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The Man Who Loved French Cinema

Charles Cohen is a renowned, wealthy real estate magnate, but also has a passion for cinéma d’auteur. He even went as far as making a second career out of it, and in just a few years has become one of the leading distributors of French films in the United States. Charles Cohen receives us on the top floor of his eponymous tower on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 59th Street, just a stone’s throw from Central Park. This American businessman is in his sixties, exuding a relaxed elegance and flashing the calm smile of someone for whom everything has turned out well.

After devoting most of his career to developing his father’s real estate empire from New York to Los Angeles, the multibillionaire began making tracks into the cinema industry. Quite by chance, he found himself co-producing the 2008 film Frozen River, a low-budget, independent American production directed by a newcomer. And it paid off: the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as receiving two Oscar nominations. Encouraged by this first experience, Charles Cohen quickly launched his own distribution company and decided to specialize in arthouse cinema, mainly from France. “I am a true lover of French cinema. I discovered Truffaut and the Nouvelle Vague film makers as a teenager at the local cinema in the small town where I grew up. I was fascinated by the style and beauty of their films. It really opened my eyes, and my mind!” he says.

Since its creation in 2010, Cohen Media Group has distributed more than 30 French films in the United States, including Outside the Law by Rachid Bouchareb Farewell, My Queen by Benoît Jacquot, Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako, and Marguerite by Xavier Giannoli. “We distribute an average of five or six recent French films per year,” says the American businessman, who is now one of the main distributors alongside Sony Classics, Music Box, Strand and IFC. “We are also in the middle of creating a catalogue of the classics, restoring them to their former glory for the American public,” he says. These films include works by Rivette, Godard, Chabrol and Pialat, as well as movies by Philippe de Broca such as That Man from Rio and the quirky comedy King of Hearts, whose rights have just been acquired by the Cohen Media Group. “Overall, in terms of the volume of films released, we are now ahead of the competition,” he says.

Supported by a team of around 15 people, Charles Cohen chooses film makers he has admired for a long time, such as Costa-Gavras, André Téchiné, François Ozon and Benoît Jacquot. “But we also approach lesser-known directors, and first-time films, such as Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang¸ which was one of the biggest surprises of two years ago,” he says. “The films we generally focus on should deal with universal themes, and offer a story that can appeal to audiences wherever they live.” With this in mind, Charles Cohen set his heart on two major biopic films at the last Cannes Film Festival: the new Jacques Doillon film on sculptor Auguste Rodin, played by Vincent Lindon, and Xavier Deluc’s Gaugin starring Vincent Cassel. Both films are set for release at the end of the year. In an entirely different vein, Charles Cohen also co-produced a documentary made by Agnès Varda and the artist JR. The renowned film maker and artist and the young photographer set off in a truck across the French countryside a few months ago, looking to meet people and discover their stories. The result is a whimsical, poetic journey, and is already set to offer a unique experience!

Whether quirky, original films or more traditional productions, French cinema is still a niche market whose earnings in theatres remain unpredictable. While Farewell, My Queen (2011) was the Cohen Media Group’s biggest box-office success at 1.6 million dollars, Diary of a Chambermaid by the same director, Benoît Jacquot, released last June, failed to make it past a paltry 54,000 dollars. “You need time,” says Charles Cohen. “Films end up becoming profitable through other media, such as DVD, television channels and streaming platforms. We acquire the rights for a long time, sometimes as much as seven years.”

As he sees it, the most essential challenge is making French films more accessible to cinephile and Francophile audiences, who are likely to enjoy them. “I work to achieve this with the network of independent theatres that distribute our films. The objective is to introduce regular slots in order to create a community and consumer habits,” he says. As part of his efforts, Charles Cohen even purchased the Quad Cinema, a historical movie theatre with four screens in the center of Greenwich Village in New York. The space has now been fully renovated, boasting cutting-edge digital and photographic film equipment, and will be reopening this spring to the delight of film buffs!

Article published in the February 2017 issue of France-Amérique.

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