When real estate billionaire Charles S. Cohen was 15, all hell broke loose in Newark, N.J. It was the summer of 1967 and a 12-year-old black child, not much younger than him, was on the cover of Life Magazine bleeding from a police shotgun wound aimed at an older kid who’d been looting beer during a riot. Cohen lived across the bridge in Westchester County, N.Y., close enough for the horror to feel real, so he filmed stills of the magazine, and intercut them with his own story about two boys in a playground, one black, one white, combining their strengths to spin a merry-go-round.
Cohen called his first short “Contrast,” and premiered it at his high school auditorium. His guts roiled with trepidation and pride. He’d done every bit of it from editing to piano score besides act — he’s not much for glory hogging. Ask Cohen, now 66 and worth $3.3 billion according to Forbes Magazine, if he’s ever evoked “Titanic’s” King of the World scene from the hull of his $80 million yacht and he shudders, “Never! That’s not me.”
“I’ve always approached film as a very expressive medium to be used primary for serious purposes,” says Cohen from his Los Angeles office at the top floor of the Red Building at the Pacific Design Center, which he owns in West Hollywood. Cohen speaks softly, quickly and earnestly when he makes an important point.
And he’s terrifically serious about film. At 3, an age where most kids can’t sit through a half-hour cartoon, his grandmother took him to see his first movie, “Cinderella.” When the Disney animated feature ended, Cohen chirped, “Let’s see it again.” They stayed.
Once he was old enough to ride a bike by himself, Cohen was always at the movies. The only screen in his hometown showed foreign films and docs, so that’s what he watched.
“That was my way of visiting places I hadn’t seen yet,” he says smiling.
On Saturdays, he’d hop the bus to White Plains, N.Y., to see Hollywood double features, or he’d head to Manhattan to read Sight & Sound and books on editing and acting at the Gotham Book Mart. He valued the solemnity of the theatrical experience even at home watching TV. If someone got up from the couch, he’d firmly pull them back down. Show some respect.
Young Cohen directed other shorts, including an anti-gun drama named “Recoil.” And then he went to college — the first in his family to do so — and applied his monk-like dedication first to law school, and then real estate, eventually amassing over 12 million square feet of high-end property, much of it in luxury office buildings in Manhattan.
“It’s the day job,” he says lightly. A wildly successful job that’s let him build two private theaters in the Connecticut home he shares with his wife, Clo, and two youngest sons. One’s a red-velvet tribute to New York’s classic movie palace the Paramount, complete with domed ceiling, fringed curtains and a mannequin in a ticket booth, and the other an indoor drive-in theater with fake palm trees and couches shaped like the rear fins of a Chevrolet Bel Air. “That’s a place for double features and beach blanket movies,” he says.
Still, besides hammering out 1,000 movie questions for the 1985 paperback best-seller “Trivia Mania,” published by one of his tenants (“They asked me to do another and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t do sequels’”) Cohen was a movie business outsider until he produced his first film, 2008’s “Frozen River,” which drew two Academy Award nominations.
“The studios are not really making the kind of films that I grew up on. Those are now being made by independent filmmakers or streaming services. That’s sad in a way, but no one does the large scale tentpole franchise filmmaking better than American studios, whether it’s DC or Mar-vel,” he says, accenting the latter to rhyme with “oil well.” “Are we going to live long enough to see a film that costs a billion dollars?”
|Charles Cohen kept the original indie spirit of New York City’s Quad Cinema, above, when he bought the legendary plex but he revamped with state of the art tech and amenities.|
At least the contraction of studio filmmaking, already well under way in 2008, helped give his then-new Cohen Media Group an opening to move into distribution and continue investing in the serious films he’s always loved.
“We’re talking about making films for several hundred thousand dollars,” says Cohen, but with measurable impact. Cohen Media Group has racked up eight Oscar nominations in 10 years, including a string of five foreign-language nominees: “Outside the Law,” “Timbuktu,” “Mustang,” “The Salesman” and “The Insult.”
As a 9-year-old, he used to watch the Oscars on a black-and-white rabbit-eared TV in his bedroom, volume turned down so his parents wouldn’t wake up. Swapping pajamas for a tuxedo to attend the ceremony as an adult was “an out-out-body experience.”
Meanwhile, Cohen also scooped up the 700-film Rohauer Library. This includes silent epics including Rudolph Valentino’s “Son of the Sheik” and D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” plus films by Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Ken Loach, Jean-Luc Godard and Abbas Kiarostami, the entire catalog of films from Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton and Merchant-Ivory, and Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” which got a dusting of zeitgeist magic when Beyonce nodded to it in her epic music video, “Lemonade.”
“Serendipity,” says Cohen.
Time for the billion-dollar question: What does he think of how “Citizen Kane,” the top-ranked Hollywood film of all time, portrays insanely wealthy collectors? Cohen isn’t offended.
“I always received a lot of love from my parents and children and my wife. He used that vacuum in his life to achieve a lot of really great things, but I think he got to a point where he went too far and never really enjoyed his success and achievement. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had a happy life.”
Embracing the digital cinephile, the newly launched Cohen Media Channel on Amazon Prime will feature about 75 CMG titles as well as bonus features, shorts and introductions and video essays by film scholars, historians and critics, as well as rare films.
“If you can’t get to the theater you should see them anyway you can,” he says.
However, as for himself, “I always wanted to be a theater chain owner.”
Naturally, when Greenwich Village’s Quad Cinema, the first four-screen multiplex in Manhattan, came up for sale four years ago, he bought it, invested heavily in a revamp, and finally reopened the theater last April.
One screen is dedicated to serious repertory films — he’s got plenty to pick from — “and the other three take on a more important stature because of their association with the repertory screen.” The week of the Oscars, the Quad played two nominees he produced, “The Insult” and Agnes Varda’s documentary contender “Faces Places,” plus foreign-language Oscar nominee “Loveless.”
The Quad is for-profit, but it’s also personal. Initially, Cohen offered his favorite candy, Dots, at the Quad’s concessions stand.
“They they didn’t sell, so I got rid of them.”
Hearing him describe his passions for film development and real-estate development, the two sound like twin coils of his DNA. “You’re creating something from basically nothing and you’re using creative people to help you — a director, an architect.
“To be able to say I restored and I own ‘Howards End,’ to me that’s like saying I own this building. They are iconic, classic, landmark unreproduceable projects. It’s a way of leaving something behind that has lasting value.”
Cohen’s top picks from the Cohen Film Collection:
The General, 1926
I think Buster Keaton is the great American film actor and director. I’m very partial to “The General” — I think it’s fabulous. People don’t know it’s about a train! They think it’s about a general. And it’s a uniquely American story, it’s a sad story.
The D.W. Griffith films that we have, these are historical documents that gave rise to a lot that came afterwards and influenced a lot of what came afterwards.
Sudden Fear, 1952
A great film noir that when we had it on KCET was heavily subscribed. I love that movie.
The Thief of Bagdad, 1924
We have all of the Douglas Fairbanks. We’ve restored “The Thief of Bagdad,” “The Man in the Iron Mask.” “The Thief of Bagdad” is great — it’s just long. That was one of the first films we restored to 4K and we got wonderful reviews.
Jamaica Inn, 1939
When you think about [Alfred] Hitchcock’s connection to Daphne du Maurier, it didn’t start with “The Birds” — it ended with “The Birds.” This was the first one he did, and the last film he directed before he left England for Hollywood.