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Arthouse Believer Charles Cohen Hits Cannes With Restored ‘Howards End’

One of New York City and Los Angeles’ most important real estate moguls, Charles Cohen also applies his decades of experience and business acumen to the independent film distribution business, an enterprise known for sending even the most well-heeled and good-intentioned investors scrambling back to their estates and penthouses.

He established his Cohen Media Group in 2008 when he executive produced the indie drama “Frozen River,” a project Cohen says fit the bill for his aspirations because “you need an entry point that distinguishes you.” He also quickly notes that the film, which drew Oscar nominations for original screenplay and lead actress, “didn’t get its investment back.”

Undaunted, Cohen focused his sights on building a company of substance and heft by purchasing the rights to more than 700 classic art films, including 500 features that make up the bulk of his Cohen Film Collection library.

One of the gems he purchased when he bought 30 key titles from Merchant-Ivory Prods. is the newly restored 1992 Oscar best picture nominee “Howards End,” which will have a higher-than-usual profile among the Cannes Classics titles unspooling, thanks to the presence of director James Ivory and co-star Vanessa Redgrave, who got a supporting Academy Award nom.

“I only want to be involved in films that change the way people think.”
Charles Cohen

One person not in attendance is former Cohen Media president Daniel Battsek, who exited the firm only a few weeks ago to take over the reins of the U.K.’s Film4.
Cohen seems unfazed by the challenges of navigating the Croisette sans president for a company that acquires, produces and distributes and has steadily built an important presence in the current specialty business landscape.

“ ‘Howards End’ is a great example of what my film initiative is about,” Cohen says. “I bought the Merchant-Ivory brand and the plan is to bring back the brand.”

Judging by both the range of CMGtheatrical releases, which includes Oscar foreign-language nominees “Mustang” and “Timbuktu” and cineaste documentaries like Kent Jones’ “Hitchcock/Truffaut” and Chuck Workman’s Orson Welles study, “Magician,” as well as Cohen’s list of personal filmmaking heroes dotted with familiar names such as “Fellini, Truffaut, Losey, Altman, Pialat and Godard,” his goals for the Merchant-Ivory banner are very much driven by a laser-focus on the film market segment he describes as “fans of intelligent filmmaking.”

With seemingly no interest in the Hollywood studio world of blockbuster films and gigantic global grosses, Cohen explains that his audience is undoubtedly “older and more discerning,” but he doesn’t mean that as a knock on the studios, which “do the best job at promoting their kind of films in the galaxy. But,” he adds emphatically, “that’s not everything.”

Given Cohen’s success with high-profile properties all over the Big Apple, L.A., Florida and Texas, it’s not surprising that he’s also devoting considerable time and resources in the exhibition side of the specialty film business. It’s also not surprising that his venues skew to what Cohen describes as “the curated and respectable” properties that characterize his non-showbiz holdings. Among his elegantly refurbished theaters due to open this year are the Quad Cinemas in New York’s Greenwich Village and the Carefree Theater in Florida’s tony West Palm Beach.

More than a place that moves Slurpees and popcorn, Cohen fancies each of his screens as “an amenity of the community” where they’re located. By focusing on a mixed-use plan that utilizes the proximity of affluent, sophisticated local audiences and adjacent restaurants, Cohen says his “formula” is simple: “The theater creates the community.”

While Cohen is in Cannes unveiling a venerated Merchant-Ivory classic on the Croisette, he’ll also be up to his dapper elbows in the down-and-dirty world that includes “pre-buys, meetings and co-productions,” but none in the service of anything that fails to attain his standards for involvement.

There’s no hint of fear or false modesty in the voice of the man who freely admits a long ago youthful plan to “make the Great American Film,” when he sets out his current goal: “I only want to be involved in films that change the way people think. I want the audiences for my films to walk out educated and illuminated by what they’ve seen.”

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