EXCLUSIVE: Real estate mogul and indie film distributor Charles S. Cohen, who bought the Landmark Theatre chain 14 months ago, made more waves in the exhibition space late last year when he acquired flagship UK art house exhibitor and distributor Curzon.
In one of his first interviews since the acquisition, we spoke with Cohen about the Curzon buy and strategy, the landscape for independent exhibition and distribution, and Cohen Media Group’s growing production plans.
The tireless investor and owner of Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation, is well known as a supporter and lover of independent film. He also has business interests in wine, fashion, lighting and luxury goods.
As a side note, during the wide-ranging conversation (which was just before Curzon’s massive run with Parasite), I was wide of the mark in my spontaneous guess at the Curzon deal price. In hindsight, it would naturally be much more than I estimated given the prime central London locations of some sites and the size of the prestige library, which includes a slew of Cannes, Oscar and BAFTA winners.
Here’s our chat.
DEADLINE: It’s funny, I was in Paris recently and walked past the famous Pagode Cinema, which has been under renovation for some time now. You bought the venue some years ago. Do we know when it might be open again?
COHEN: Yes, I was just there a few weeks ago and I think we’ll begin work most likely end of March beginning of April. It’s a big job. We have major excavation work to do and the restoration work is very meticulous because it’s an old building. I think it’ll probably take between two and three years until we’re open.
DEADLINE: Let’s discuss the recent acquisition of Curzon. I’d heard last Cannes that there was strong interest in the chain, possibly from a streamer. How did your acquisition come about?
COHEN: Well, I wasn’t involved as early as last May. My involvement gained traction in August. There was someone I have worked on transactions in Europe for a number of years who acted as the catalyst for putting me in touch with the appropriate people. Philip [Curzon CEO Philip Knatchbull] I had known for a few years and I had always expressed an interest in finding a way to work together, not only as a potential acquirer of the exhibition platform, but also in terms of worldwide distribution rights to some of our library titles and films that we have been selling. One thing led to another and we worked it out. The deal only closed in December.
DEADLINE: Why did the acquisition make sense to you financially and culturally?
COHEN: I thought it was very strategic for what I believe is an important role for us to play in the film landscape. Having begun as a producer with Frozen River back in 2008 and then moving into distribution in 2010, I continued to study the business. I thought that if I could manage to put together a group of English-speaking theaters, that it would put me in a very unique position. I wasn’t interested in reaching for a commercial chain, because there are some giants in the marketplace and I am smart enough to know that I wouldn’t want to compete in that space.
I was able to acquire Landmark and I see Curzon as occupying a similar space as a go-to place for independent, foreign-language and thought-provoking filmmaking. The locations in the UK are fabulous. Philip’s got a great expansion plan that’s well underway. He’s ambitious, I like working with him. I think there’ll be a lot of synergistic opportunities on the distribution and exhibition sides.
DEADLINE: Will the team at Curzon and Artificial Eye be staying intact?
COHEN: A hundred percent. I’m not a disruptive investor-acquirer. I bought into the experience and the success of the team so everything is business as usual. I look forward to learning more about their business and being as helpful as I can in its operation and expansion.
DEADLINE: So we’ll be seeing a growth in the cinema circuit?
COHEN: Yes. There a number of theaters that are opening soon.
DEADLINE: What changes might we see in terms of distribution?
COHEN: We’ll be talking about these things because I think there’s a natural synergy between acquiring for the U.S. and UK markets. If we can do it at the same time and provide producers with great platforms in both countries then I think it makes a lot of sense.
DEADLINE: Could we see those joint acquisitions for the U.S. and UK at the EFM?
COHEN: I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to find something that we like together that makes sense for both of us.
DEADLINE: If I were thinking of a ballpark figure for the Curzon deal, would it be in the $20 million range?
COHEN: Oh, no, no. Much more than that. But I can’t discuss the specifics.
DEADLINE: I’m interested in the challenge for art house movies in the UK. The market is very polarized as it is in the U.S. Many of the “indie” theaters now program the blockbusters. Do you see a need to reverse that trend?
COHEN: Well, I don’t look at those two types of entertainment or filmmaking as mutually exclusive. For example, Landmark wants to show the very best in filmmaking today. By the best filmmakers. That answer also holds true for Curzon. I don’t think it matters if it’s a studio film or if someone makes a film with an iPhone. I think it’s all about the quality of the filmmaking and the experience of the audience. When a person goes to the cinema I don’t think they think about what type of film the cinema shows. Of course there are the habitual Curzon cinemagoers, but by and large most people will go to a cinema because of the film that’s playing there.
DEADLINE: There will be some film lovers of an independent bent who would say that with so many big chains showing the big movies, it’s nice if there are some smaller venues that hold fast to that independent spirit…
COHEN: In all the business dealings that I’ve had, whether those be design centers, luxury brands, or others, I try to find something that has a unique niche in its landscape. And that niche is something that I like to work on nurturing, redeveloping and repositioning to reap the benefits of that niche reaching its potential. Artificial Eye, Curzon and Landmark are jewels in their landscapes…
DEADLINE: Talking of jewels in their landscapes, what did you make of Netflix’s deal for The Paris Theatre?
COHEN: Well, I’m a big supporter of what Netflix is doing. I think everything that Netflix does is great for filmmaking and for employing filmmakers and all the different craftsmen all the way down the line. I think that they are a godsend to the film industry, injecting energy and capital and embracing all different kinds of filmmaking. And as far as The Paris Theatre is concerned, I think that that’s a great way to keep a New York City landmark alive and well and I applaud them for jumping in and working out the arrangement they did.
DEADLINE: You bought The Quad in New York. Might you buy other cinemas in New York? A few of the well known venues have gone by the wayside in the city…
COHEN: We have the Landmark at 57 West, which is a beautiful new theater that only opened around two years ago. The audience is slowly but surely finding out what a great environment Landmark in New York is. The Landmark Sunshine on Houston Street closed a few years ago when the lease ended, but I acquired the historic Larchmont Playhouse in Westchester County. That is being renovated this summer and it’ll be open probably in 18 months to two years. I’m also working on a project in West Palm Beach, Florida. I acquired the former Carefree Theatre and that’s now part of a new development with six screens in an area that doesn’t have a big independent film presence.
Another thing I’m passionate about, is that after working on Frozen River, I had acquired the Rohauer library in the UK out of the administrative court and I renamed it the Cohen Film Collection. Part of what is very important to me and to our company is the embrace of classic film in their restored and preserved state so that new audiences, as well as the audiences that remember these great classic films, can enjoy them once again.
We’ve done a number of restorations, probably close to a hundred already, and that has included most of Buster Keaton’s library, Merchant Ivory’s library. And recently in the U.S. we’ve released a 4K restoration of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, which is a classic Ava Gardner and James Mason film. We haven’t dated it yet in the UK, but that’s something that we’re talking about.
There are a number of other restorations coming up, including some of the other Merchant Ivory films. We just re-released The Europeans and we’re working on a restoration of The Deceivers right now. A few years ago we acquired the Joan Micklin Silver library of five films and we are completing a 4K restoration of her initial successful film Hester Street, so we hope to premiere that later this spring or early summer.
DEADLINE: Some of my favourite festival memories are of watching films in the classics strands. Talking of classics, you had a great run a few years ago with the likes of Mustang, The Salesman and The Insult, each of which were Oscar-nominated. You haven’t had those awards home runs in the last couple of years. Is that side of the business still as important?
COHEN: I’m at the Oscars every year. We have had eight nominations since I started Cohen Media Group. Two years ago we had The Insult, and Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places, which was nominated for best documentary. It’s not as if we’ve stopped looking for the best films we can find, it’s just that it’s become very competitive and I think the quality and range of opportunities has been much diminished than in previous years. But of course we’ll have a good presence at Berlin and Cannes. We’re still very involved in pre-buys and acquisitions of finished films. I have also started production on John Madden war movie Operation Mincemeat with Colin Firth. I’m producing that with See-Saw and it’s shooting in London.
DEADLINE: That is your biggest production to date, right?
COHEN: Yes it is. I’m very proud of it. I optioned it several years ago and worked on finding the right screenwriter, then the right director, and the right local producing partner. So it’s been a journey that has been very rewarding and I’m very proud of the film that we will be presenting later this year.
DEADLINE: Given the direction of the market I guess it’s a fair assumption that you’ll be looking to produce more going forward?
COHEN: Yes. We have a very active group of films and series we’re working on, some with the streamers.
DEADLINE: Do we know what your next production is as a producer?
COHEN: We’re finalizing a production deal on a multi-part TV streaming project. It will be our first series. And there are some other co-productions in France that we’re working on. There are a lot of things in the works.
DEADLINE: Is there scope for you to acquire more independent film businesses?
COHEN: There probably will be opportunities, but right now I’m very deep in the weeds of learning more about Curzon and Landmark. This isn’t the only thing I do, but I love it and I’m passionate about it and I’m committed.
DEADLINE: You juggle a lot. And no doubt your other interests are far more lucrative than your film interests. As the old adage goes, “The only way to make a small fortune in the film industry is to start with a large one”…
COHEN: That’s the old adage. I think that I’ve avoided that problem because I’m not the kind of the person that wants to write a big check to finance a film. That’s not something that I’ve ever wanted to do. I didn’t think that was the best use of capital or my energies. I think my involvement is much more hands on and I can bring to bear what I’ve learned in real estate so that these exhibition companies can make the best possible deals and operate in the most profitable way they can for the longest possible duration.
DEADLINE: Well, those theaters are certainly needed in the ecosystem today…
COHEN: People need places to go to experience things with other people. Just as people will go to a soccer match, there’s no substitute for actually being there. And I feel that the filmgoing experience, the community experience of sitting with an audience is a way that the filmmakers want their films to be seen: on a big screen, in a dark room, with the best sound, in the best possible place, and to let people forget about all the other issues in their lives and the world around us. We need these places to decompress and to learn and to experience things together as an audience. And that’s something that you can only do in a theater.