Billionaire New York-based real estate developer Charles Cohen — the jewel in his crown is Los Angeles’ Pacific Design Center, where WME’s stylist unit The Wall Group recently took up residence — became a producer when he invested in 2008’s Frozen River. Not content with his financial return, he launched Cohen Media Group, now a busy buyer and American distributor of international art house films, including two recent foreign-language Oscar nominees: 2014’s France-Mauritania title Timbuktu, and 2015’s Turkish coming-of-age drama Mustang.
CMG, which Cohen runs, also has invested in film libraries, including the works of Buster Keaton and Merchant Ivory. (A screening of Howards End, with director James Ivory and star Vanessa Redgrave in attendance, is part of this year’s Cannes Classics series.)
These days, Cohen, 64, who will attend Cannes this year as a key bidder, is melding his business pursuits by developing the first in a planned series of domestic high-end boutique cinemas, from Greenwich Village to West Palm Beach to L.A.’s Silver Lake, to exhibit his and other art house fare.
Cohen talked to THR about how not getting a return on his first film investment led him to make movies he’d actually like to see (and build theaters he’d like to see them in).
You already were a billionaire in real estate when you got into film distribution. Why do this?
The experience I had as a producer on my first film, Frozen River, was eye-opening from a business perspective. The money that I had put up, the financing that I had provided to enable the film to get made — even though the film did OK at the box office internationally, I never received back the investment that I made. So that opened my thinking to finding a way to control more of my destiny as a producer. And that led me to the path of distribution, which happened to be a time when there were many small, independent distribution companies that were falling by the wayside.
How would you define your niche?
It’s a mature audience that’s seeking an alternative to the typical Hollywood production — your big tentpole picture. People who are crying out for Marigold Hotel or Philomena or Brooklyn. Films that harken back to the ’60s and ’70s, which deal with real issues.
Cohen Media Group first entered the market as an American distributor of French films. Why?
My idea was to find a niche and work within that niche to establish credibility with the film industry and filmmakers. The word “classic cinema” is the phrase that fits best, and now we’ve expanded [with] the Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks and Merchant Ivory films.
What are your plans for the Merchant Ivory library?
Not only did we acquire all the nonstudio films in perpetuity, but I acquired the brand. And the idea is to create new films under the Merchant Ivory banner. So it will allow me to pursue in English language what I’ve been doing in foreign language and, again, in combination creating this body of classic film work.
Is there a film you regret not buying at a festival?
Not really. We like to work around and beneath — under the radar. Sometimes when we bid on a movie and we’re outbid, it’s because we’re not bidding on multiple territories as some of our competitors do. When we get outbid, it’s gratifying to know that it’s people thinking along the lines we do about certain films.
Do you have any plans to expand the number of films you release per year?
We actually did too many last year — 10 since last year at this time. I’d like to reduce and be more selective and work on more co-productions and create more of our own films.
You’re still full-steam with your main gig. How much of your time do you spend on film?
As much time as I need. I really enjoy floating back and forth between real estate and film. I’m very engaged in the creative process and then also I’m fascinated by trying to find a way to make financial sense out of something that might not look like it’s possible to do that.
You’re now not just a producer and a distributor but an exhibitor, too.
I’m in the middle of the renovation of the Quad Cinema in New York — the original multiplex in Manhattan. I’ve bought property in West Palm Beach [in Florida]. I’m looking in Silver Lake. It’s building blocks. I went into producing to make films that I want to see made. I got into distribution so I can distribute them to the right audience. And now it’s about where I can provide the environment for those films to be seen the way they were meant to be seen. It’s like a studio-type experience.
Do you consider your film financing work to be quasi-philanthropic?
No, no, it’s not. It’s a combination of passion for art and design, which is very similar to the other things I’m doing, and it involves a lot of creative development expertise. There’s no difference to me in my mind in developing a real estate project and developing a film or television project as a producer.
But your film restoration and preservation work has an altruistic component.
When I came upon the library that I bought in bankruptcy in the U.K., I came to that with the idea that some part of it was a rescue mission. I’ve been restoring and theatrically releasing them and making them available on DVD and raising awareness for these great films.
So Cohen Media Group isn’t narrowly profit-minded.
Am I swimming against the stream? Yeah, I think so. But you know what? So what? I’m 64 now. It’s important to open new doors