As cofounder and president of Cinecom Pictures in the 1980s, producer and distributor Ira Deutchman oversaw the release of such vital independent films as Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983), John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984), and James Ivory’s A Room with a View (1985). In the early ’90s, Deutchman created Fine Line Features, a specialized division of New Line Cinema that released Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1992), Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), and Steve James’s Hoop Dreams (1994). In his directorial debut, Searching for Mr. Rugoff, Deutchman says that “everything I know about the film industry I learned from this guy.”
The guy is Donald S. Rugoff, who hired Deutchman fresh out of college in 1975. As Sean Burns writes for WBUR, Rugoff’s company, Cinema 5, “owned and operated a cluster of cinemas on New York City’s tony Upper East Side during the 1960s and early ’70s that pretty much invented the template for what we know today as art house moviegoing. A man of terrible manners, impeccable taste, and unparalleled promotional savvy, Rugoff figured out how to sell an entire generation of uptown sophisticates on difficult foreign language pictures and scrappy American indies, turning art films into bona fide cultural events.”
At RogerEbert.com, Godfrey Cheshire points out that by the late 1950s and early ’60s, “the art film had already established a firm beachhead with urban cinephiles” eager to see the latest film by Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, or Jean-Luc Godard. It was “ready to ‘go big’” when Rugoff brought an element “that wasn’t shared by other important art-film impresarios before or since: a feel for architecture and urban design that led him to create a set of modernist cinemas”—Cinema 1 and 2, the Sutton, the Beekman, the Plaza, the Paris—“that served as temples of cinema’s new sensibility. In a sense, Rugoff grasped that cinema’s turn in the late ’60s was part of a movement that implied the medium had become part of a whole new cultural environment . . . Under his aegis, the art film became more diverse, more American, and more youth-oriented.”
Rugoff introduced New Yorkers to the work of Lina Wertmüller, Paul Morrissey, Marcel Ophuls, and the late Robert Downey Sr. He hired British designer John Willis to create elaborate window displays and, when he brought Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) to town, he had his employees dress up in medieval garb and parade through the city streets, clip-clopping coconut shells along the way. “As someone who grew up going to some of the theaters Rugoff once ran,” writes Nicolas Rapold in his review of Searching for Mr. Rugoff for the New York Times, “I got the warm-and-fuzzies from seeing the love here for moviegoing and exhibition, which he goosed with gonzo showmanship.”
Talking with Deutchman for Filmmaker,Erik Luers asks about Rugoff’s famously prickly personality. As Sean Burns notes, for example, Rugoff might have often had mustard from a deli sandwich dribbling down his shirt, but he’d fire an usher “if he saw so much as a stray candy wrapper on the floor of his elegant lobbies.” Deutchman, who now teaches at Columbia, tells Luers that “the one thing that’s really important to emphasize is that Rugoff’s being demanding and unrealistic in some ways (and truly crazy in others) never crossed the line into either physical or sexual abuse.” Rugoff, he says, was no Scott Rudin or Harvey Weinstein. “I would never have made a movie about somebody who had crossed that line.”
Kevin B. Lee, who was appointed Locarno Film Festival Professor for the Future of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts at USI Università della Svizzera italiana a few weeks ago, calls Eugene Hernandez’s recent conversation with Deutchman on the Film Comment Podcast an “invaluable journey” through “the evolution of U.S. arthouse and indie theatrical business, and what the crises and excesses of the ’70s and ’90s can teach us for the state of cinema today.”
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