an ambitious business plan — one involving not only his film, Frozen River, but also scores of others searching for a home in the art film universe. Fortunately, Cohen, a billionaire real estate maven, had the resources, and the taste, to implement his grand design. And since I love “grand designs,” I decided to track down Cohen and ask him about it.
Cohen told me he’d concluded that his passion for art films would make financial sense if he could essentially resurrect the vertical business model of Hollywood’s founders. That meant controlling the intellectual property, the film rights, the distribution and even the theaters where they will exhibited. To that end, the 63-year-old realtor set about to acquire libraries embracing over 800 vintage movies, plus producing a dozen or so new movies. In addition, he is soon to open several new or totally renovated art house theaters where he can proudly show his product.
And he’s having success within his confined universe. One of the scores of French films that Cohen controls, Mustang, has just earned an Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film, his second nom in a row (last year’s nomination was for Timbuktu.)
When I first heard about Cohen and his ambitions, I wondered if he was yet another billionaire searching for a new playground. But when I met him I realized his passion for art films was downright contagious. Under his plan, when a filmgoer visits a new Cohen art house, he will see a foreign-language film along with a curated array of vintage shorts, docs or even newsreels – and the place may even smell good. In short, the experience should actually be fun.
By buying libraries like those of Rohauer or Merchant-Ivory, Cohen now controls over 850 rare and vintage movies – old Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields and D.W. Griffith films as well as memorable works like Howard’s End or Shakespeare Wallah. Cohen either owns or licenses over 100 foreign-language (mostly French) films which he intends to showcase. (Mustang has played for eight weeks in New York and Los Angeles and how has some 56 additional playdates.)
In terms of exhibition, Cohen plans by summer to open a completely renovated Quad Cinema on New York’s West 13th Street and is rebuilding the Carefree Theater in West Palm Beach. In Los Angeles, Cohen owns the sprawling Blue and Green Whale structures in West Hollywood, each of which will have formidable screening facilities.
“I want to make it a fun adventure again to see an art film,” he explains. “Movie theaters of this sort are going the way of bowling alleys. But why shouldn’t people be able to enjoy seeing a fine movie and also experience different generations and different nationalities of filmmaking talent?”
Again, does Cohen have the muscle to bring this off? A second generation realtor, Cohen Brothers has vast holdings – perhaps 12 million square feet of real estate. He has hired an infrastructure of executives to implement his scheme, led by Daniel Battsek, who once headed Miramax under the Weinsteins. He’s developing a small slate of films for U.S. production, to follow up Hitchcock-Truffaut, a doc, and My Old Lady, released last year. He plans to release Rams, the Icelandic film, on February 2 and six other films later in the year.
But he’s not going to Sundance this year. “Sales agents have bid up the prices to such an extent that it’s all but impossible to make acquisitions,” he observes. “I’ll save my festival adventures for Cannes.”
Can his venture ever become profitable?
“I’m not doing this as a non-profit,” he tells me. “But as I bring this off I won’t have much competition. I’m investing in quality. I collect art. I collect art films. It’s a lot more fun than trying to make a tentpole.”