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“Theaters, Distribution and Craziness”: Ira Deutchman on Searching for Mr. Rugoff

Ira Deutchman interviewing Lina Wertmüller for Searching for Mr. Rugoff

A film for cinephiles generally and New York theater dwellers in particular, Ira Deutchman’s documentary, Searching for Mr. Rugoff, brings attention to the late Donald R. Rugoff, head of influential East Coast theater chain and distribution company Cinema 5. An intimidating figure, Rugoff was responsible for bringing much of the best in international arthouse cinema to audiences on the Upper East Side via his moviehouses, including the the Gramercy, the Cinema I and Cinema II, the Paris and the Sutton. When he later opened the company’s distribution wing, their acquired films collected a combined 25 Academy Award nominations, lead by Costa-Gavras’s Z, the first film ever nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film. After losing his shares of the company in 1979, Rugoff retreated to Martha’s Vineyard where he spent the rest of his life running Cinema Cafe, a film society set in an abandoned church. He died in 1989 at the age of 62. 

Influential but forgotten, Rugoff was, for several years, Deutchman’s employer, hiring him right out of college. Searching for Mr. Rugoffthen, is both an appreciation and remembrance of the filmmaker’s boss, as well as a quest to discover how Rugoff spent the remaining, penniless years of his life. For anyone who enjoys surfing CinemaTreasures.org (or finds it disheartening to see streaming conglomerates take over Rugoff’s former theaters), Searching for Mr. Rugoff embraces New York film culture in all its forms—chief among them the act of standing in line in the freezing cold just to have an opportunity to see what everyone’s been talking about.  

A few days before the film was released in select theaters and via arthouses’ virtual cinema platforms, I spoke with Deutchman (an distributor, marketer and professor in his own right) about the film’s unfilmic origins and how theatrical moviegoing, always in a state of premature burial, can rebound once more.

Filmmaker: Since your film gets into the specifics of your working relationship with Donald Rugoff, I won’t ask what inspired you to tell this story, but I read online that you originally envisioned this project as a book, as a kind of oral history. Is that correct? 

Deutchman: Wherever you read that, that’s 100% right. There are different entry points regarding the origins of this project, where my idea of what I was making began to change. The initial idea came from the fact that I was attending film festivals and running into people getting up there in age. When you’re at a cocktail party at a film festival, you start recounting professional stories and everyone shares memories. My stories were typically about Rugoff, but only because they tended to be really funny (or seemed so at the time), and all of these older folks who I was talking to, of the generation ahead of me, would tell me how they started in the business and what was going on in their lives back then. It struck me that they were getting older and that their stories needed to be preserved. Essentially, I wanted to make sure that the stories didn’t die with them. 

That was the original idea in my head, that I was going to make an oral history. I hadn’t really started working on it in earnest, however. Then one year when I was in a screening at Sundance, I was sitting next to Barbara Kopple. Barbara had her own experience with Rugoff (he distributed her film, Harlan County, USA, in 1976) and we began chatting. She told me this amazing story about something that happened between her and Rugoff and I thought, “Wow, I really should get this on camera,” and that was probably the first moment where I thought about my idea taking the form of a film.

Then I found myself at Michael Moore’s festival, the Traverse City Film Festival, where Roger Corman was a guest of honor one year. I thought to myself, “Okay, if I’m ever going to make this project, maybe this would be the moment to start,” and arranged with the film festival to have a half-hour with Roger to discuss his history in the business. Over the course of our conversation (which I enlisted a local cameraperson for), Rugoff came up several times and that’s when it dawned on me that maybe Rugoff was the story, as nobody had heard of him anymore. Rugoff just disappeared out of the histories of film culture! I thought, “You know what? I know a lot about this guy, because I worked for him, and maybe I should try to make him the focus of this film.” 

I then began tracking down people I thought might be important to the project (in any form it ended up taking). In every single encounter, I not only talked about Rugoff with the idea that maybe he was the story, but I also got my interviewees to provide their personal histories. At some point or another, I’m planning on doing something with the longer outtakes we didn’t include in the film, hundreds of hours of footage of all these folks recounting their own histories.

Filmmaker: And you notably include yourself as an-onscreen presence in the film. In the opening minutes, you’re laying out your personal history with Rugoff, and the journey of your uncovering elements of Rugoff’s life creates a narrative structure. You’re tracking down elements of Rugoff’s past and attempting to get some questions answered.

Deutchman: It all played out in real life exactly the way it plays out in the film! Once I decided I was going to make this movie (or something akin to this movie), it occurred to me that even though I wanted to avoid it, I really had to put myself in the film in some fashion. I really resisted including myself, but I also understood why it was going to be necessary for a number of reasons. 

I really did go off on this quest to find out what the film’s story would be, as I didn’t know what happened to Rugoff. Sure, I remembered that one phone call [Rugoff made to Deutchman a few years after Deutchamn left Cinema 5] that I refer to in the movie, but that was the extent of it. I also recall the phone call I received when he died, and I remember that I didn’t feel sad. I actually felt like, “Well, now I’m going to end up being more important than he ever was.” I was somewhat vindictive and retained all of these bad feelings from the time I had worked for him.

Years later, when I realized that I needed to find out what really happened to Rugoff in order to make the film, I went on a trip to Martha’s Vineyard, which was the very first thing I shot (other than the interview with Roger Corman). When I took that trip, I didn’t have all of the information I would wind up receiving in the countless interviews I later conducted. It took me a long time to track various people down, and some even turned me down, as they just didn’t want to talk about Rugoff. Anyway, it was a very long research project that took a while for me to understand what the movie was going to end up becoming.

Filmmaker: With a figure like Rugoff, I imagine the various Hollywood trades documented much of his life and career. Did you spend a lot of time going through numerous print archives to develop strands of a larger context for this story?  

Deutchman: There is actually a remarkable lack of written articles about Rugoff. I don’t know if that was due to him being shy about speaking to the press or whatever, but back in that era, the film business was not a spectator sport the way it is now. Regular consumers didn’t keep track of weekend box office totals—outside of trade reporting, that didn’t really occur in Rugoff’s era. Even then, when I looked back, there was very little about Rugoff in the trades until the big fight between William R. Forman and him that led to him being ousted from Cinema 5. Prior to that, the only reporting was relegated to Rugoff’s company’s hirings and firings and occasional press releases announcing the acquisition of a film.

Filmmaker: What about your visual archival process then? I really loved your including the Entertainment Tonight segment on three-dimensional window displays (including eye-popping ones for Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage) that extravagantly appeared in Rugoff’s cinemas. That sort of promotional material feels part of a bygone era now.

Deutchman: There’s a great story that goes along with that. The man who created those window displays, John Willis, was the sweetest, nicest guy. When I worked at Cinema 5, I used to come by the theaters early in the morning for screenings or something else, and I’d always notice John by the window, working on his latest display. First, he would come by our office and discuss what the upcoming movies were, and from there gather the necessary materials to create the specifics of that particular film’s window display. 

As I got deeper into production, I remembered how extraordinary John’s window displays were, and wanted to track him down and include him in the film. I had a home phone number for him in Manhattan, but when I called it, it was disconnected! I didn’t have an email address for him, as I had been out of touch with him since before the email era began, and when I conducted some research on the web, I still couldn’t find anything on this particular John Willis. As a result, I pretty much gave up trying to find him. 

At an event at the Museum of the Moving Image, I ran into [then-chief curator] David Schwartz and he asked me, “What are you working on?” And I answered, “Well, I’m doing this documentary about this guy by the name of Don Rugoff,” and he goes, “Oh, Don Rugoff? I just heard that name recently. I got a phone call from this guy by the name of John Willis, who has all of these window displays and wants to donate them to the museum.” I was like, “Holy shit, you found John Willis?” From there, David gave me John’s email address and, as it turns out, he was living in a tiny village outside of London (John is British). I wrote him soon after, he remembered me and we had a correspondence back and forth, then I flew to England to conduct an on-camera interview with him. He gave me access to a lot of those archival photos you see in the film, as he was the one who kept all of that information handy.

Filmmaker: You credit Steve James’s often used cinematographer, Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams, Prefontaine), as a supervising director of photography on the film. What were his contributions to the project? Did he accompany you on your various trips to interview subjects?

Deutchman: Peter played a major role very early on in the production, when I was really scrambling. Once I realized I was going to make a movie, I was trying to figure out how I was going to make it, as I didn’t have the financial resources to hire a crew. I consulted with Peter and he gave me the advice to keep everything very portable. I then bought a very portable camera capable of high-quality video, along with a portable set of lights and sound kit. I figured that since I attend a number of film events and festivals every year, there are probably a few people worth being interviewed, even if, at the time, the project was still thought to be an oral history. Being extremely portable was important, as I was literally going to be packing the equipment in a roll-on suitcase and traveling with it wherever I went. Peter taught me how to use the equipment. 

Filmmaker: In what ways?

Deutchman: He told me things like, “These are the settings you should use, this is how you should be monitoring them and this is how you should hook up the equipment.” He gave me all of the information so that when I would meet with folks to interview, I could set up and sit behind my own camera and equipment. I could set it up to the point where it would be consistent across all of my interviews. Other times I would have someone sitting behind and operating the camera while I did the interviews, and I would give them the necessary instructions, all of which initially came from Peter. 

Also, Peter shot the scenes where I am being interviewed in the film. However, more important than the camera work was how he prodded me for information. It can be very difficult thinking about the film as a whole while simultaneously trying to be the subject! In a way, Peter acted almost like my conscience in terms of making sure that I was properly answering the questions and even occasionally following up with, “Can you say that again more succinctly?” 

Filmmaker: The film is broken up into segmented chapters, each titled a different trait of Rugoff’s personal character. Was that something you wanted to include from the get-go?

Deutchman: That structure was a particular revelation that came to me while I was on the treadmill at the gym. I was in a bit of a creative quandary and had already shot 40% of the materia I ended up with. What was  bothering me was that I had so many things in the film I wanted to address but that just weren’t linear. I wanted to talk about the theaters, I wanted to talk about the distribution, I wanted to talk about Rugoff’s craziness and his bad eating habits, etc. I realized that if I tried to tell the story in a traditional, biopic fashion where it was all chronological, the film would either be a mess or a complete bore. 

When I went to the gym, it was right after I looked over a first cut of the Martha’s Vineyard sequence that appears in the finished film. Mind you, when it was cut together, it was probably seven minutes long, but it was enough to get me thinking. Then it was like, “Bam! I know what to do. I’m going to cut the film into thematic chapters rather than tell the story chronologically.” Once I got home from the gym, I found a  Post-It and wrote down the titles of five chapters. They ultimately weren’t the chapter names that appear in the film (I altered them slightly), but I wrote down the central themes I wanted to incorporate: essentially “theaters, distribution and craziness.” The final version of the movie doesn’t deviate too far from that Post-It note.

The first few cuts of the film were an experiment to see whether the structure could work, and it ultimately enabled other dynamics to come forth. Once I established the chapters and understood the theme of each, I went through all of the interviews and pulled footage related to those themes. My editor, Brian Gersten, and I worked on each chapter separately. As we would finish a chapter and move on to the next, we were still refining an earlier chapter, and that’s how the structure came together. Our process wasn’t sacrosanct by any means, as there were a few things we did late in the edit where whole sections of the movie moved from one chapter to another, but still I’m amazed at how much of that original spark on a Post-It ended up surviving the final cut.

Filmmaker: Rugoff had a large personality and the film dives into his radical persona. I don’t know if that’s a more common trait now or if it’s just more publicized within our industry, but I was curious how or if you’ve seen that personality type change in the film industry, for better or worse? Harvey Weinstein is mentioned at one point.

Deutchman: I think it goes beyond our industry and toward anybody who’s in a position of power. We’re seeing it in politics and the tech world now, this pathology that tends to accompany power. When you think about it as a chicken and egg thing, you really don’t know which comes first. Is it the pathology that creates the urge to succeed? Or is it simply that all power corrupts? Whatever it is, there’s definitely a strain of it not only within our culture but in various fashions all over the world.

In Rugoff’s case, there was way more than that going on behind the scenes. His behavior was a combination of health issues and being an arrogant only child who was clearly pampered by his mother and treated in a way that left him feeling like he was a king. Some of that arrogance predated his illnesses, of course, but the one thing that’s really important to emphasize is that Rugoff’s being demanding and unrealistic in some ways (and truly crazy in others) never crossed the line into either physical or sexual abuse. I made a point of asking those questions of people to make sure that I was correct. I certainly never witnessed it and wanted to make sure that I was 100% right. As pointed out in the film, Rugoff gave these incredible opportunities to women to be in positions of real responsibility within his organization. Those would be the employees who, if there was going to be any kind of predatory behavior on Rugoff’s part, would know about it. They told me that no, he never crossed that line and, if anything, he was overprotective of his employees. When we deal with people like Scott Rudin or Harvey Weinstein, there’s a tendency to want to lump all of that behavior together and to find an overlap. There’s definitely an overlap in many cases, but in Rugoff’s case, it never reached that point. I would never have made a movie about somebody who had crossed that line.

Filmmaker: So much of film distribution relied on clever marketing and word-of-mouth back then, and perhaps it still does. I know you’ve spoken recently on how the industry has gotten slightly lazy or fallen into a tired pattern of marketing films, and I was wondering if you personally can pinpoint a heyday, whether that’s what’s called the “Sundance generation” of the late ’80s/early ’90s or even further back during Rugoff’s period. As your film makes clear, he had a savviness about marketing films that got people excited about waiting in line for the next show.

Deutchman: The most important thing I observed and have kept in the back of my mind is Rugoff’s approach to the marketplace, that every film was unique and you had to come up with new ideas to convey them to the public. I can remember moments throughout my career where I would be sitting in a meeting with employees and brainstorming how to make a particular movie feel special and being disappointed that people didn’t have more harebrained ideas. I’d be like, “Come on, think crazy. Think Rugoff!” 

If you want people to go to a movie theater—whether you’re speaking to our current struggles brought about by the pandemic and that most folks are now hooked on streaming services, or if you’re talking about the early ’60s when Rugoff began distributing films as everyone was panicking about television sets reaching critical mass in the United States—there’s always been a need to create an urgency that gets people to want to go to a movie theater. That urgency and that need has only increased over time, as various competitors arrive on the scene or other ways of spending leisure time become apparent. 

Creating a sense of urgency is the central dilemma. Back in the ’60s, the plan was to offer something that you could not get at home: widescreen, 3D, stereophonic sound and onscreen sex. Those “hooks” do not work as well anymore and, as a result, we need to find other traits to stress to make people understand the experience of seeing something in a movie theater, even if it’s the same movie that you can stream two weeks later on your home screen or phone. Moviegoing is different by virtue of being in an audience and sharing a collective experience. Recently I’ve thought about how a darkened theater is probably the last place that exists in our culture where you are forced to turn off your cell phone and give your full attention to the screen. It’s a kind of vacation, a way of getting away from other distractions. I think the industry can lean into that and turn it into a positive. 

Many of the pundits who are writing about the demise of theatrical moviegoing or predicting the demise of theatrical moviegoing are saying that the only thing that’s going to be left are big blockbusters where there’s a built-in demand to view them on a big screen with big sound and blah-blah-blah. I honestly think it’s exactly the opposite. Those are the films that, because they’re more geared toward a particular fan base, maybe you get one or two days of frontloaded business from them, but beyond that, anyone else who wants to see the film will wait for it to come to their streaming service of choice. It’s going to be a lot cheaper to see it that way, particularly with a family. But when you come to movies that we see at film festivals, where you actually have to give a lot of your brain space to the movie to appreciate or understand it, the minute you look at your phone or pause to go to the bathroom or grab a snack you’re absolutely ruining the movie. When it comes to moviegoing, I think the art films are the ones that are going to survive. When people understand that these are the movies that demand your full attention and that you’re attending a space that’s going to demand that you do so, that’s something we can and should truly lean into. 

Filmmaker: When films premiere on streaming services, I feel like they have 72 hours to make any kind of noise, whether that’s via initial reviews or screenshots people take and post on social media to praise or condemn individual scenes. After the initial weekend, the film fades from the public conversation and it’s on to the next one. Being in a physical theater at least provides a film’s first-run with a real sense of duration. 

Deutchman: I realize that to some extent, the quest to get my film out in theaters (given, on the surface, the narrowness of the subject matter) is somewhat quixotic at best. But for me, even if the release is just an exercise in getting people to say, “Oh, that’s kind of cool,” that’s enough for me.

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