Andrew Saffir is remaking Gotham movie premieres in his own image: neat, reserved and available exclusively to the right people.
Moreover, for any studio with goods to promote and a budget to watch (in other words, all of them), Saffir’s pricetag may be his most attractive selling point: $0.
In three short years, the founder of highbrow, low-profile org the Cinema Society (not to be confused with Lincoln Center’s Film Society) has made a name with tastemakers and execs alike by hosting a series of invitation-only Gotham premieres.
The roster ranges from wide releases like “Iron Man” and “Eastern Promises” down to Sundance Channel docs and arthouse fare that grosses less than the bar tab. The next is Miramax’s British specialty event pic “Brideshead Revisited,” which gets the Cinema Society treatment tonight.
The Saffir guest list remains fairly consistent from film to film and blends celebrity tabloid fixtures with notables from the worlds of fashion, art, architecture and literature.
Judging him by reputation, it would be easy to assume Saffir himself is a classic Gotham nightlife denizen — a walking one-man show who dresses like Dracula and snarks about people on a first-name basis whether he’s met them or not.
He’s exactly the opposite. The Gotham native (who went to Hunter College High School and then NYU), a former veep at Ralph Lauren, is a quiet, bespectacled guy you could set your watch by. He’ll always be smiling, wearing a sport coat and talking to somebody famous enough to drive up the rent wherever he or she buys an apartment.
Saffir has become the quieter answer to Peggy Siegal, the doyenne of the preem scene. She draws the Barbara Walters crowd and 300 guests to Michael’s or Cipriani, while Saffir gets a smaller, younger, Calvin Klein-ier crew to the roof of the Soho Grand. Which is not to say that the Cinema Society’s events are exactly low-key. The mix of Gotham scenesters can be major gossip fodder, especially in retrospect. At the Cinema Society’s premiere of Guy Ritchie’s ill-fated “Revolver,” Madonna attended her hubby’s event, as did her close pal Ingrid Casares — who brought along scandal-prone Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
Saffir started the venture in 2005 after being asked to spice up the guest list at the Hamptons Film Festival’s summer events. He accepted the challenge and invited a list of friends — people in fashion, film and music — to the screening of Paramount Classics’ Sundance prize winner “Hustle & Flow.”
He worked on a few more premieres for the Hamptons fest until a friend, producer Jeff Sharp, became so impressed that he asked Saffir to help out with a premiere of Sharp’s film “Proof” on his own time.
Saffir agreed and hit on what has become the cornerstone of his business model. Instead of billing Miramax to rent out the Ziegfeld and host an after-party at a hip nightspot, Saffir called his contacts at Dior and asked them to underwrite a small screening room at swanky condo complex the Meier Building, on Charles Street and the Hudson River. He invited Jay-Z, Beyonce, plus David Bowie and Iman, among others.
Dior quickly saw the benefit in an association with a high-profile movie, and if anyone on Saffir’s guest list started wearing Dior products, that would just be gravy. The fashion giant agreed, Saffir came up with the name “the Cinema Society” for himself and his two assistants, and word started to spread.
“When I first started, I had to sort of beg a little for films,” Saffir admitted. “I wasn’t tried and true; I was kind of the new kid on the block. Over the years, it’s gotten better, and studios come to me now with projects. It’s very rewarding not to have to grovel the way I did in the beginning.”
In fact, Saffir has been landing some big guns: “Atonement” saw guests Keira Knightley and James McAvoy shuttling from the IFC Center to the after-bash at Soho’s still-hot Balthazar. And the occasional dud (“Sleepwalking?” Really?) hasn’t hurt the growing guest list.
All walks of New York life (well, all the famous walks) end up at the parties, making for some truly strange combinations. There aren’t many places where a socialite can hit the open bar, flirt with Moby and discuss the film’s themes with Salman Rushdie or Philip Glass.
Saffir himself stays collected during the events. He’s working, remembering everyone’s name and wrangling the PR that the screenings provide. He’s got an equally long contact sheet for the press, and because he seldom fibs on his tip sheets (a rampant practice among peers), more influential media outlets take his events seriously, often resulting in a lot of coverage.
“When I discovered Andrew, I wanted to tell everyone about him, and I wanted to keep him as my own secret weapon,” said Eric Kops, formerly a top publicity exec at Par and MGM. “He was a godsend, especially when you’re on a budget. You get almost the same amount of coverage as you would with a full New York premiere.”
The cost to the sponsors varies (everything from the invitation stock to the venue can be modified, if necessary), but Saffir’s base event — usually a screening at the Tribeca Grand Hotel’s screening room, followed by a catered dinner at the rooftop penthouse — runs about $35,000. If Donna Karan wants a larger screening room and dinner at Nobu or Mr. Chow’s instead, the pricetag can go up into the $60,000-$70,000 range.
Dior’s Dianne Vavra points out that a fashion sponsor will frequently want to be seen supporting its models as well. “We’re supporting our face, but imagewise for the brand, it’s an amazing PR tool,” she said. “I kept telling Andrew, ‘If you hear anything about a New York premiere of “Hancock,” we’re really interested because of Charlize.’ “ For Theron’s role in “Sleepwalking,” Dior decked out the actress in gold everything, making sure that the brand stayed in the picture.
But both Saffir and Kops admit that there are premieres — like “Hancock” — that probably don’t need or want the Cinema Society treatment; studios are expected to shoot the works on a traditional blowout, though Saffir’s handling of “Iron Man” gave him some tentpole cred.
“Certainly I don’t want to take credit for reconditioning people — not by any means,” cautioned Saffir. “But I do feel like there’s an alternative for them now, both a financial alternative and the option of putting something together that they don’t have to micromanage.”