In 2006, charles cohen was content. twenty years after taking over Cohen Brothers Realty, the business started by his father and uncles, Cohen, A74, had transformed it into a major player in the world of commercial real estate, with properties such as the Decoration & Design building in New York City and the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, California. He certainly wasn’t looking for a new job.
But then an attorney asked for help raising two million dollars for a movie: the man’s wife, Courtney Hunt, had written her first full-length feature. Cohen ended up kicking in $340,000. The film—Frozen River, which came out in 2008 and starred Melissa Leo as a single mother who smuggles immigrants across the Canadian border—was soon on what Cohen called “a trajectory you can’t explain,” garnering rave reviews and Oscar nominations for Hunt’s screenplay and Leo’s acting. Initially, Cohen’s mother had asked why he’d invested in an unknown filmmaker. “It was destiny,” he’d replied. Today, he believes that, subconsciously, he saw Frozen River not as a one-shot deal but as a first step into a world he’d long dreamed about being part of.
Still, Cohen, who has continued his success at Cohen Brothers Realty and is now worth nearly $3 billion, is a pragmatic businessman. For all Frozen River’s critical success, Cohen didn’t wind up recouping his investment in the movie—so he created a new business model to develop a range of ways of making money in the film industry. He has branched out beyond film production into film distribution, restoration, licensing, and even film exhibition—buying and renovating iconic brick-and-mortar theaters. “I want to find a way to create a cultural experience with a community benefit, but to find an economically sustainable model,” he said.
If Cohen’s efforts fail to pay off, it won’t be from lack of attention to detail. When we met recently at the Cohen Brothers offices, in a conference room overlooking Central Park, he made one last phone call before our interview. On the phone, he insisted that the lettering on an ad for The Insult, a new French-Lebanese film he’s distributing in America, be changed from white to black. “I don’t micromanage,” Cohen, in a crisp striped suit and every hair in place, told me later. “But I have a strong visual sense that I apply to everything I do, and I know what works and what hasn’t worked.” All he really wants is to ensure that everything goes right, he said. “There’s Murphy’s Law and Cohen’s Law,” he told me. “And Cohen’s Law is that Murphy was an optimist.”
Weeks later The Insult received an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film, making it the fifth of the foreign films he’s distributed to be so honored. Last year The Salesman, an Iranian movie he distributed, won that award.
Charles Cohen was enchanted by movies long before he focused on dollars and cents. When he was three he visited his grandmother in Manhattan, where she took him to see the Disney animated feature Cinderella. “We sat through it twice and I was never the same,” he said. Growing up in the suburb of Harrison, New York, he found that “film was an exposure to different worlds before I’d really traveled.”
At fourteen, he was reading reviews in Variety. “I loved seeing a new movie on Friday night, and the trade reviews came out before the newspaper reviews, so I thought, ‘Gee, I’ve got an edge here.’” In high school, he became a filmmaker himself. His movie Contrast interspersed images of recent race riots in Newark with scenes that told the story of a black kid and a white kid who work together to make a merry-go-round run. Another of his early movies, Recoil, was about someone who buys a shotgun to go hunting but then is accidentally killed by others. Later, in college, he made a Bruce Lee spoof, and after graduation, he went to Brooklyn Law School and envisioned getting into the film industry as an entertainment lawyer. “But I couldn’t get a job in New York and I didn’t have the guts to leave New York for Los Angeles,” he said.
What he did have, however, was drive, much like his father and uncle, who built the family business by buying up land along Third Avenue in Manhattan when an elevated train line was being torn down. By the time Frozen River came along, he also had decades of business experience behind him, and once it was clear that he couldn’t reliably make a profit in the film industry through financing alone, he created Cohen Media Group, his own film production and distribution company. Then he began amassing the Cohen Film Collection, which now consists of some eight hundred rare and classic movies, many lovingly restored. It includes almost all of silent film star Buster Keaton’s movies and the entire Merchant Ivory catalogue, beloved among film aficionados for treasures like the Oscar-winning adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel Howards End.
Taking matters into his own hands in this way has given him plenty of latitude to pursue his ideas, not only as a businessman but as a patron of the arts. He puts his voluminous film collection to use by hosting a short-season weekly series called Cohen Film Classics on KCET, an independent television station in Los Angeles. And when he’s producing a film, he is involved in every aspect of it, from finding a director to arranging financing. Sometimes he even has a hand in the editing process.
When it comes to film distribution, the works he wants are usually foreign films that won’t reap huge dollars for his company. But Cohen can often turn a profit with them thanks to, first, bidding conservatively on each film in negotiations with the producing studio, and then licensing the film to cable networks and streaming outlets like Amazon or Netflix. He also benefits from DVD sales of the film.
In some ways, Cohen’s approach resembles that of Netflix, which started as a DVD rental service, added streaming, and then surprised people by producing its own content. But unlike Netflix, which has always catered to mainstream tastes, Cohen serves more of a niche market. And all of that makes him a seeming contradiction in terms: an art-house movie mogul. “He’s a counterpoint to much of the indie film world,” said Chris Wells, the director of repertory programming at Manhattan’s historic Quad Cinema, which Cohen renovated and reopened last year. “He really sees the big picture.”
Cohen, whose private twenty-four-seat theater in his Connecticut home is modeled after the old Paramount in Times Square, believes that part of that big picture is reviving the thrill of a night out at the movies. True, movie ticket sales have been sliding—down to 1.31 billion in 2016 from 1.57 billion in 2002—but he’s betting that there are still cinephiles out there, and that he can lure them away from their home theaters. “People want a community experience and filmmakers want their work to be enjoyed as a community,” he said.
So he’s committed to a theatrical release for each of his films, and that’s why he’s buying and renovating theaters: he can’t always count on other people’s venues to screen the rare, foreign, and indie films he values so highly. He’s started with the Quad, which now includes state-of-the-art sound and projection, and a bar styled like a classic Greenwich Village hangout. The theater’s décor features vintage Italian movie posters from his private collection.
All the effort seems to be paying off: even during the week of last winter’s infamous “bomb cyclone,” as gale-force winds and drifting snow besieged Manhattan, the Quad was full. That Wednesday saw a sold-out sneak preview of the first film by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei—Meryl Streep made a surprise appearance to introduce it. The next night, the Quad Bar filled up with an enthusiastic LGBT crowd for the latest installment in the theater’s “Coming Out Again” series.
Cohen’s future plans include refurbishing historic theaters that he has bought in Paris, West Palm Beach, and Larchmont, New York. He also intends to roll out his own on-demand movie service, expand his library (“buying whatever isn’t nailed down”), and revive the brand of the iconic movie company Merchant Ivory, even making new films under that banner. As for new releases, he’s producing a feature based on the World War II saga Operation Mincemeat and a documentary about the celebrated mime Marcel Marceau. He also wants to use his Buster Keaton rights to produce a biopic of the film legend.
And Cohen Brothers Realty? Today it holds more than twelve million square feet of office buildings and design centers nationwide, including 3 Park Avenue, Grand Central Plaza, and International Plaza in New York. But prestige addresses no longer appear to be the most buzzworthy thing about Cohen. “Now when I deal with real estate people,” he told me, “all they want to do is talk about this movie stuff.”
Stuart Miller, A88, is a journalist living in Brooklyn.