Donald Rugoff

The documentary “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” follows the life and work of a cinema mogul whose outsized impact on the 1960s New York City cinema scene was largely forgotten by the later part of the 20th century.

In the 1960s and ‘70s New York, film buffs and cineastes like my wife and I used to go regularly to Upper East Side art theaters like the Paris, Cinema 1 and 2, the Beekman, the Plaza, and the Sutton owned by Donald Rugoff.

We knew little or nothing about who he was, except that his father owned a chain of theaters in New York that he took over, but we loved those sleek, upscale theaters — many of them purposely designed and located in the blocks around Bloomingdale’s Department store. It was a wealthy area with a very high grossing potential.

The theaters showed indies, documentaries and foreign films like “Putney Swope,” “Harlan County U.S.A.,” “Scenes From a Marriage” and “State of Siege” — most of the interesting art films shown in New York. The theaters were owned under the Cinema 5 rubric. I remember that, at times, the lines for the next show extended around the block, and we had to wait for 45 minutes or more to get in. Going to films turned into an event, and Rugoff worked hard at making it so.

Ira Deutchman, an independent film producer, marketer and Columbia University professor who worked for Rugoff for some years, just made a film “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” that brings his long-forgotten career to light. (Rugoff still doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry.)

The film is a product of Deutchman’s years of diligent research and interviewing. What he has produced provides a full and rich portrait of Rugoff: a complicated, shrewd and crude figure with cinematic taste, who could be seen simultaneously as an “ogre and a genius.” Deutchman best sums up Rugoff’s contribution to film culture when he states: “What he was doing was manifesting the idea of film as art in a way that nobody else had ever done before and he wound up changing film culture in an enormously influential way.”

The film is dependent on many talking heads to bring him to life: fellow distributor Dan Talbot, who knew him well; his employees at Cinema 5; his ex-wife and his two sons. He was seen as magnanimous and charming, but also impossible to work for, his company dealing with a constant turnover of angry employees. Rugoff was demanding and easily irritated and angered — an impossible, tyrannical boss.

Rugoff was also unpredictable and meticulous about how his theaters looked, but personally disheveled and utterly careless about money. He was also an impulsive man, who proposed to his first wife after drinking 10 martinis on a first date. In a letter to The New York Times after Rugoff’s death in 1989, Dan Talbot wrote: “I was involved with Don from the time he started in our business in the early 1960s. He was, of course, impossible to make do with. As the head of the best group of theaters in Manhattan until 1979, he was in a position of great power and, given his spiky personality, he had the capacity to make people furious with him. ... Don was also a stand-in for the guy who stood on street corners throwing away $100 bills. He was one of the mad ones. Naturally, directors and producers loved him, thought of him as a wild genius.”

Major European directors like Costa Gavras and Lina Wertmuller, whose films Rugoff had imaginatively promoted, sing his praises in this film. He also distributed many landmark documentaries like “Gimme Shelter” and “The Sorrow and the Pity.” Rugoff was an extremely gifted marketer, promoting “Monte Python and the Holy Grail” by having a jousting tournament in Central Park. His film advertising always contained striking and unique branding.

The heyday of Cinema 5 was the rebellious ’60s, but in the late ’70s Rugoff got into financial trouble, He spent a great deal of money on paintings he never looked at, and he was also suffering from an inoperable pituitary tumor that affected his moods and sometimes his judgment. Most importantly, a beleaguered Rugoff spent a great deal of time in courts struggling against a hostile takeover bid by William R. Forman, the owner of Cinerama. This was a war he lost, and with it control of Cinema 5 in 1979. By that time, he also began to lose his touch as a marketer and he had to compete with the major studios that were releasing more serious and “socially relevant” films like Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” and Paul Mazursky’s “An Unmarried Woman” in 1978.

Rugoff had to fire his employees and lost his business. He borrowed money to survive, and though he tried to get back into film, nobody would hire him.

Deutchman pursued Rugoff’s trail to Edgartown, a WASP enclave on Martha’s Vineyard, where Rugoff and his second wife moved and where he ran a film society called Cinema Cafe out of an abandoned church for a couple of years. Deutchman doggedly tracks any evidence he can find (interviewing locals, scouring microfilm) and discovers Rugoff’s grave while exploring a deserted Edgartown graveyard. He discovers Rugoff died in 1989 at 62 — a tragic end for such a significant figure in film culture.

Rugoff was a gifted showman whose commercial skills provided a model for future independent distributors and exhibitors like Focus Features, Strand Releasing and even Miramax. Further, going independent demands a willingness to take risks and to passionately love cinema, for the danger of co-option by the studios always exists. Rugoff was both a dreamer and imaginative risk-taker who succeeded for a while until both his penchant for self-destruction and also the power of the studios was too much to transcend.

Leonard Quart can be reached at Cinwrit@aol.com.