Entertainment

Charles Cohen, art-house billionaire, sees value in cinema

Posted May 16

— New York real estate billionaire Charles Cohen owns several tall Manhattan buildings but his heart is in the art house.

Cohen's day job is president and chief executive of Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation, which owns and manages more than 12 million square feet of office space and design centers like the Decoration & Design Building in New York. His net worth is estimated by Forbes at $2.2 billion. But, a movie lover since seeing "Cinderella" at age three and an aspiring director as a teenager, cinema is a passion he's turned into a thriving independent distribution company that, at least in cultural scope, is starting to dwarf his high-rise holdings.

Cohen Media Group , founded in 2008, has become an increasingly prominent player in the specialty movie business. In February, the company landed its first Oscar, the best foreign language film for Asghar Farhadi's "The Salesman." Last month, it opened the handsomely renovated Quad Cinema in New York, earning praise for the boutique theater's design and creative programming. This week, Cohen Media will take two films (Jacques Doillon's Auguste Rodin biopic and the latest from French filmmaker Agnes Varda) to the Cannes Film Festival. And on Friday, it will premiere a newly restored "Maurice," one of the celebrated films of the Merchant-Ivory catalog Cohen acquired in 2014.

"I've been telling people that this past February when I turned 65, my daughter gave me a grandson on my birthday," said Cohen in a recent interview in his Lexington Avenue office." Then we won the Academy Award. Now the Quad has opened and we're going to Cannes. Life is good."

Cohen, known for meticulousness in appearance, manner and design, is quick to point out that he runs Cohen Media and the Quad as a business, not a non-profit. But while movies are more than a hobby, he's not driven by the same commercial concerns that the rest of the industry is.

"There are people who collect a lot more art than I do, but there are very few people that collect art films," he said. "I'm a big believer in preservation, restoration, being able to see these films not only today but tomorrow."

Movie business history is littered with wealthy men whose money producers gladly pocketed in exchange for a taste of Hollywood glamour — and soon find their back-end deals don't pay out quite what they expected. Cohen's first step into movie producing went along those lines when he produced 2008 crime drama "Frozen River." It was a success in many ways — it earned two Oscar nods — but it led Cohen to consider other avenues.

"I became a distributor and I had the pleasure of losing more money," he said, chuckling. "But I learned a lesson and it forged a path."

Cohen Media has since helped bring some of the best films of recent years to American screens. It distributed in the U.S. the Oscar-nominated films "Mustang," the Turkish-French drama about orphaned sisters in rural Turkey, and "Timbuktu," the gentle, lyrical portrait of village life under radical Islamist rule. Its restorations have included Buster Keaton's "The General," Merchant-Ivory's "Howard's End" and Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust," which earned a citation from the New York Film Critics Circle.

"This is not a flash in the pan," said Cohen. "This is a systematic, long-term project that will continue to snowball attention and affection from filmgoers."

It's not exactly the pervading belief that art-house films and independent movie theaters are today's hottest investments. Yet New York hasn't for decades, if ever, been more alive with bustling, exciting movie art-house theaters. And many in the specialty movie business are finding streaming options have connected moviegoers with a great wealth of films.

"You work all your life, you make all these films, and then if you're an independent filmmaker, you wonder what's going to happen to them," said James Ivory, whose partnership with the late Ismail Merchant made for one cinema's most unshakable pairings. "Will the collection be broken up or lost? In this case it's not going to be. And not only owning them, he's restoring them."

"Maurice," Ivory and Ismail Merchant's 1987 follow-up to "A Room With a View," is also an E.M. Foster adaptation: a posthumously published novel about gay men in Edwardian England. Starring James Wilby and Hugh Grant, the film's tenderness of character and extraordinary craft have only grown more exceptional with time.

"I know Charles' activities include a lot of wheeling and dealing in real estate, but he's a very sincere, ardent film fan," said Ivory. "From purchasing those films — not just mine but many, many films that he's gotten and restored — it's a great, great thing he's doing."

To say the least, Hollywood isn't much in the business of making films like "Maurice" anymore, or for that matter, most of those put out by Cohen Media. But a handful of deep-pocketed investors like Cohen and Megan Ellison, of Annapurna Productions, are helping keep cinema alive.

"There's the franchise business and then there's everything else," Cohen said. "And everything else is pretty rich."

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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