Charles S. Cohen’s second act

A commercial real estate developer becomes a movie producer, distributor and restorer.

In April, a packed audience at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan was engulfed in laughter while viewing a beautifully restored presentation of Buster Keaton’s silent masterwork “The General.” Unknown to the audience, the man responsible for the moment was among them, savoring its richness.

“Film has always been a larger-than-life experience,” Charles S. Cohen says. “It is about being enveloped and overwhelmed by the big screen. I enjoy watching films in other ways and formats, but there are too many distractions.”

Charles. S. Cohen. Courtesy Cohen Media Group.

For Cohen, the screening of the 1926 Keaton film before an appreciative contemporary audience was a new peak in one of the most fascinating careers in independent cinema.

“I’ve always been a lover and student of films,” says Cohen, who plans to do for the Larchmont Playhouse next year what he did for the Quad. “I made short films in high school and college, and I wrote a movie trivia book in 1985.”

However, Cohen’s initial career focus did not include cinema. A Brooklyn Law School graduate, he joined his family’s real estate business in 1979. Under his guidance, Cohen Brothers Realty saw its business quadruple to 12 million square feet through more than 70 acquisitions and financings. Today, the company is one of the most respected and successful players in New York’s tumultuous commercial real estate industry.

But the lure of the big screen never abated, and Cohen, who splits his time between Manhattan and Greenwich, branched out in 2008 to produce his own films. Cohen Media Group made its entry into the film industry in a big way:  Its debut feature, the haunting “Frozen River,” with Cohen serving as executive producer, snagged the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and earned Academy Award nominations for Melissa Leo’s performance and Courtney Hunt’s screenplay. 

But while “Frozen River” was an artistic triumph, Cohen was baffled by the lack of financial payback. “I was frustrated as a producer that I did not recover my investment,” he says. “I could not understand why. So I investigated the distribution side of the business.”

As a result, Cohen Media Group expanded as both a production and distribution entity. The company’s focus is wide and varied, ranging from the acquisition of classic works — most notably the Raymond Rohauer library of classic silent films and the award-winning Merchant Ivory canon — to provocative and invigorating new films, including Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman,” which won this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film.

Finding great films was not a problem for Cohen, but initially he encountered some obstacles in getting them before audiences — especially in New York, which is the most crucial market for a non-Hollywood studio release. “As a distributor, the greatest challenge is finding screens,” he says, referring to the shrinking number of art house venues offering foreign, independent and retro presentations. 

In 2014, Cohen solved that problem by acquiring the Quad Cinema, a venerable if somewhat outdated theater in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. “Everything was changed,” Cohen says. “The interior was completely gutted and reconstructed. We brought in a new HVAC system, new projection — but, of course, it is still a four-screen theater. Otherwise, we couldn’t call it the Quad.”

The newly renovated Quad opened earlier this year, offering a bold and refreshing mix of new releases and imaginative retro film showcases. In September, the theater premiered a Cohen Media Group release that Cohen saw as one of his most important presentations — Marina Willer’s acclaimed documentary “Red Trees,” which traced her paternal family’s journey as one of only 12 Jewish families to survive the Nazi occupation of Prague during World War II to a new but tumultuous life in Brazil.

“When I saw the short, I was very touched by it. It was unlike any other Holocaust film I had seen. Instead of the usual black-and-white images of fighting troops and concentration camps, it is full of color and light. Marina first showed me 10 to 15 minutes of footage and I was totally captivated. She planned the film as a short, but I encouraged her to expand it into a feature.”

Cohen is aiming to add another Oscar to his company’s credit by positioning “Red Trees” for consideration in the Best Documentary Award category. “We’re working on that,” he says. “The film projects a profound message of hope.”

Cohen has a full slate of films lined up for the remainder of 2017 and into early 2018. Among the more intriguing offerings are the Agnes Varda and JR documentary “Faces Places;” a restoration of the 1965 Merchant Ivory classic “Shakespeare Wallah;” Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult,” which is Lebanon’s entry for the upcoming Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar; and a restoration of the 1967 comedy classic “King of Hearts.”

And the aforementioned audience that loved “The General” should be happy to know that an encore is in the works. “I’m producing a documentary on Buster Keaton, written and directed by Peter Bogdanovich,” Cohen says.

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