You know the movies, you might even know the hands and minds behind them: Monty Python and the Holy GrailPutney SwoopThe Man Who Fell to Earth, Swept AwayZ. But do you know the name of the man who distributed them? Who created ad campaigns for them? Who championed their artfulness amidst a sea of cinematic dross?

His name was Donald Rugoff, or Mr. Rugoff if you worked for him, and he was one of cinema’s great carnival barkers. He built art house theaters in New York City. He found, distributed, and exhibited foreign films, independent films, documentaries, movies that needed love and attention. He championed them on the radio and in print. And he made the act of going to the movies something to remember. But, as the new documentary Searching for Mr. Rugoff shows, all that’s has been forgotten now. The theaters are gone, the filmmakers are dying off, and the name “Mr. Rugoff” means nothing to modern-day cineastes. History moves fast in this country, faster still once you’re down on your luck.

Directed by Ira Deutchman, a film distributor with a couple of dozen producing credits to his name, Searching for Mr. Rugoff is part obituary, part detective story. Rugoff died in 1989 in Edgartown, Massachusetts, far from the vibrant Upper East Side where Rugoff made his name. Rumors swirled that Rugoff, once the talk of the town, died penniless and is buried in a pauper’s grave. So Deutchman, a former employee of Rugoff’s company, Cinema 5, heads off to Edgartown to discover the true story about his former employers’ last days.

Deutchman’s investigation forms Searching for Mr. Rugoff’s framing device, and, frankly, it’s the weakest aspect of the movie. But the rest is where the story’s at—Deutchman interviewing fellow Cinema 5 employees, filmmakers Rugoff championed, and industry luminaries. These voices tell us why Rugoff was such an important figure to moviegoing of the ’60s and early-’70s. 

A few morsels: Rugoff’s Cinema I and Cinema II, built in 1962, was the first movie theater in the country to incorporate two different size theaters, allowing the programmers to put edgier material in the second, smaller, house, and popular entertainment in the large house—a trend that endures when they build cinemas to this day.

Rugoff also had an in-house advertising department to promote the movies. They were good. So good, filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. recounts how the ad Rugoff’s team made for Putney Swoop was better than his movie. The radio spots were killer, too—ditto for the in-theater promotion. For Holy Grail, Rugoff dressed his employees up in costumes from the film and had the “knights” followed by a second employee who clopped coconuts together. For Seven Beauties, Rugoff convinced director Lina Wertmüller and star Giancarlo Giannini to stand in the lobby and shake each and every patron’s hand as they exited the screening.

And then there were the movies. For about a decade, Rugoff was a hitmaker. From 1965 to 1978, Cinema 5 received 25 Oscar nominations (16 for foreign language films, six for documentaries) and six wins.

The ’60s were Rugoff’s heyday. The ’70s were when things started to fall apart. Hollywood found a way to horn in on Rugoff’s model, blockbusters were coming, Rugoff’s marriage was falling apart—but I’ll let the movie dig into all of that for you. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for Cinema 5, or Rugoff, or the theatrical-going experience. Some art-house theaters are fighting the good fight with adventurous programming, but the spectacle of going to a movie is much, much less than it was in Rugoff’s day. 

And consider this: Though there are about 30 theaters and film societies around the U.S. screening Searching for Mr. Rugoff, most audiences will probably discover the movie via virtual cinemas and, eventually, streaming. COVID shoulders part of the blame, but this is a shift that started happening a while ago. Rugoff’s Cinema 5 never felt so far away.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Searching for Mr. Rugoff (2019)
Produced and directed by Ira Deutchman
Deutchman Company Inc, Not rated, Running time 94 minutes, Opens Aug. 13, 2021, in select theaters and virtual cinemas.