Film Review: Searching for Mr. Rugoff

STUDIO: Deutchman Company | DIRECTOR: Ira Deutchman
RELEASE DATE: Aug. 13, 2021
SPECS: NR | 94 min. | Documentary

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie

While a film documentary on a near-forgotten pioneer of film exhibition and distribution may seem like inside ball to many, Searching for Mr. Rugoff serves an important function by telling a fascinating story about an underreported pocket of the film business that has been overlooked for years.

Informative and entertaining, the movie delves into the life and career of Donald Rugoff, a no-nonsense businessman and son of a Depression-era New York City movie theater owner, whose love for the medium fueled his excursions into the world of exhibition and distribution. Rugoff’s success began when he opened impressively designed auditoriums that helped shift first-class movie exhibition from Times Square to primarily the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where such beloved state-of-the art theaters as the Beekman, the Plaza, the Paris, the Sutton and the Cinema I and II flourished,  showcasing foreign and independent films as well as the occasional critically-acclaimed Hollywood picture.

As the film’s director and narrator, one-time Rugoff employee Ira Deutchman informs us that his subject eventually entered the distribution market with his Cinema 5 exhibition company, handling such acclaimed films of the late 1960s and 1970s as Z, Putney Swope, Pumping Iron and The Man Who Fell to Earth and Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away and Seven Beauties. In many ways, Cinema 5 was the pre-Miramax Miramax, garnering accolades and Oscar nominations while catering to college kids and sophisticates who comprised the core of the burgeoning film culture of the era.

But Deutschman, whose stops after working under Rugoff at Cinema 5, include stints at United Artists Classics, Cinecom Pictures and Fine Line Features (the latter two of which he co-founded)—all now defunct enterprises that were influenced by Cinema 5’s business practices—has more to to talk about than Rugoff’s triumphs in this absorbing film industry survey.  Here, former employees and family members join Deutchman to discuss Rugoff’s demanding and difficult personality and his obsessive behavior, as well as his quick-trigger inclination to fire loyal, hard-working underlings at the drop of the hat.

Through anecdotes with former Cinema 5 personnel , Deutchman showcases Rugoff’s unpredictability, like how the movie maven seldom stayed awake during screenings of films which he later acquired for distribution or how he promoted Monty Python and the Holy Grail by sending actors out in medieval costumes to  ape scenes in the film by banging coconut shells together to emulate sounds of galloping horses. Deutchman also goes the extra nine yards by interviewing such directors as Wertmuller, Costas-Gavras and Robert Downey who reflect about their unusual dealings with Rugoff.

A mysterious dimension is added to film as Deutchman attempts to track down information on the latter years of Rugoff, who passed away at the age of 62 in 1989 after unceremoniously losing control of his company. The search takes Searching for Mr. Rugoff and its maker to surprising places, apropos for an executive whose vital legacy has previously gone unnoted by the public but whose life impacted many, for better and worse.

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.