Charles S. Cohen doesn’t just love French cinema: he puts his money where his mouth is. And with a net worth estimated at $3.3 billion by Forbes Magazine, the owner of producer/distributor Cohen Media Group — the largest American distributor of French films in the U.S. — is showing his love in a multitude of ways.
“I am finalizing plans with the French government for the renovation and expansion of La Pagode Cinema, the only theater
in the 7th arrondissement [of Paris],” the real estate magnate says.
It’s only one of his many recent efforts involving French cinema, which include licensing the film libraries of Maurice Pialat, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol and others, restoring and releasing them on home video through his Cohen Film Collection.
He’s also chairman of the Alliance Française, and his efforts in promoting French cinema and art earned him France’s National Order of Merit in 2014, its Order of Arts and Letters in 2015 and the insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in March.
What Cohen calls his “love affair with French culture, and with cinema in particular” began when he was a teenager in Harrison, N.Y.
“Before I could drive, I would go to a small independent theater in town where I saw the films of Chabrol, Truffaut and Godard,” he says. “Then, as I was growing up, I was living through the effect of the French new wave and auteurs on Scorsese, De Palma, Bogdanovich, Demme and so many other American filmmakers that became auteurs of their own vision of personal filmmaking.”
This month, Cohen is taking his eighth trip to the Cannes Film Festival in search of more projects to bring stateside.
Two recent Cannes world premieres from CMG did well at the Academy Awards: Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian drama “The Salesman” won the 2017 foreign-language film Oscar, and Agnès Varda’s final feature (helmed with JR), “Faces Places,” nabbed a nomination for best documentary feature last year.
Cohen sees French films evolving far beyond people’s stereotypes.
“We have a new generation of French filmmakers who are making co-productions that may not be traditional, in that they’re not strictly Parisian or particularly Caucasian,” he says. “I had the great pleasure to present the French/African co-production ‘Timbuktu’ in America from my good friend Abderrahmane Sissako, who is an African filmmaker with very strong French connections. We’ve been involved in a number of co-productions from the get-go, and a number of French films like ‘Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti’ and ‘Rodin.’”
Does he have any advice for buyers or producers doing business in Cannes? “When foreigners meet, there is initially some trepidation and maybe some distrust, so I think you have to win people over through your reputation,” Cohen says. “Actions speak very loud, and results count. I think that the French respect [our company], and we have great love for them.”
Cohen, who bought and remodeled Manhattan’s Quad Cinema and turned its programming over to his recently purchased Landmark Theatres chain, plans to bring his love of French cinema full circle. Later this year, he hopes to start construction on the four-screen Larchmont Playhouse, located just “a stone’s throw away” from the Westchester County, N.Y., town where he grew up.
“Larchmont probably has one of the largest French-American communities in the United States,” he says. “It has a French-American school, and they’re excited about my association with French cinema and what we want to bring there.
“People have often asked me, ‘What is it about French cinema [that interests you]?’ I think it deals with universal themes of family and life that Americans can appreciate in most cases,” he explains. “Our mantra and DNA is all about the theatrical experience, and restoring and preserving classic cinema across all borders, for today and for posterity.”