'Searching for Mr. Rugoff': Film Review

Searching for Mr. Rugoff Still 1 - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of DOC NYC
Serves a valuable purpose in rescuing its subject from undeserved obscurity.

Ira Deutchman's documentary tells the story of the now largely forgotten film exhibitor and distributor who was a key figure in the history of independent cinema.

Searching for Mr. Rugoff tells the story of a legendary but now tragically little-known figure who revolutionized theatrical film distribution in the 1960s and '70s. But the documentary, directed by Ira Deutchman, serves as a eulogy not only for the complex figure at its center but also for a now-vanished era of moviegoing. Any film buffs who came of age during those years, and especially those who lived in New York City, will likely experience deep feelings of nostalgia upon viewing the movie, which recently received its world premiere at DOC NYC.

Deutchman, a vitally important personage in independent film distribution history himself, is a former employee of Donald Rugoff, whose company Cinema 5 was responsible for the U.S. releases of such daring, seminal films as Z, Swept Away, Seven Beauties, Putney Swope, Scenes From a Marriage, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Pumping Iron, The Man Who Fell to Earth and others too numerous to mention. The company also owned some of the most prestigious theaters in New York, including Cinema I and II, the Beekman, the Plaza, the Paramount, the Gramercy and the Sutton, among others. Most of those venues, tragically, are long gone. The Plaza, for example, is now the home of an upscale Chinese restaurant.

Rugoff lost control of his company in 1986 and almost immediately lapsed into obscurity. That he has become almost completely forgotten (there's not even a Wikipedia page devoted to him) forms the key element of the doc, which Deutchman was inspired to make after hearing that his former boss had died virtually penniless. His detective-like investigation into what happened to Rugoff gives the film a serviceable, if occasionally hokey, narrative hook.

Searching for Mr. Rugoff includes copious illuminating interviews with several of Rugoff's family members and many of his former employees, the latter of whom consistently describe him as a brilliant exhibitor but a difficult, prickly figure. He was a mercurial, demanding boss (he once made one of his executives recite "The Little Engine That Could" out loud), and the elegance with which he carefully maintained his theaters was contrasted with his frequently unkempt, disheveled appearance. And although he obviously loved movies with a passion, he was also known to usually fall asleep within minutes while watching them. (There was, in fact, a medical explanation for that, which is not revealed until late in the film.)

Divided into chapters featuring such headings as "Crazy," "Entitled" and "Genius," the documentary details how Rugoff took over the family theater business — his father had started a chain of nickelodeons in the 1920s — when he was only 26. He soon established the Cinema 5 chain, whose theaters were mostly located on the Upper East Side, as the premiere art house venues in the city, breathlessly described by one interview subject in the film as "temples of the arts."

The company soon entered the distribution business, tapping into the 1960s counter-culture that resulted in the rise of daring indie and foreign films providing an alternative to Hollywood product. From 1965-1978, Cinema received 25 Oscar nominations and six wins, most of them for foreign films and documentaries. Among the filmmakers singing Rugoff's praises in the doc are Costa-Gavras, whose Z became the first film to be nominated for both best picture and best foreign language film Oscars (it won the latter); Lina Wertmuller, who says, "There was an element of madness in him that made him a beloved person to me"; and Robert Downey Sr., who recalls that when Rugoff first saw 1969's Putney Swope, he told him, "I don't get it, but I like it."  

Rugoff also proved a highly inventive, if not always successful, marketer for his product. He hired actors to dress as the characters from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and walk through New York City streets, and promised free coconuts to the first 1,000 attendees. When test screenings of The Man Who Fell to Earth resulted in baffled reactions, his ad campaign stressed that the film had to be seen more than once to be fully understood. His print ads boasted arresting graphics, and he made extensive use of radio, making a favorite of a voice actress with a particularly sultry voice.

Ultimately, however, the company suffered from Rugoff's high-spending ways and, as one company executive ruefully puts, it, a tendency in which "critical acclaim exceeded box office grosses." He ultimately lost control of the company in a hostile takeover and found himself unable to get work, partly because he had burned so many personal bridges along the way. One of the film's more moving moments features a former colleague describing taking Rugoff to lunch, only to be treated with hostility when Rugoff discovered that it was purely a social occasion and that he wasn't being offered a job.

The man who personified independent film distribution, and who proved so influential to those who followed in his footsteps, spent his last years living in obscurity in Martha's Vineyard. There, he organized a modest cinema society showing films in a local church. Near the end of the doc, Deutchman is shown trudging through a snowy cemetery where he finds Rugoff's grave, which is engraved with the words "Great Man." The epitaph is perhaps hyperbolic, but Searching for Mr. Rugoff provides ample evidence that its subject's legacy deserves to be far better known and appreciated.

Director-producer: Ira Deutchman
Executive producers: Peter Gilbert, Beth Krieger, Susan Lacy
Director of photography: Peter Gilbert
Editor: Brian Gersten
Composer: Leo Sidran
Venue: DOC NYC

94 minutes