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August 13, 2021

Searching for Mr. Rugoff


Ira Deutchman - 2019

Theater owner and film distributor Donald Rugoff figured into my life almost immediately when I moved to New York City in September 1969. I had seen a couple of films from his company. Cinema 5, earlier, Morgan and Elvira Madigan. The latter film is notable as it was one of the few times that not only did a foreign film get a theatrical run in Denver at that time (1968), but even rarer to be shown in the original language with subtitles at a time when English dubbed versions were often what was offered. But within a couple of days of my moving to my New York University dorm, right around the corner was a Cinema 5 theater that actually was called the Art Theater, where I saw my first Francois Truffaut film, Stolen Kisses.

While the name of Donald Rugoff may be unfamiliar, the titles of some of the films he brought to the U.S. are still remembered. As a distributor, his name was brought up in connection with the impact an idiosyncratic film from South Korea had with the audience and at the Academy Awards. The team of Neon accomplished with Parasite what Donald Rugoff had hoped to do with Z, fifty years earlier. Costa-Gavras' French political thriller was the first foreign language film to compete for the Best Picture award. For a brief period, between the end of the Sixties through the mid-Seventies, Donald Rugoff was able to make hits out of films with less than obvious commercial prospects.

Ira Deutchman's documentary is partially autobiographical. Deutchman's career in film distribution began by working for Rugoff in 1975. Several former employees, family members, competitors, filmmakers and cineastes offer their memories of Rugoff and his theaters. The film speaks not only of a time when films played in individual theaters, but also of a very specific kind of film culture that existed in New York City at the time. Rugoff started as the owner of a chain of movie theaters. With the dismantling of the elevated train system along Manhattan's Third Avenue, Rugoff built several theaters known for their stylish exteriors as well as interiors, becoming the prime theaters for foreign language films as well as the more artistic Hollywood films. In 1963, Rugoff dived into distribution as a way of getting films into his theaters. Rugoff also worked on getting those films seen primarily through the art theater circuit that existed in major cities and college towns. Both the business and the man could be wildly erratic. While there were successes such as Z and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there were flops including Jabberwocky and The Man who Fell to Earth. With Cinema 5 going public, Rugoff eventually lost control of his company and died a few years later unemployed and insolvent.

For me, this film does have a bit of personal meaning as I saw films at the cited showcase theaters located on the Upper East Side of New York City. But more often I was seeing films at the Art Theater or just up the street at the Eighth Street Playhouse (almost every day in early December 1969 for a Jean-Luc Godard retrospective). Deutchman mentions that not only would one of the Cinema 5 showcase theaters be the first choice for the world or U.S. premiere of a film, but that filmmakers also had their personal choice of which theater would show their films.

The film industry includes those small companies that usually for a brief period manage to clasp art and commerce successfully. Not that he was the first, but Donald Rugoff was able to raise the bar on what was possible in what has always been an unpredictable venture.

Searching for Mr. Rugoff will be available through virtual cinemas associated with non-profit theaters as well as screenings at select theaters.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 13, 2021 05:09 AM