Searching for Mr. Rugoff

The Kan-Kan Cinema finally launches, appropriately, with this documentary about a quirky theater owner/film distributor who changed the course of how cinema is seen in America.

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They say you have to be at least a little bit crazy to go into showbiz, and that's just for the people who appear on camera or on the stage. The background business of producers, agents, dealers and executives has its own special flavor of loony. But as with the talent, sometimes there is genius in extreme personalities and odd-thinkers, as explored in the terrific new documentary, "Searching for Mr. Rugoff."

No doubt you haven't heard of Donald Rugoff; I certainly hadn't. He was the son of movie theater chain owner who inherited the biz when he was just 26, including a bunch of prime spots on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He got into the distribution side so he could fill his screens with movies nobody could see anywhere else, especially foreign films, edgy indie flicks and documentaries.

Rugoff traveled the globe, meeting with directors like Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut and Lina Wertmüller, championing their work and helping usher in the mainstreaming of non-Hollywood fare in the 1960s and '70s. It's fair to say he changed the course of cinema, or at least the way it is experienced in America.

Today he's virtually anonymous, without even a Wikipedia entry to his name. One of his employees, Ira Deutchman, who worked in the marketing and distributing of movies himself before becoming a producer, directs his first film at age 68 to tell the story of his former boss, with the search for Rugoff's forgotten grave as his root quest.

The documentary is part paean, part indictment of the man himself, but mostly an appreciation of eclectic filmmaking and the behind-the-scenes people like Don Rugoff who made it viable.

A quick primer: historically the business of movies has been divided into three parts -- studios, which shoot the films; distributors, which see to it being released in various markets around the word; and exhibitors, the actual theaters who show the pictures.

For more than 70 years, the courts ruled that nobody could have "vertical integration" of the movie business by owning all three pieces. The studios sold their theaters and kept the distribution piece so they could control the sale of their films after they were made. Rugoff was the outsider who went the opposite direction, building a distribution business from this theatrical base.

Rather than compete with American studios' rather bland slate of movies, Rugoff sought out offbeat stuff, from documentaries to Andy Warhol to racy foreign films that most people couldn't see outside of Cannes. He would bid outrageous sums for the rights to distribute them -- sometimes absent any competitors -- and then spend to promote them like hell in ingenious ways.

Often, though not always, his taste proved true and his pictures made bank. Arnold Scharzengger probably owes his career to Rugoff, who blitzed radio ads for "Pumping Iron" and had live bodybuilding demonstrations at every screening. Rugoff was a businessman who knew how to razzle-dazzle audiences and convince them they had to see what he was playing.

The film interviews dozens of Rugoff's former employees and partners, including Mary Kay Kammer, Bill Thompson, Jean Donnelly, Ruth Robbins and many others. They speak affectionately of him, but also with a lingering sense of awe -- and fear. Though he was not overtly abusive, Rugoff treated employees as servants, and expected them to do anything, and everything, to help him sell a picture.

The portrait they paint was of a disheveled man, often unshaven with food spattered on his shirt, who seemed a bundle of tics. He would hire young people on the spot, and also fire them the same way, and longevity was not a hallmark for workers of his company, Cinema 5. We also hear from his ex-wife, Evangeline Peterson, and sons Ralph and Ed, who don't dispute the perception but leaven it with a bit more understanding and affection.

Interestingly, Rugoff himself seemed incapable of staying awake for an entire movie, usually snoring by the second reel, and would even nod off in the middle of conversations, leading to persistent rumors that he had metal plate in his skull or some other mysterious ailment that would explain his strange behavior.

Many filmmakers, journalists and professors also appear to talk about Rugoff's outsized role in the distribution of little films, including Robert Downey Sr. and Wertmüller. He made the Monty Python group big stars by single-handedly buying the rights to "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and then working to make it a hit. His employees dressed in chainmail and jousted around Manhattan to promote it.

Rugoff also built or renovated magnificent movie palaces like the Beekman and Sutton, and came up with the idea for the first multi-plex in the U.S., called simply Cinema 1 and Cinema 2. He outfitted the lobbies with art deco furniture and paid an artist, John Willis, to create magnificent window displays for each new film -- essentially life-size dioramas. He insisted filmmakers of even the tiniest pictures fly first class and stay in the fanciest hotels.

It all caught up to Rugoff in the end. With the blockbuster era came less appetite for indies and foreign pictures, and after fighting off a years-long takeover attempt from a competitor, Bill Forman, and diminished by his divorce and declining health, he was forced out of his own company, virtually penniless.

Deutchman tracks his movements over the last decade of his life, where Rugoff wound up in the Long Island enclave of Edgartown. Still with the taste for movies on his lips, he briefly created a local film society that showed pictures at an unused church.

What I came away with from "Searching for Mr. Rugoff" was multifold. First, I was intrigued by this strange man, both venal and brilliant, who stuck up a middle finger to the studio system and embraced the counterculture. Second, appreciation for a first-rate documentary that explores a single life with the right mix of curiosity and skepticism.

Finally, a huge list of films I need to add to my personal movie bucket list. Here is movie for those who love them.

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