His Second Act

Deep in Conyers Farm, on a large estate carved out of thick woods, lives the commercial real estate developer Charles S. Cohen. Also, the motion picture impresario Charles S. Cohen. For thirty-odd years, this second Charles Cohen was locked securely inside the first, counting the months of his confinement on a

Then one day in 2006, quite innocently, Movie Charles Cohen escaped. He did so while Developer Charles Cohen was sitting at his desk at 750 Lexington Avenue, minding his own business. That is, tending to a 12-million-square-foot portfolio that includes Manhattan’s iconic Decoration & Design Building and Los Angeles’ monumental Pacific Design Center. Picture the scene: Charles Cohen up on the twenty-eighth floor of Cohen Brothers Realty Corp.’s great glass tower, a broad sweep of vertical city shimmering in the sunlight outside his window. But any temptation to daydream from this mesmeric perch must be vigorously quashed, for there are checks to sign, contracts to negotiate, deals to ponder.

Alas, the appearance at his door of a lawyer named Don Harwood means there are also tenant problems to deal with. Cohen has retained the boutique firm of Itkowitz & Harwood expressly for this purpose—“to handle rent demands and evictions and all of that stuff.” But that is not what’s happening today. Harwood comes bearing an opportunity, or maybe just a daydream. His wife, Courtney Hunt, late a student of Columbia Film School, has made a short film about smuggling Mohawk Indians (among other peoples) across the St. Lawrence River into upstate New York. Against steep odds, Hunt has managed to get it shown at the 2004 New York Film Festival, but she realizes a short film cannot begin to contain such complex material. She’s convinced her story—based on a true-life smuggling culture up on the northern border—demands feature-length treatment. Could Cohen help Harwood and Hunt raise the necessary hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Developer Charles Cohen folds his hands contemplatively. Movie Charles Cohen rustles and stirs. Two million should do the trick, Harwood says.

Cohen dwells in the world of aesthetics—his glamorous buildings testify to this—but also in the world of cold, hard numbers, and he thinks a rookie outing might be done for less. He asks Harwood to come back with a more modest proposal, privately wondering whether Harwood will bother, for even the grandest dreams have a way of fizzling out. Meanwhile, the two Charles Cohens sit down together and watch the film: It’s pretty damned good, they agree. They consider the potential. They acquire belief. The cell door starts to wobble on its hinge. One month later Don Harwood returns with a detailed prospectus and says that he and Hunt can make the movie for under a million, maybe as little as $600,000.

That was more like it. Developer Charles Cohen slips his key into the door, and Movie Charles Cohen wanders out into the light. That is to say, Cohen’s movie passion, the reigning passion of his youth, his sentimental education, his magic, his mystery, had found expression once again.

“When I turned fourteen, I stopped following the Yankees and started reading Variety,” says Cohen sitting in the sunny breakfast room of the house in Greenwich where he lives with his wife, Clo, and their two young boys. Lean, suntanned, cleft-chinned, luxuriantly gray-haired, Cohen looks like the cultured and polished executive that he is. Also, like the film star that he isn’t. But from the age of three, when his grandmother took him to see Cinderella (he made her sit through it twice), movies had exerted an oceanic pull on his imagination.

The passion was not idle. At the age of sixteen, Cohen and a friend made a short film called Contrast in his hometown of Harrison, New York. The short was a reaction to racial tensions inflaming America’s cities in the 1960s—a decade of 50 percent black poverty, of cities on fire, of rioters clashing with guardsmen and police. “So I found this black actor who lived in Harrison, and I put him on a bicycle near Purchase College, on Anderson Hill Road. I had him ride to a playground. When he got there, he met this white kid, and they both tried to get this carousel to move, and they were able to work together. I contrasted that with photographs I shot from LIFE magazine of all this terrible stuff going on in the country at the time.” Contrast won honorable mention in the Kodak Teenage Movie Awards.

Cohen followed with Recoil, a short film about a young man who takes the train from Harrison to Manhattan to buy a shotgun. Later, while hunting at White Plains’ Revolutionary War battlefield, the young man accidentally shoots a child. “I was always trying to make a point,” Cohen says. Eerily, both films would seem as relevant today as they did then. While an English major at Tufts, Cohen indulged his fascination with Bruce Lee by making an Enter the Dragon spoof titled Fuk Hu. Though not a sex movie, it aired on the sex-themed cable TV show Midnight Blue, founded by Al Goldstein, a New York character best remembered for his outrageous but often hilarious bad taste: the magazines Screw, Bitch, Smut and Death were his handiwork. Fuk Hu would be Cohen’s filmmaking swan song. Law school awaited. Then banking. Then, inevitably, real estate development.

Cohen sent Courtney Hunt’s short to some potential investors and allowed himself to think ahead a little. Perhaps he could combine his business savvy with his love of film and—who knows?—the floodgates could open, a whole new business could be born. “But no one even responded,” Cohen says with a touch of “their loss” pugnacity. “So I end up getting deeply involved myself, I invest $340,000 over the course of the shooting. My mother said to me at the time, ‘Why did you do this, why?’ I said I had to. It was destiny.”

The movie is called Frozen River. It was written and directed by Hunt, executive produced by Cohen, and stars the superb Melissa Leo, best known then for her role as a detective on TV’s Homicide: Life on the Street. In Frozen River, Leo plays Ray Eddy, a trailer-dwelling, down-on-her-luck clerk at a Yankee One Dollar Store. She’s raising two boys she can barely feed. Christmas is coming. Her gambling-addict husband has vanished with her savings, but she finds his Dodge Spirit mysteriously in the possession of Lila Littlewolf, a Mohawk woman who uses the car to drive illegal immigrants across the St. Lawrence during the brief season when the river is frozen. Out of desperation, Ray teams up with Lila Littlewolf, things go wrong, and the story takes off.

Cohen was driving to Greenwich for Thanksgiving when he got a call from Harwood: Of 8,000 entries submitted to the Sundance Film Festival in the dramatic competition, Frozen River was among the select fourteen. “So we go to Sundance, and one night the movie plays at Robert Redford’s Sundance resort. It’s one of those evenings when you walk outside, you see the terrain, you see the stars, and it just feels like a magical time. And Sony Classics comes to us and says, ‘Can we make a deal?’”

Frozen River won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and two Academy Award nominations, for best actress and best original screenplay—an astonishing feat for a small-budget, little-known film. Frozen River was “the Cinderella story of the year,” as Sony cochairman Michael Barker put it. “One year ago it came to Sundance on a wing and a prayer…” Now it was receiving lofty praise from the country’s best critics, such as this four-star review from Roger Ebert: “Frozen River … never steps wrong. It resists all temptations to turn this plot into some kind of a thriller and keeps it grounded on the struggle for economic survival. … [T]here is an awesome, terrifying beauty in their journeys across the ice.”

The film returned its investment nearly five-fold.

Frozen River, to come out of the box with that, it’s so impressive,” says veteran film executive Gary Rubin, who tried to buy distribution rights to the film and now works for Cohen. “Look, it’s not easy to agree to back a film that has no cast. He obviously had an eye.”

After Frozen River, there was no turning back. In the thick of the Great Recession, Charles launched Cohen Media Group, initially to acquire foreign films for distribution in the Americas. “I’m reading in the newspaper about all these independent distributors going out of business, and I’m thinking, ‘Gee, I wonder if that’s something I should do.’”

Cohen’s film taste runs small and deep rather than large and shallow. He loves the directors of the French New Wave, such as François Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless), who prized authorial vision over mass cult success. And he loves the American filmmakers they inspired, such as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Terrence Malick, and Peter Bogdanovich. “What happened in France in the fifties and sixties happened in America in the seventies,” Cohen says. “Take a personal filmmaker like Coppola and give him The Godfather, and he makes a classic, probably one of the top two movies of all time. Unfortunately, these auteur films can’t be made in Hollywood today.” This reality owes to Hollywood’s blockbuster imperative, whereby it costs $30 million just to get a film into the marketplace. Still, Cohen says, the news isn’t all bad: Cable TV has assumed something of the auteur spirit, while Netflix and Amazon make “small” movies viable.

Cohen’s new venture began with a trip to France, where he met with executives at Studio Canal, a large production and distribution company that helped fund such modern classics as Mulholland Drive, Atonement and Frost/Nixon. Studio Canal also distributes French art-house and independent films, and it was these Cohen wanted to buy for American audiences. For Cohen’s consideration Studio Canal offered a drama called Outside the Law, about three brothers in Algeria’s struggle for independence. “It’s a fabulous movie, so we licensed it,” Cohen says. “It got good reviews, lost a lot of money, and got nominated for best foreign language film. I got to go to the Oscars.”

That was about forty-five films ago. Since then, Cohen Media Group has built a high-toned reputation in three areas: foreign films, restored vintage films and films of its own making. “Cohen Media is all about quality,” says John Kochman, one of CMG’s two executive vice presidents, who formerly directed Unifrance USA, a promoter of French films. But “quality” films, he observes, have marketing challenges not unlike those of poetry and literary fiction. They’re seldom going to gross big sales. “We operate in a very small slice of the market—fifteen, twenty, twenty-five urban areas around the country—so it’s critical that when we acquire the rights to an intelligent, quality-driven independent film, we know our audience. There’s very little room for error.” Even if CMG chooses wisely and markets well, Kochman adds, a middling review from the New York Times can sink a film at once.

Among CMG’s foreign film successes is Timbuktu, a 2014 French-Mauritanian drama about Islamists taking over a town in Mali and swiftly inflicting harsh new laws on a long-settled populace. It’s an ominous film made with a poet’s eye. “Could this film be any more timely?” Cohen asks. “Again we went to the Academy Awards, and again we didn’t win. I think we were robbed.” (Timbuktu was up for best foreign language film this year, but lost to the Polish film Ida.)

Gary Rubin, CMG’s other executive vice president, says Cohen has a precise idea of his mission. “Charles watches everything that comes out. But he has no interest in being in the superhero business.” So character-rich films like My Old Lady (2014), in which Kevin Kline inherits an apartment in Paris only to find Maggie Smith living there, must carry the day. “It’s one of the jewels in our crown, as far as I’m concerned,” Rubin says. “It did $4 million at the [U.S.] box office, our biggest film to date. In the world we’re in, that’s a big number—the art-house, Sundance, foreign film, documentary world.”

The CMG-made documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, directed by Kent Jones, caused a stir at the Cannes Film Festival this past spring. It’s based on six days of interviews that Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock in June of 1962, as the master was finishing post-production on The Birds. Truffaut tape-recorded the interviews and turned them into the book Hitchcock, now a sacred text among film lovers. “Every filmmaker worth his salt has a copy, and it’s probably dog-eared,” Cohen remarks. The documentary uses the audiotapes, clips from Hitchcock’s films, as well as interviews with admired directors from Martin Scorsese to David Fincher to weave a portrait of Hitchcock as an alchemist who turned pop subject matter into timeless art. At Cannes, Hitchcock/Truffaut was “such a hit that [Times critic] Manohla Dargis couldn’t even get into the screening,” Cohen says. “We had to show it a second time.”

Some of Cohen’s projects-in-the-making do seem to have big commercial promise, whether Cohen admits it or not. He has optioned Ben Macintyre’s book Operation Mincemeat, a riveting account of British Intelligence’s 1943 plan to lead Hitler astray by planting false documents on a corpse that washes up on the Spanish coast. (The MI5 official who approved the plan? Fleming. Ian Fleming.)

Meanwhile, Cohen is winning raves from the exacting community of film historians and preservationists. In 2011 he learned that a film collection called the Rohauer Library had gone into bankruptcy in the United Kingdom. It consisted of 700 titles, including Buster Keaton’s silent classics; D. W. Griffith’s foundational epics; Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Baghdad; Hitchcock’s last British film before coming to Hollywood, Jamaica Inn; and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, which made Marlene Dietrich famous. “I ended up buying it,” Cohen says, “but the films weren’t digitized. So I said, ‘Let’s restore these films, let’s digitize them, and then let’s release them.’”

And that’s exactly what he’s doing, in theaters, on DVD and digitally, under the Cohen Film Collection rubric. “It’s a gold mine,” Cohen says—culturally if not financially.

To be sure, Cohen loves his real estate business, which was founded by his father, Sherman, and his uncles Edward and Mortimer in the 1950s, and which Charles now runs as president and CEO. But it’s no stretch to say that his interest in creating architecturally splendid design centers—showcases for the world’s great decorators and designers—revealed an artistic drive in need of an outlet. (In addition to the D&D and the Pacific Design Center, Cohen owns the Decorative Center Houston and the Design Center of the Americas in Miami.) Since he’d left filmmaking in his past, real estate had become his canvas. Nowhere was this more evident than at his Greenwich estate. Cohen’s parents, Sherman and Gloria, had built a contemporary on John Street in 1976, so Cohen already knew the territory. In the early nineties, when he himself went looking for a suburban retreat, he settled on Conyers Farm. A sales agent for Conyers Farm developer Peter M. Brant showed Cohen lot No. 29, a forbidding parcel of trees, rocks and wetlands. “I’m not the kind of guy who buys somebody else’s house,” Cohen says. “I like to create my own environment. So I remember walking through almost jungle-like woods, and then looking up to the top of this hill, 444 feet above sea level, where my house would be. And I had an epiphany. I just got this feeling that this was the right place for me.”

Cohen joined lot No. 29 to an adjacent lot, making for a total of thirty-nine acres. He cleared and he blasted. He built an access way through the woods and named it Rossbrooke Road for his two adult children by his first wife. He hired, on Brant’s recommendation, the noted architect Allan Greenberg to design a house influenced by the Arts and Crafts style, but whose unusual curved front façade also suggests classical Europe. (Cohen then hired Greenberg to give the D&D a luminous neo-classical makeover; this year the building is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.) The estate’s total effect is one of enchantment—a forest manse surrounded by stripe-cut lawns, streams, ponds and waterfalls, a putting green, a children’s race-car circuit, a garden chessboard (like the one in Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers) and, in the fringe of the woods, totem poles and a teepee.

That sense of enchantment reaches the estate’s interior spaces, too, of course, but we will mention only one of them. The movie theater. It’s a small replica of the old Paramount theater in Times Square. From the glossily carpentered ticket booth to the plush red seats and the tasseled red curtain, it recalls the grandeur of our movie past. “We’ve lost something,” Cohen says as the late morning sun shines through the windows. “You can sum up most movies in one sentence. They have no depth to them, no meaning.” Then he considers the most recent crop of best picture nominees, including the winning Birdman, which he liked but did not love (“too self-indulgent”). But that is not the point. “What does it tell you, when eight films are nominated for best picture, and only one, American Sniper, a very good film, is a studio picture? What does it tell you? It tells me that there’s this yearning out there—this dam is being burst with new ideas, new filmmakers.”

“Dam” is an apt metaphor. Last year Movie Charles Cohen turned to Developer Charles Cohen with a problem. The former didn’t care too much whether CMG films made a ton of money, but at the very least they deserved a voice, a proper showing, and there simply weren’t enough art-house screens around to guarantee this. Developer Charles Cohen understood at once. He went out and bought the four-screen Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village and is now transforming it into a state-of-the-art picture palace. The two Charles Cohens, in perfect harmony at last.



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