Film

Reel Estate

New York developer Charles S. Cohen has quietly become a force in independent cinema.

Charles S. Cohen at his office in New York City.

The New York City offices of billionaire real estate developer Charles S. Cohen are, as one might expect, on a high floor of a skyscraper he built. The lines are sleek, the views expansive, and the conference room table he’s sitting at one late December morning is made of six-inch granite. Cohen himself looks exactly as a billionaire should. It’s rare that one’s expectations hew so closely to reality. He is slim and sartorially meticulous, with a full head of gray hair. And though he will turn 65 in February, his face is youthful and tanned.

The only thing that feels out of place in this picture, to be honest, is what we’re here to talk about: Cohen’s midlife transformation into an art-house film mogul.

“When I was 14 I stopped following the Yankees and started reading Variety, the showbiz bible,” Cohen tells me, describing his decades-long passion for movies that fueled the creation, in 2007, of his production company, Cohen Media Group.

“I thought a trade review was the same as a critical review,” he added with a uncharacteristic soupçon of self-deprecation. “I would always be the first guy in line in front of the movie theater on a Friday night.”

Cohen doesn’t stand in line for movie tickets anymore. These days he watches films either in the screening room at 750 Lexington Avenue, his towering rocket-ship-shaped headquarters across from Bloomingdale’s, or at the 24-seat movie palace in the basement of his Greenwich, Connecticut, estate—though his home cinema, modeled after the former 1920s Paramount Theater in Times Square, does have a ticket booth.

This will change in April, when Greenwich Village’s Quad Cinema, which Cohen bought in 2014, re-opens after an extensive two-year renovation. “I’ll be there a lot,” he assures me.

Still from Diary of a Chambermaid. (Photo: Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

The Quad, so named because of its four screens—it was New York’s first multipex when it opened in 1972—will also add a much-coveted exhibition arm to Cohen Media Group, which has produced art-house fare since 2007 and distributed features since 2010. (Graphic designer Paula Scher of Pentagram, who conceived Cohen Media’s identity, was also tapped to create Quad’s.)

“I always wanted a theater,” Cohen says. “I tried to buy several different chains, but I was never successful. It was an opportunity to do something and use different skills—design, real estate, film. All those different disciplines. I try to do what I’m interested in in a way that’s distinctive and also financially responsible.”

He is also planning to open cinemas in Los Angeles and West Palm Beach.

Despite his professed passion for film, Cohen did not formally enter the industry until the late aughts, when he put up more than half the money for Frozen River, a film written and directed by Courtney Hunt, the wife of one of his lawyers (though not before he insisted that the $2 million production budget be cut to about $600,000, as The New York Times reported). The film, on which he was credited as an executive producer, went on to receive two Academy Award nominations.

Although Frozen River achieved indie status, the fact that Cohen did not recoup his entire investment prompted him to go into distribution as well. A strong believer in finding a business niche, he started out with French-language films like Benoît Jacquot’s Diary of a Chambermaid and Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust documentary The Last of the Unjust. He says that he is now the leading distributor of French films in the U.S.

He also acquired the rights to 700 rare classic movies when he purchased the Raymond Rohauer film library in 2011, which included all but one of Buster Keaton’s films (Cohen owns the rights to Keaton’s life story, too). More recently, he bought the rights to 10 films by French New Wave director Jacques Rivette, as well as Merchant Ivory’s oeuvre and name, a 30-title library of lush period pieces including Howard’s End and Heat and Dust, which he plans to rerelease in theaters.

Timbuktu still. (Photo: Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

While a tycoon’s turn to the arts tends to be greeted with a combination of wild enthusiasm and skepticism by those in the field, I spoke with a number of people in the industry who were impressed with Cohen Media’s work, calling out films like Timbuktu, a drama about radical Islam that was selected to compete for a Palme d’Or at Cannes, in addition to being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. Mustang was also nominated last year, and Cohen Media is hoping that The Salesman will make for a third.

C. Mason Wells, the IFC film programmer who Cohen hired to co-run the Quad, tells me that he tracked Cohen down after hearing that he’d bought the theater. “I was so impressed by the scope of what he was doing,” Wells says. “There are so many people who do individual components, but not altogether—distribution, production, restoration and exhibition. That’s something I want to be a part of.” (Former Film Comment editor Gavin Smith was also brought on board to program the cinema.)

What clinched the deal was Cohen’s decision to dedicate one of the Quad’s four screens to classic cinema, which Wells wanted to focus on, and which is often relegated to matinee or midnight screenings at other theaters.

A scene from Mustang. (Photo: Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

“Finding a fellow fan is great,” Wells says. “At our weekly meetings we’ll start talking about movies and the merits of them even when there’s other stuff on the docket. He watches pretty much everything that comes out and he can rattle off film facts like a human IMDB. It almost turns into a game of, ‘Oh man, I got stumped by Charles again.’”

Which is not so surprising: Cohen wrote a movie quiz book, TriviaMania, in 1985. The publisher, Cohen says, was a tenant of his, “who wasn’t receptive at first, but then he was, and it became very successful for them.” In 2015, he told Jewish Journal that he’d “sold more books than Mark Twain did in his lifetime.”

From an early age, Cohen had hopes for a career in film—he wrote reviews for his high school newspaper and made a movie while studying at Tufts. He then went to Brooklyn Law School with the intention of working for an entertainment firm with an eye toward becoming a producer. But he found it difficult to land a job in entertainment law without industry contacts, and took a position at Chemical Bank instead, where he worked for three years as an officer in their real estate division before joining the family firm, Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation, in 1979.

Timbuktu still. (Photo: Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

Cohen Brothers, which was founded in the 1950s by Cohen’s father, Sherman, and two uncles, had started off as a residential firm, buying low-rise apartment buildings in Westchester, where he grew up. But a bet to buy land along the Third Avenue elevated train paid off handsomely after the line closed in 1955, and the firm moved on to developing residential high-rises on the east side of Manhattan.

Cohen managed in-house leasing and rentals before learning the development side: zoning, finance, and operations. The first building he bought for the company was 3 East 54th Street, which he still owns. “It was through trial and error and perseverance that I learned,” he says. “I didn’t get a pot of money to invest. I got a platform.”

After leapfrogging over his cousins to become president in 1983, he shifted the company’s focus to commercial real estate and expanded its portfolio from about three million square feet to 12 million, branching out into California, Florida, and Texas. Rather than pursue ground-up development, as the older generation had done, he focused on acquiring and repositioning buildings. Among his major New York buys were the Decoration & Design building—a kind of vertical mall filled with high-end interior design showrooms—623 Fifth Avenue, and 135 East 57th Street, which stood in as the home of the Green Goblin played by Willem Dafoe in 2002’s Spiderman. 750 Lexington is one of the few projects Cohen developed himself after tearing down a row of brownstones in the 1980s.

Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village. (Photo: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York)

Today, the firm has about a dozen buildings in New York, according to Cohen, who prefers to hang onto his purchases rather than sell them off, renovating them as needed to keep the high-end tenants he insists upon. In 1999, 135 East 57th’s $1 million lobby renovation was written up in the Times. The paper described an opulent, French-inspired makeover, with large golden murals by Gerard Coltat, imported classically inspired statues, and fresh flowers in “bronze urns that copy Baroque-style vases in the Parc de Saint-Cloud just outside Paris.”

The lobby’s designer, Jacques Garcia, also handled the renovation of Cohen’s 7,500-square-foot Park Avenue duplex. “Some people only get plaster from Paris, but I had plasterers from Paris on scaffolds in my place for months,” Cohen boasted in Architectural Digest.

Cohen is as unabashed about his taste for top-shelf things—be it design, wine, watches, cars, or clothing—as he is about his laser focus on filling his buildings with luxury tenants. “He’s very, very choosy,” says Faith Hope Consolo, the chairman of Douglas Elliman’s retail leasing and sales division, who has worked with Cohen on a number of retail spaces.

Consolo recounts trying to fill a prime space at 135 East 57th, which famously sat empty for eight years. Both Orvis and Brooks Brothers wanted to take it, but according to Consolo, Cohen blanched at the notion of an outdoor sports retailer filling it and thought that Brooks Brothers, though high-end, wasn’t right for the space. “He likes what he likes,” Consolo says. “And if he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t like it and you can’t convince him.”

Cohen in his office.

Cohen has a reputation for being extremely hands-on with all aspects of his business. He admits it. “I sign every check, every lease,” he says. “I’m involved in everything.” His oversight even extends to the color of shirts employees are allowed to wear—they have to be light-colored because, as he told The Real Deal several years ago, he thinks that black, dark brown, and navy shirts look “less than professional.”

“This office is a showplace. It shows how space has been used and designed, and it flatters us,” Cohen says, pointing to a carpenter working on a desk outside the conference room. He is not the type to buy mass-produced office furniture.

At the Quad, Cohen not only selected the specific floor tiles that were used, according to Wells, he also made sure that the tiny tiles in the bathroom would be grouped into fours, in a subtle allusion to the theater’s name.

Cohen credits such granular focus with Cohen Brothers’s success: “What distinguishes us is design. The watch you wear, how you part your hair,” he says. He’s not averse to discussing his building’s finishes or his eyeglasses—which were L.A. Eyeworks that morning. “I like accessories. Why not? They show who you are.”

It’s a level of control he’s had since buying out the company from his father and brothers in the early 1990s. “It’s just me,” he says. “It’s been me for a long time.” He has one sister, who he says wasn’t interested in joining the family business. “There were some cousins,” he adds, “but they went off to do other things.” And he doesn’t think his children—he has a grown son and daughter from his first marriage, and two sons from his current marriage to Clo Cohen—will necessarily want to join him in the business, either.

As for film, he doesn’t anticipate shifting more of his energies away from buildings, even as Cohen Media continues to grow. “Real estate is my day job, my bedrock,” he said. “I never wanted to work for anyone else. That’s what it came down to.” And it’s real estate, after all, that gave him the means to finally step into the film industry, to create a media company fitted to his interests and desires, and to open the kind of movie theater where he’d actually want to go see a movie.

“I think it’s going to be a game changer,” he says of the Quad. “I think it’s going to be one of the best places to see film in New York. The programmers will create a new standard. It’s what New York is missing.”

As our time together came to a close, I wondered some things aloud.

What would it have that other theaters didn’t?

“They don’t have what I’m looking for,” Cohen says.

But what was he looking for?

“A soul,” he says. “Going to a movie should be more of an event. It should energize you and provoke discussion. It should be a curated experience, there should be someone to welcome you, to provide history, interpretation. It should be a window on the world.” One with a wine bar.

With that, the studio head looks out the window at the view he created.

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