Cinephile oasis: Cohen Media Group releases indie films with international savoir faire


Foreign film fans and the upmarket exhibition community have one of their best friends in Charles S. Cohen, an unrepentant cinephile with an unabated taste for quality films (especially French ones) who, as chairman and CEO of his eponymous Cohen Media Group (CMG), puts money where his passion is.

His five-year-old company comprises a staff of about 16 headquartered in offices in a sleek high-rise near New York’s Bloomingdale’s. Cohen says he’ll be announcing “very soon” an important new addition to the CMG New York team.

Beyond New York, CMG also has an archival/restoration operation in Columbus, Ohio, where archivist Tim Lanza and two others work on trailers, research and restorations for the Cohen Film Collection, a vast library of many hundreds of old films and classics, including those from the famed Raymond Rohauer library. (Cohen is especially proud that “we have the best Buster Keaton collection in the world, plus own his life story and rights to his images.”)

While not having expanded into the food business, CMG has delivered an amazing crop of bright reds to Rotten Tomatoes—meaning films scoring well into high ratings of 80s and 90s of critical consensus. This impressive harvest includes films like My Afternoons with Margueritte, Farewell My Queen, The Other Son, Blancanieves, The Attack, the truly brilliant In The House, and You Will Be My Son, which CMG has in development as a remake.

If box-office numbers aren’t as impressive, well, folks, welcome to today’s world of too much everywhere for everyone and anytime in a movie clime as digitally diverse as it is subtitle-averse. But CMG has found its niche of older film fans who, like Cohen, discovered the now classic foreign films of the ’50s and ’60s from auteurs like Godard, Truffaut and Fellini and got hooked. And could eat popcorn and read subtitles at the same time.

Asked about this detour into film especially as the specialized sector retrenches, Cohen answers, “I’ve been a lifetime filmgoer and devotee of film, beginning when there were few film schools. So I just read about film and watched all that I could, especially in college. I grew up in Harrison, New York, where we had a theatre showing foreign films and I found uranium there.” As for his love of French product, he says, “I’ve been studying French since high school and speak a little. But it was the great storytelling, great music, romance, human interest and cinematography in the French films that I saw, especially those made after World War II, that so impressed me.”

Well-established in real estate, Cohen took his first step into film in the financial crisis flashpoint year of 2008, which he calls “just another year of having to live through.”  Luck, money and good judgment were a perfect storm for success: Cohen’s longtime real estate lawyer who did the company’s landlord-tenant work asked him to invest money in his wife Courtney Hunt’s first feature, which became the Sony Pictures Classics acclaimed indie hit Frozen River.

Hunt was at Columbia and happened to direct the short from which she made the feature that went on to receive two Oscar nominations and break through several million at the box office. Impressed with the short, Cohen took the River plunge to become one of the film’s executive producers. Like a smart landlord/developer, he got the original $2 million budget knocked down and ended up investing in about half of the $600,000 production cost.

Cohen is also president and CEO of Cohen Brothers Realty Corp. As one of the country’s most important commercial real estate owners/developers, he oversees a portfolio of office buildings and design centers nationwide. An art patron, he also serves as a board member of important cultural institutions like L.A.’s MOCA, The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Stella Adler Studio.

After Frozen River warmed his interest in film, the next impetus came after Cohen read about what was happening to specialized releases at the time. Their retreat spelled opportunity. By 2010, he sent Steven Scheffer, who for years had been acquiring films for domestic at HBO, to Studio Canal where he had contacts. “The result,” says Cohen, “was Outside the Law [a tough and highly regarded French politically charged crime drama], which we distributed and which led to other films.” From the beginning, his stated mission has been to produce and distribute carefully selected quality films throughout North America and to maximize the potential for each. Scheffer has been critical to CMG’s distribution business, he notes.

Also key is CMG VP of theatrical sales Bill Thompson, who came onboard about a year ago. Known to many in the industry for his years on the specialized side of theatrical distribution, Thompson, like Cohen, knows well the generation of young cinephiles decades ago for whom subtitles were no issue. But the times they have a-changed!

As mover of and dealmaker for CMG’s art-house product for theatres, Thompson confronts an issue—resistance to subtitles—that’s beyond the more recent complications of VOD and day-and-date. “[The subtitle problem] is not so new, but it’s a basic one that continues,” he observes. “There’s a limited number of subtitled films that work and a limited number of theatres, especially in Manhattan, that play specialized films. And we have to get things set up first in Manhattan and that’s a challenge, especially uptown. And there are lots of companies competing for these few theatres. Other than the Landmark chain, there are a limited number of screens here and nationwide and they’ve absolutely been diminishing.”

Thompson wishes the trend away from subtitles wasn’t just a New York phenomenon. “I’d like to think that’s the case, but it’s countrywide.” He does remember that distributor Bob Berney gave hope to a revival when several of his films, notably the subtitled Pan’s Labyrinth, seemed to break the curse, although it also had the advantage of having genre elements. But, Thompson assesses, “these were one-shot deals and no trend back to subtitles emerged. People don’t want to read subtitles and it’s such a shame because they miss so many good films.” Nor does it help, he adds, that unlike the golden age of foreign films, “there are few names around like Fellini, Truffaut and the like that have that magic and impact on audiences and the culture.”

While theatrical is Cohen’s major love, he is far from screen-agnostic and is busy with other platforms, which CMG executive VP Gary Rubin oversees. CMG has its own label and its product is available via SVOD, cable and cable VOD, campuses, ships, airlines, museums, etc. As CMG proved with the current The Attack and the company’s restoration of film classics running on TCM and through other outlets, “these platforms are lucrative and it all adds up to a plus at the end of the day, although certain films take longer to perform,” Cohen notes.

With theatrical hardly the only game in town, Cohen is keenly aware that cable and web on-demand and streaming services like Amazon and Netflix and gadgets like Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast grow as viewing options, like the hot “Brooklyn” of the film content map. To leverage such diversity, he says, “We’re watching what others are doing and we continue to have those discussions.” And he eyes deeper involvement: “Ultimately, we’d like to have our own channel on the Internet. We could compete best there.”

Whatever the outlet, Cohen describes his acquisitions as “an eclectic group of subjects.” Foreign is his favored territory, though he also professes love of tentpoles like Frozen. But the businessman in him knows that “you can’t be all things to all people—you need a niche. I found the European films and now we’re involved in restorations.”

So how does Cohen, who has final say in all acquisition and production matters, find his films? “Relationships are important,” he responds. “For instance, we got involved with In the House at the script stage as we were in discussions with a sales agent and learned they had the script. And with The Attack, this was just a film that nobody wanted.” There’s no science involved but clearly some courage: “I work from the gut with a lot of this, and being independent sometimes allows you to be brave.”

A tough call is whether a film will do better theatrically than in ancillaries. Admitting that to date CMG revenues with certain films have come more from nontheatrical platforms, Cohen reminds that “there’s no formula to this. I just look at the full picture of adding to my library. We’re looking ahead and this takes time and patience. It’s tough to make money with a foreign film, but our relationships give us an enviable perch. In fact, today we’re the largest distributor of French films in the U.S. But we’re not a vanity business; we are believers.”

Asked how theatres might bring more fans to art screens, Cohen quickly suggests, “There are several things. First of all, we need more screens. There aren’t enough and because of this, available films become like stacked planes trying to reach an airport. Even when screens are there, the quality can be poor. Theatres should invest beyond digital and the DCPs and become more comfortable and contemporary.”

As a significant player in the independent art-house space, does Cohen see the studios having any kind of advantage, especially in a climate of roiling technological advances? Answers Cohen, “I’m well-positioned and in the same position as the studios, because with so much rapid change, we’re all in the same boat.”

And what of the marketing challenge? It depends on the film, Cohen says, but he describes a familiar mix of PR outsourced to a variety of publicists, advertising, sometimes narrow-targeting and grass-roots approaches, social media, word of mouth, etc. Because CMG’s audience skews older and more print-friendly, hard-copy ads often remain critical to campaigns.

Only five years in the business, Cohen says he has learned to “stay away from small and narrow films. They are difficult and you can’t turn them into what you want them to be.” On the positive side, he cherishes the relationships he and CMG have made. “They are so important.”

Looking three to five years ahead, Cohen sees big growth for both CMG and viewer choice. “It will be a much bigger and all-digital world and digital files will follow everyone everywhere. For us, it’s important to control those files and so far we have about a thousand.” Already, over two-dozen CMG classic film restorations have gone to theatres (The Thief of Bagdad, Tristana and Intolerance, to name a few) and will soon be traveling to Europe.

For theatres, CMG also has a tantalizing lineup, including a detour into genre with the newly arrived Swerve, a smart, modest Australian crime thriller with noir touches and remote Outback locales. The film is indicative of Cohen exploring how he might expand his audience while staying true to a belief in quality.

Thompson describes Swerve as a “tweener,” much like CMG’s recent subtitled French actioner The Prey, so it’s not a typical CMG entry that would ride the art-house wave of a positive New York Times notice. “It’s a change of pace for us,” Thompson says, “an experiment for us and a tricky sell with no major names, so we’re testing it in five different markets with five AMC theatres.” He was hoping for “good if not great reviews and if it works, we’ll expand it.”

Currently, Thompson is also tasked with Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust doc The Last of the Unjust, featuring the director of Shoah today but built around plentiful footage of his 1975 Rome interview with the brash and brilliant schemer Benjamin Murmelstein, a controversial, probably corrupt Holocaust survivor. A former rabbi who happened to know Adolph Eichmann, Murmelstein was the last president of the Jewish Council in the Nazis’ so-called “model” Theresienstadt concentration camp, actually a frequent gateway to Auschwitz. Fascinating and gripping, the film is assured a good life at fests (it recently played the New York Film Festival) and in ancillaries, but runs three hours and 43 minutes.

So, running time aside, how to sell Last to theatres? Thompson observes, “With documentaries, it’s not just a matter of getting good reviews but about the subject itself. And the Holocaust presents a challenge.” But, he adds, marketing will get a boost from the reputations of Lanzmann and his epic Shoah.

During the past two decades, Thompson has held executive sales positions with such leading distributors as Miramax Films, Gramercy Pictures, Lot 47 Films and four companies headed by Bob Berney—Newmarket Films, Picturehouse, Apparition and Film District. He previously held senior film-buying positions with several New York-based exhibition companies, including Cinema 5, Walter Reade, Cineplex Odeon and City Cinemas. He most recently was a distribution consultant with Indomina Releasing, overseeing the national release of Leos Carax’s acclaimed Holy Motors. He previously consulted with Music Box Films.

Notwithstanding the status quo, CMG, with so much quality to disperse, has had its share of sizeable theatrical successes. Thompson points to The Other Son and The Attack, both dealing with Middle East problems. “We got a lot of play out of the many Jewish film festivals that take place around the country. They provide a very defined, concentrated and finite audience, but they bring us the intended audience. The Other Son, for instance, played about 60 Jewish festivals around the country. The Attack also did well and was a bit of a surprise and tricky sell because the hero’s wife is a terrorist. But this generated a lot of controversy that brought in additional audiences.” Apart from the major fests, these events, which continue to mushroom around the country and pay for the films they show (major festivals like Cannes, Toronto and others, of course, don’t pay), provide additional income.

On the day-and-date front, Thompson reports, “We only did one day-and-date VOD, Just Like a Woman with Sienna Miller. It’s hard to tell whether in the end it meant a better bottom line for us, and that’s partly because a lot of theatres, especially the major circuits, just won’t play a film going VOD day-and-date with theatrical.” Beyond releases like Margin Call or Arbitrage, there are few acknowledged significant theatrical/day-and-date successes, he says, and the murky or non-existent numbers from the VOD side muddy the waters.

Does Thompson believe that viewers still perceive theatres as the best way to see films? “It depends on the individual. Many want that big screen, like teens attending movies with dates or the older filmgoers who continue to value the experience. There will always be audiences for theatres, but you can’t forget the advances being made for home theatres: those huge screens, the great sound systems, Netflix and other on-demand offerings. It’s getting easier to say, ‘I don’t need to see the film this weekend, I’ll just wait to see it in the comfort of my home.’”

Thompson calls CMG’s restorations for theatres a challenge because “DVD killed off so many commercial repertory theatres. Now it’s mainly the nonprofits like Film Forum or the Walter Reade in this space. So we also go to museums and film societies who pay to show these films, because you’ll seldom get a commercial theatre to play a repertory title. Intolerance, for instance, is a four-hour black-and-white silent epic, so we’re getting bookings in film societies and museums.”

The different formats for theatres also present a challenge and represent for Thompson one of the most disruptive aspects in sales. “With everything now digital, we no longer make 35mm films but offer theatres a DCP, Blu-ray or DVD. So that requires that we keep track of which theatres are playing which format. In the old days, it was just 35mm.” Thompson sounds like he might be a cheerleader for satellite delivery.

However they show their films, Thompson believes like so many others that theatres can boost traffic by making sure the venues are clean and well-maintained. “The experience in theatres has to be good so that audiences will return. Yes, there are major problems in our business, but the first thing too many theatres do is cut maintenance and staffing.”

Asked if positive reviews for art-house films from established critics still carry the weight they used to, Thompson responds, “Absolutely! The New York Times is still the single most important review for our films and they have their greatest impact in Manhattan. You can overcome a bad Times review, but it’s not easy.”

For the most part, he continues, “CMG’s audiences still read newspapers and value these reviews and see the ads. They are older, more sophisticated, and get their information in more traditional ways. So we can still advertise in newspapers and magazines, even as we do digital and online advertising.”

Besides the previously mentioned The Last of the Unjust, Thompson will oversee a future lineup of about 16 acquisitions. The Last of the Unjust opened in December for a short Academy run and will go nationwide in February. Le Chef, due later in February, stars Jean Reno in a comedy about a veteran chef having to deal with his restaurant group wanting to move into molecular gastronomy.

March brings Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way, a French comedy/drama starring Catherine Deneuve as a sixty-something woman whose mounting problems send her on a short journey to clear her head, yielding unexpected consequences.

In late March, CMG has Breathe In, the new drama from writer-director Drake Doremus (indie hit Like Crazy), starring Felicity Jones, Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan, about a foreign-exchange student who shakes up the normally calm lives of her small-town host family.

Cédric Klapisch’s romantic comedy Chinese Puzzle, starring Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou and Cécile De France, arrives in April and reunites his beloved upwardly mobile young Europeans from L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls for continuing complications in New York.

May in the Summer, scheduled for late June, is Cherien Dabis’ comedy/drama starring Dabis, Hiam Abbass (Lemon Tree, The Visitor), and Bill Pullman. The comedy/drama follows a sophisticated New Yorker’s return to her childhood home in Jordan for a wedding where events and reunions suddenly force her to rethink the next step in her life.

Later this summer, CMG releases Jérôme Enrico’s Paulette, starring Spain’s great Carmen Maura and Bernadette Lafont, the French New Wave sensation who died recently, in a comedy/drama about a financially strapped woman in the Paris projects who turns her talent for cooking into a promising cannabis business.

On the doc front, CMG is handling Chuck Workman’s What is Cinema?, due in early 2014. The film is another example of Workman’s acclaimed gift for montage (he’s known for his Oscar show clip sequences). This latest is an exploration of film that leverages strong visuals with new and archival interviews with famous directors. Thompson calls What is Cinema? “a perfect film festival film” that will also go out to nontheatrical venues like Rochester, New York’s George Eastman House.

Among the few in CMG’S upcoming slate that Thompson has already seen, he calls Breathe In, On My Way and Chinese Puzzle “especially strong within the specialized market and audience-friendly.”

He is especially enthusiastic about My Old Lady, CMG’s first production. The English-language comedy/drama starring Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas and French vet Dominique Pinon is near completion. Famed playwright Israel Horovitz wrote the screenplay and directed. The film follows an American who arrives in Paris for the apartment he has inherited only to discover it comes with an unexpected resident.

Thompson sees this film as “potentially very commercial.” He expects it to go out through the CMG pipeline, but considering the attachments, it’s not impossible to imagine CMG licensing it to another distributor for the right price.

Cohen, along with CMG president Daniel Battsek, serves as executive producer of My Old Lady. Battsek joined the company a year ago to oversee production and distribution, including a number of projects in development. He was most recently president of National Geographic Films, where he acquired projects for development/production, operated a boutique theatrical domestic distribution arm that handled the Oscar-nominated Restrepo and other specialized titles, and oversaw Nat Geo’s large-screen and IMAX projects.

Prior to Nat Geo, Battsek was an executive at Disney’s Miramax Films, where he was involved with films like Tsotsi (Best Foreign-Language Oscar), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Queen, No Country for Old Men (Best Feature Film Oscar) and There Will Be Blood. Battsek, who’s British, was with Disney in the U.K., where he handled the Miramax account and films like the Helen Mirren starrer Calendar Girls from Disney’s U.K. label. Battsek is also part of CMG’s acquisitions team that includes both Cohen and Rubin. Cohen, of course, has final say over all decisions.

Asked to describe the CMG audience, Battsek responds, “There’s no one audience for our films because they’re not homogeneous. But, generally, we’re appealing to a quality, slightly older group of cinephiles.”

Two projects in early development that CMG is now packaging, says Battsek, are based on the Ben MacIntyre books Double Cross and Operation Mincemeat that tell two fact-based World War II stories. Another new CMG project, Enemy Way, is already rolling. CMG is co-producing it with Pathé, Forest Whitaker stars and Rachid Bouchareb, who wrote and directed CMG’s early pick-up Outside the Law, reprises as writer and director.

And art-house fans might very well get excited about a remake of CMG’s critically acclaimed French wine country mystery/drama You Will Be My Son, which is also in the works. “That this is a remake,” notes Battsek, “gives us a nice advantage because of the reputation of the original.”

Battsek looks for interesting material to option, remake possibilities to develop and ways to adapt acquired material. Not in the CMG playbook, Battsek says, in spite of his Nat Geo background, are projects for giant screens.

So what lessons might Battsek have brought to his current position? “I think it goes back to the audiences we want to attract. We have to make sure we target the material to that audience, first secure that audience that is the most appropriate, but then concentrate just as hard on trying to expand that audience.”

Battsek emphasizes that in spite of the proliferating platforms, formats and devices that the company is always looking at, “theatrical is still very, very important to us. Our films on the whole are made to be shown in theatres. We are primarily a distribution company and want exhibition to recognize that."