NR | 1h 34min | Documentary, Biography, Film | 13 August 2021 (USA)
Have your heard of Donald Rugoff before? Don’t be ashamed if you don’t know Donald Rugoff. 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. Is there one?
I’ve been an avid movie-goer since childhood and have worked as a critic in the industry for more than a quarter of a century. Before watching this documentary, I didn’t know who Rugoff was. It’s part of my job to be able to identify these kinds of things.
While he has a basic entry at Internet Movie Data Base, imdb.com, there is no mention of Rugoff in Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a site where even the marginally talented celebrities get attention.
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.
Known collectively under the “Cinema 5” organization, this group was primarily dedicated to what’s now known as an “Art House chain”.
While a strong foundation of patrons is a great start, it won’t last long for small businesses. Rugoff was able to pick winning titles for his theaters. However, it would not guarantee long-term success. Rugoff still needed to draw in the unsuspecting and curious audiences, and he succeeded for quite a while.
Directed by Ira Deutchman, a former Cinema 5 employee (now a producer, Columbia University professor), “Searching” examines Rugoff’s childhood, the time he was a successful film marketer, influencer and filmmaker, as well as his mysterious final days in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard.
Deutchman chooses an unusual narrative for documentaries, a nonlinear one.
Rugoff meant different things to different people or he changed his personality to suit what he wanted to accomplish. His former workers, including Deutchman, agreed that he was unpredictable.
Not the Greatest Employer
While he was charming and funny during job interviews, his staff were often treated like disposable servants and rarely could please him when they worked. The result was a rotating workforce. Rugoff’s former employees who were interviewed loved their time working with him. Many still have fond memories of Rugoff. Rugoff’s poor hygiene standards and poor table manners were also common criticisms.
To the ticket-buying public Rugoff was an innovator visionary. It’s a counterculture P.T. Barnum, who valued atmosphere and made his theatres more modern than any cookie-cutter mega-chains at the time (and still do)
He had a team artist, paid by the studios, create 3D window boxes for every new movie to enhance the viewing 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, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Costa-Gavras, Lina Wertmuller, and Alfred Hitchcock.
These artists saw that Rugoff had a major role in exposing their films to the wider public. Success in Rugoff’s theaters was likely to spread into 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 it lost that category, “Z” did win Best Foreign Language Film as well as 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. Rugoff managed to ward off the inevitable for more than a decade before eventually becoming bankrupt.
After the dust had settled, he was again married to an attractive woman, moved out of New York and ended up in Martha’s Vineyard.
If there’s one thing that Deutchman can be faulted for in his movie it is his breaking up of the story and giving bits of his investigation throughout.
Given Rugoff’s own story, the way he spent his last years is in keeping with the preceding. The mystery-thriller aspects of this section of the story loose some of their luster when they are broken down. This section could have been presented intact and used as an epitaph.
The influence Rugoff’s had on both the film industry as a whole and independent films in particular cannot be understated. New Line Cinema founder Bob Shaye, and Landmark Theater chain creator Gary Meyer heap praise upon Rugoff. If Harvey Weinstein had made poor choices that would have prematurely ended their careers, Rugoff would likely have said Miramax Studios would not have existed without Rugoff’s pioneering spirit.
Deutchman’s movie brings Rugoff’s story out of the shadows, but it won’t be enough. He has changed our understanding of the film industry, despite his faults and flaws, and deserves more appreciation and recognition than what he’s received. Rugoff deserves to have his Wikipedia page. It is amazing to consider what values modern society holds dear and which it ignores.
‘Searching for Mr. Rugoff’
Director: Ira Deutchman
Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: NR
Release Date: Aug. 13, 2021
Rating: 4.5 out of 5