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August 13, 2022
Rewind, Review and Re-Rate: ‘Searching for Mr. Rugoff’ (2021): The Godfather of Art House  
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Rewind, Review and Re-Rate: ‘Searching for Mr. Rugoff’ (2021): The Godfather of Art House  

NR | 1h 34min | Documentary, Biography, Film | 13 August 2021 (USA)

Have you ever heard of Donald Rugoff? If you haven’t, don’t feel uninformed or out of the loop. Unless you’re in your mid 60s or older and grew up in New York City with a passion for independent film, there’s really no reason you should know his name. Or is there?

I’ve been a serious movie fan since my preteen years and a professional critic for over a quarter century, and I had no idea who Rugoff was before watching this documentary, and it’s kind of my job to know these types of things.

Donald Rugoff (L) in his office with Robert Downey in the 1960s from the documentary film “Searching for Mr. Rugoff.” (The Life Images Collection/Bob Peterson/Getty Images)
While he does have a basic entry on Internet Movie Data Base (imdb.com), there’s no mention of Rugoff on Wikipedia, a website where even the most untalented and marginal of celebrities receive attention.

Cinema 5
Correctly surmising there were enough established followers of the 1950s and early 1960s European New Wave movement living in or near New York, Rugoff modified a handful of theaters he’d inherited from his father.

Referred to collectively as the “Cinema 5” organization, it was solely dedicated to what is now commonly referred to as an “Art House” chain.

Having a solid foundation of steady patrons makes for a good start, but it wouldn’t be enough to sustain a fledgling small business over the long haul. Rugoff had an uncanny knack at picking winning titles that would play in his theaters, but again, this would not ensure long-term success. He still had to get the uninitiated and the curious viewers into the seats and, for a good long stretch, he did so in spades.

Directed and narrated by former Cinema 5 employee Ira Deutchman (now a producer and Columbia University professor), “Searching” examines Rugoff’s early years, his heyday as a film marketer and influencer, and the mysterious last days that he spent in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard.

Deutchman also chooses a non-linear narrative, something unusual for documentaries.

Rugoff was different things to different people, or rather, he altered his personality based on what he was looking to achieve. The consensus opinion of him by his former employees (including Deutchman) was that he was mercurial.

Not the Greatest Employer
During job interviews, he exuded charm and wit, but when on the clock, his employees were treated as disposable minions and rarely able to please him. This practice led to a revolving door workforce. It is worth pointing out that all former interviewed employees relished their experience working for Rugoff. and many still harbor fond memories of him. They also had uniformly negative comments regarding Rugoff’s hygiene and slovenly table manners.

Ira Deutchman (L) interviewed by cinematographer Peter Gilbert for the documentary film “Searching for Mr. Rugoff.” (Deutchman Company Inc.)
To the ticket-buying public, Rugoff was an innovative visionary: a counterculture version of P.T. Barnum who greatly valued ambience and overhauled his theaters to look more like modern art museums than the generic, cookie-cutter mega-chains of the time (and now for that matter).

He had a staff artist (bankrolled by the studios) create 3D window-box displays for each new release in an effort to heighten the movie-going experience.

By the end of the 1960s, Rugoff’s unqualified success in what has always been regarded as a boutique niche market, led to personal relationships with the highest-profile European filmmakers of the time including, but not limited to, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Costa-Gavras, Lina Wertmüller, and Alfred Hitchcock.

These artists realized that Rugoff was integral in providing their films with greater exposure both with the public and the press, and successful runs in his theaters would likely spill over into other secondary markets.

Costa-Gavras credited Rugoff’s marketing efforts for the success of “Z” from 1969, propelling it to become the first foreign-language film to garner a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Although “Z” lost in that category, it did win Best Foreign Language Film and Best Film Editing Academy Awards.

It was in the mid-1970s that things began to go south for Rugoff; Cinema 5 became the target of a hostile takeover by a competing chain. For over a decade, Rugoff was able to stave off what would be the inevitable, eventually bankrupting himself in the process.

After the dust settled, he got married a second time to a woman of considerable means, left New York, and wound up on Martha’s Vineyard.

If there is anything to find fault with in Deutchman’s movie, it would be his fracturing of the narrative and delivering morsels of his own investigation piecemeal throughout the film.

Given his own history, just how Rugoff spent his final years was in line with what preceded it and the mystery-thriller elements of this portion of the story loses some of its oomph when broken up. It would have been far more effective to present this section intact as an epitaph.

Legacy
The influence Rugoff had on the movie industry in general and the modern independent film movement specifically cannot be overstated. New Line Cinema founder Bob Shaye and Landmark Theater chain founder Gary Meyer lavish appropriate praise on Rugoff and, had Harvey Weinstein’s personal bad choices prematurely ended his and his brother Bob’s careers, he would have likely said there would have been no Miramax Studios without Rugoff’s bravura pioneering.

Deutchman’s film goes far in bringing Rugoff’s life story to light, but it’s not going to be enough. This man, whatever his personal faults and shortcomings, changed the movie industry as we know it, and he deserves far more recognition and appreciation than he has received up to this point. At the very least, Rugoff should be given his own dedicated page on Wikipedia. It’s mindboggling to think what modern society values and what it chooses to ignore.

Promotional ad for the documentary film “Searching for Mr. Rugoff.” (Deutchman Company Inc.)

‘Searching for Mr. Rugoff’

Director: Ira Deutchman

Documentary

Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

MPAA Rating: NR

Release Date: Aug. 13, 2021

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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