Documentary Review: “Searching for Mr. Rugoff,” remembering an art film icon

In the days before streaming — before home video even — film-lovers flocked to New York to get their art, indie and international cinema fix. We made our pilgrimage to the Beekman, the Paris, the Waverly, Sutton, Lincoln Plaza, Cinema I and II and even Carnegie Hall Cinemas to see the latest from Italy, Vietnam, Australia, China or Japan, to catch this indie breakout from Sundance or that buzzed documentary that premiered in Telluride.

Most of the theaters are gone now. Changing times, shifting screen-watching habits and soaring real estate values did them in. But in their day, they were the incubators of films that changed the movies audiences in America got to see and changed the cinema itself, the sorts of movies Hollywood makes or buys for distribution in North America.

“Searching for Mr. Rugoff” is about the progenitor of that system that raised the country’s cinematic IQ, created generations of more sophisticated filmgoers and inspired young filmmakers who came of age knowing there was more to movies than what Hollywood served up.

Rugoff, the son of the founder of a regional New York theater chain that dated back to nickelodeon (silent) cinema, turned five theaters he (mostly) inherited — the Sutton, Beekman, Paris, Cinema I and II (America’s first “multiplex”) and the Plaza — into “launching pads” for the films of Truffaut, Lina Wertmüller, Ingmar Bergman, Costa-Gavras, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, and for the most celebrated documentaries of the ’60s and ’70s.

Monty Python didn’t really become a “thing” in the U.S. until Rugoff, using those theaters as the anchor for his Cinema 5 film distribution company, hyped “Monty Python & the Holy Grail” into a New York smash that then played in cinemas all over the United States.

Onetime Cinema 5 employee, now a film distributor and academic, Ira Deutchman adds documentary filmmaker to his resume with this engaging, nostalgic and eye-opening film, his “search” for a lost figure in indie “art cinema” history, a man who peaked and plunged pre-Internet, whose name all but disappeared from movie history.

Rugoff may be mostly-forgotten, a man his former employees describe as something of an ogre, a “terrible person,” disheveled, gauche and “truly a difficult man” who’d sleep through screenings (he was on medications), say “I loved it” afterwards and buy the rights to many a classic non-studio film of the ’60s and ’70s. But he was a singular figure in the American cinema and in shaping American cinematic tastes.

The thesis Deutchman presents is that Rugoff looked beyond Hollywood for films to book in his theaters, tracking down indie fare before we called it “independent,” and booking it for say the smaller house in his innovative Cinema I & II multiplex. Dramas like “Nothing But a Man” and documentaries such as “The Sorrow and the Pity” and “Endless Summer” and the works of French, Italian, Swedish and German directors would be shown, vigorously promoted, ingeniously-advertised and given pre-Internet buzz by “sold out” runs in these tony, high-profile, mostly upper-East Side Manhattan movie houses.

Rugoff would then book those films into cinemas across the country, using their “New York hit” cachet to make Bergman and “Pumping Iron,” “Z” and “Tall Blonde Man with One Red Shoe” hits.

Costa-Gavras (“Z,” “State of Siege”) and Lina Wertmüller (“Swept Away”) appear here and remember Rugoff and marvel at how he did business and made their films box office hits and then Oscar-nominees and sometimes Oscar winners.

Rugoff started to bend American and even Hollywood tastes, and by the 1970s, Hollywood’s stodgy “Sound of Music” blockbusters changed. The System started financing edgier, artier more “independent” fare and “Easy Rider” and “Mean Streets” to “Dog Day Afternoon,” “A Woman Under the Influence” began turning up on Hollywood’s release slates.

Specialty distributors such as New Line/Fine Line (founder Bob Shaye is here), October Films, Miramax and Sony Pictures Classics popped up and took away Rugoff’s bread-and-butter bookings, forcing him out of the business. But not before he had changed it forever.

Interviewing fellow Cinema 5 alumni, academics, competitors, filmmakers and members of Rugoff’s family, Deutchman dissects the myths surrounding the man, downloads decades of anecdotes about his “Holy Grail” was promoted by dressing up employees in Medieval chain mail and marching them up and down the streets of New York or how “Pumping Iron” showings were preceded by body building demonstrations. And in separating the fact from the fiction, the “good taste” (in movies) from the boorish bullying, Deutchman resurrects Rugoff’s place in film history.

The portrait that emerges is of a guy who could tell you why you’d want to see “Putney Swope,” and how he’d sell it to the masses, but not somebody you’d want to work for or ever suffer through a disgusting meal with.

MPA Rating: unrated

Cast: Ira Deutchman, Costa-Gavras, Lina Wertmüller, Bruce Brown, Sarah Kernochan, Evangeline Peterson, Paula Silver, Bob Shaye, Richard Peña

Credits: Scripted and directed by Ira Deutchman. A Deutchman Co. release.

Running time: 1:33

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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