Searching for Mr. Rugoff
Articles & Reviews
A personal mission fuses with movie history in Ira Deutchman’s 2019 documentary, “Searching for Mr. Rugoff,” which is streaming on the Criterion Channel and other services. The titular subject, Donald Rugoff, inherited a small chain of New York theatres and, from the late nineteen-fifties through the seventies, expanded it into an art-house mini-empire, near Bloomingdale’s, that he endowed with the upscale cultural allure of modern architecture and design—and he also became the distributor of films that he showed. Rugoff, turbulent and troubled, hiring and firing on a whim (he gave Deutchman, a prominent distributor, his start, in 1975), turned his chaotic office into a hive of cinephilic passion. Launching such films as “Z,” “Scenes from a Marriage,” “Marjoe,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “Pumping Iron” into the Zeitgeist with pinpoint strategies and brazen ballyhoo, Rugoff made New York’s art-house releases matter to Hollywood (and several garnered Oscars to prove it); then he lost control of his company and vanished from the scene. Deutchman decided to find out what happened; the story—graced by recollections from Rugoff’s family and former employees and associates—shows how Rugoff changed the face of the cinema and the city alike.
Entertaining and enlightening. Deutchman’s deep dive into the movie going culture that Rugoff helped create is irresistible nostalgia and important film history.
For devotees of indie history, an absolute must-see. “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” captures it all quite beautifully with both intelligence and emotional resonance. Leo Sidran’s original score is exquisite and Deutchman inserts himself into the film’s structure in all the right ways.
If you love independent cinema, you must watch this film.
“Searching for Mr. Rugoff” is obviously a labor of love, or at least a labor of deep appreciation and respect for the man who Deutchman describes as his mentor, as the person who taught him everything he knows about film distribution.
What’s missing from contemporary film culture? That question is the real subject of “Searching for Mr. Rugoff,” the new documentary exploring the little-known career and forgotten reputation of film distributor and exhibitor Donald Rugoff whose Cinema 5 company set an unmatched standard for the serious appreciation of movies in the 1960s and 70s.
We look at the prospects for four wide releases coming this weekend, including “Westworld” co-creator Lisa Joy’s first feature film, “Reminiscence” (Warner Bros/HBO Max), a film noir homage starring Hugh Jackman, Thandie Newton, and Rebecca Ferguson, as well as an indie documentary making the rounds, film distribution veteran Ira Deutchman’s “Searching for Mr. Rugoff.”
Searching for Mr. Rugoff makes a persuasive case that Rugoff was a sort of Charles Foster Kane of indie cinema, a mad, eccentric bully who built an empire and then lost it.
A very lively, entertaining movie. People who care about the movies will be fascinated. It’s well worth searching out.
A first-rate documentary that explores a single life with the right mix of curiosity and skepticism. 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.
What makes the movie essential viewing for film aficionados is its subject’s unshakable conviction that even the wildest and most unconventional pictures can and will be appreciated by an audience that’s been properly prepped to accept them on their own terms. That’s the duty of exhibitors, distributors, critics and everyone else who’s made a career out of sharing films with other people, and for some of us it’s a sacred vocation.
Essential watching for anybody interested in the business end of the industry. And with its nostalgic look at old New York and a cast of colorful characters, it’s not just for the cinephile.
Ira Deutchman’s (@nyindieguy) SEARCHING FOR MR. RUGOFF (@MrRugoff) carries on rolling out across the country.
Acclaimed film producer and distributor Deutchman virtually sat down with The Knockturnal to discuss Rugoff’s legacy, the timing of the film, and why independent cinemas need to be preserved. Below, hear what the Fine Line Features founder had to say.
Directed by Ira Deutchman, the documentary is a briskly informative celebration for anyone who loves independent and international cinema.
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.
Ira Deutchman’s documentary provides an entertaining appreciation of this elusive figure, as well as an era when upscale film culture was at a zenith of popularity we’ll probably never see again.
It’s rare that a documentary affects me on a personal level but this one evoked a flood of memories. Searching for Mr. Rugoff captures a time and place when movies really mattered to a whole generation.
Whether one is a cinephile or not, the documentary holds something of interest for everyone. I just recently had a chance to speak with Deutchman by Zoom. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
A beautifully structured tale of movie love. “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” is both dramatic and enlightening, a moving document of an American life that has a bit of “Citizen Kane” to it.
It really points out just how much people loved movies in that era, and how much these theaters and distribution companies fostered that love.
“Searching for Mr. Rugoff ” is an entertaining and instructive jaunt, and it bristles with small shocks.
In the documentary “Searching for Mr. Rugoff,” director Ira Deutchman takes us on a journey back to the films, entertaining and enlightening, that have served as the cultural milestones of our lives.
Equal parts documentary, investigation, and film history feature, and all three are compelling in different ways…You’ll be charmed by it.
To all who rejoice at the choices in our cinematic feed beyond the latest Marvel release, we must pay tribute to Rugoff and those who came after for creating space for those alternatives. We therefore emerge from “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” educated, entertained, and very grateful.
“Searching for Mr. Rugoff” is not only a fascinating exposé of a bullheaded businessman who changed the face of cinema, but also a remembrance of a time when seeing new and strange movies was a special experience. This wonderful documentary gives him the same spotlight he placed on so many others throughout his life.
In today’s world of carefully crafted film industry personas, “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” stands out with its character study about an art house fanatic who embraced the beautiful chaos of being a curious cinephile.
“Searching for Mr. Rugoff” provides the kind of entertaining history lesson that cinephiles like us need to learn…the real show is the incredible film culture he resurrects—one that will make cinephiles nostalgic for a time when a movie opening was an exciting event every single week.
An essential history of film culture. I got the warm-and-fuzzies from seeing the love here for moviegoing.
“Searching for Mr. Rugoff” looks for the man and the motivations behind the exceptional taste and even more exceptional personal mayhem.
Long before Miramax and the Weinsteins, the studio classics divisions, and the vibrant indie film community, Rugoff, with his Cinema 5 film distribution and exhibition company, pioneered the concept and midwifed the birth of that community.
Without Donald Rugoff, quirky, thought-provoking films like “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” itself might never have made it to the screen.
I wasn’t even alive during this time, but it’s hard not to get a little bit misty-eyed at the way it evokes an era of truly social cinema-going. Where lining up to get into a sold-out session of some obscure European film that was all the rage at Cannes was as much a part of the experience as the film itself.
The best moments in “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” celebrate that sheer showmanship with which Rugoff marketed his movies, including hiring people to wander through Manhattan in chain-mail armor banging coconuts together to promote Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or having artist John Willis craft specialized window displays for the movies showing in Rugoff’s theaters.
“Searching for Mr. Rugoff” is part obituary, part detective story.
After watching this doc you are left with the conviction that Don Rugoff, whatever his personal demons, changed film culture. He’s got my thanks.
An essential documentary on the most important figure ever in American independent film distribution and exhibition.
“Searching for Mr. Rugoff” — 3 p.m. Aug. 15, featuring a Zoom Q&A with director Ira Deutchman
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.
The film is a product of Deutchman’s years of diligent research and interviewing. What he has produced provides a full and rich portrait of Rugoff: a complicated, shrewd and crude figure with cinematic taste, who could be seen simultaneously as an “ogre and a genius.” Deutchman best sums up Rugoff’s contribution to film culture when he states: “What he was doing was manifesting the idea of film as art in a way that nobody else had ever done before and he wound up changing film culture in an enormously influential way.”
In an outtake from upcoming documentary “Searching for Mr. Rugoff,” the late Robert Downey Sr. talks about how his breakout film almost didn’t find a buyer.
Deutchman on this finally releasing: “My original intention was to highlight the majesty of the theatrical experience in an entertaining way, but given where we are right now, the story has become all the more poignant. Independent art houses need our support to survive.” This does indeed look like an enthralling film about a very peculiar part of cinema history in NYC.
John Fink said in his review, “Searching for Mr. Rugoff paints a vibrant picture of a specific era of moviegoing in New York City, in particular uptown, where movie palaces like the Paris, Beckman, Paramount, Sutton, and Cinema 1 & 2 flourished with top-notch film product. His theaters were higher-end when compared to the venues owned by Nick Nicolaou, the exhibitor who starred in Abel Ferrara’s documentary The Projectionist from earlier this year.”
EXCLUSIVE: Here’s your first trailer for producer-distributor Ira Deutchman’s documentary “Searching For Mr. Rugoff,” which chronicles the colorful history of impresario of art film, Donald S. Rugoff, who ran a chain of legendary theaters in New York including the Paris Theater, where the film will play.
The well-received film, which had its world premiere at Doc NYC in 2019, will be released in theaters on August 13. In the spirit of its subject, all proceeds from the release will be donated to the not-for-profit art house theaters presenting the film across the country.
“Searching for Mr. Rugoff,” an enthralling documentary that movie buffs everywhere will want to see (it feels, in its insidery way, as essential as any chapter of “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” or “Pictures at a Revolution”), was produced and directed by Ira Deutchman, the veteran film distribution and marketing executive who got his start in the mid-’70s working for Rugoff.
The history of movie culture is full of colorful characters committed to elevating the experience. Donald Rugoff’s exhibition and distribution company Cinema 5 paved the way for a second generation of companies enhancing cinematic culture like the studio (sm)art-house divisions and Landmark Theaters, and then a third wave of companies like the Alamo Drafthouse and A24, turning movie-going into an event.
There’s never been anything quite like “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” that comprehensively documents this exciting period when documentaries and foreign-language films broke through to become part of the American cinematic diet through the efforts of innovators such as Rugoff… and the film captures the enthusiasm and ingenuity that defined the era in moviegoing. Although bringing this moment in time to vivid life would be invaluable enough, the film provides intrigue for those who aren’t necessarily interested in this history when “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” subtly becomes about history itself.
Searching for Mr. Rugoff tells the story of a legendary but now tragically little-known figure who revolutionized theatrical film distribution in the 1960s and 70s. But the film directed by Ira Deutchman serves as a eulogy not only for the complex figure at its center but also for a now-vanished era of moviegoing. Any film buffs who came of age during those years, and especially those who lived in New York City, will likely experience deep feelings of nostalgia upon viewing the film, which recently received its world premiere at DOC NYC.
Frankly SEARCHING FOR MR RUGOFF is stunner. It is a film about how the movies got to here. Highly recommended.
This is not just the story of a man, but a story of film in modern-day America. The comedy and the tragedy, it is all here.
For any filmgoer who lived in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, the name “Cinema 5” was as familiar as that of Loews or Trans-Lux. Cinema 5 was the premier art-house circuit in Manhattan, comprised of an array of stylish theaters including the Beekman, the Sutton, the Paris, the Plaza, the Paramount, and the Gramercy. Single-handedly, company founder Donald Rugoff turned New York’s Upper East Side into a cinema mecca.
This isn’t an easy or thin examination, instead taking on the life of a forgotten legend from the men and women that knew him personally and professionally. It’s also simply one of the festival’s most entertaining watches.
A loving and kaleidoscopic portrait of long-dead film exhibitor Donald Rugoff — a passionate sort who controlled most of New York’s art house theaters in the 1960s-’70s, and used them to foist the likes of Werner Herzog and Nicholas Roeg into the American consciousness — Deutchman’s debut gives the local legend the cinematic sendoff he’s always deserved.
Searching for Mr. Rugoff is the beating heart of this 10th annual DOC NYC. Every filmmaker lucky enough to have a feature or short showing here—from the very youngest film student and intern to Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple—will want to hunker down in this one, taking notes and viewing what’s up on the big screen with appreciation and maybe even awe.
Searching for Mr. Rugoff succeeds in its mission. It finds the remnants of Rugoff in the once-young employees and directors who collided with him in his lifetime and presents them in a way that left me wondering how exactly this man’s name has been absent from mainstream discussion for so long.
Joe Piscatella’s Mai Khoi & the Dissidents, about a Vietnamese pop star-turned-political activist; David Michaels’s Tyson, a candid portrait of controversial boxer Mike Tyson; and Ira Deutchman’s Searching for Mr. Rugoff, about the outsized personality behind legendary art house distributor Cinema 5.
World premieres include: Joe Berlinger‘s The Longest Wave; Ngawang Choephel’s Ganden: A Joyful Land; Geeta Gandbhir’s Hungry to Learn; Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe’s He Dreams of Giants; Reiner Holzemer’s Martin Margiela: In His Own Words; Viva Van Loock’s Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope; Joe Piscatella’s Mai Khoi & the Dissidents; David Michaels’s Tyson; and Ira Deutchman’s Searching for Mr. Rugoff.
The slate includes world bows for pics including Joe Berliner’s The Longest Wave, Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe’s He Dreams of Giants about Terry Gilliam’s quest to adapt Don Quixote, Viva Van Loock’s opioid crisis doc Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, and Ira Deutchman’s Searching for Mr. Rugoff about the force behind art house distributor Cinema 5.