The feature documentary Searching for Mr. Rugoff is the story of Donald Rugoff, who was the crazy genius behind Cinema 5, the mid-century theater chain and film distribution company. Rugoff was a difficult (some would say impossible) person but was also the man who kicked art films into the mainstream with outrageous marketing schemes and pure bluster. Rugoff’s impact on cinema culture in the United States is inestimable, and his influence on the art film business—from the studio classics divisions to the independent film movement to the rise of the Weinsteins—is undeniable. Yet, mysteriously, Rugoff has become a virtually forgotten figure. The story is told through the eyes of former employee Ira Deutchman, who sets out to find the truth about the man who had such a major impact on his life, and to understand how such an important figure could have disappeared so completely.
Deutchman was just out of college and eager to work in the film business when he got his first job in 1975, at Cinema 5. A fan of many of the movies that had been distributed by the company—films such as Z, Putney Swope and Andy Warhol’s Trash. Deutchman found himself thrust into a workplace that was both exciting and terrifying, filled with young, talented and dedicated cinephiles but lorded over by an impossible character. Employees came and went quickly as a result of Rugoff’s impetuous decision-making and arrogance; rumors abounded about his having some kind of health issue that may or may not have affected his judgment. It was common for people to refer to him as “Rugoff—the guy with the metal plate in his head.”
Many years later, Deutchman found himself at the Gotham Awards, a gala independent film industry event in New York City, where revered distributor/exhibitor Dan Talbot was being honored. Talbot spent considerable time in his acceptance speech remembering the contributions of a former industry competitor, Don Rugoff, but concluded his recollections on a tragic note–that the man had died penniless and was buried “in a pauper’s grave in Edgartown, Massachusetts.”
When Deutchman heard that, he realized there was much he didn’t know about what had happened to his erstwhile mentor. He searched the Internet for information and discovered, much to his shock, that there was very little recorded about Rugoff.
This set Deutchman on a journey to discover more about this man from whom he had learned so much. He went to Martha’s Vineyard to uncover the truth about Rugoff’s life there. He also travelled the world, seeking out Rugoff’s surviving family, former employees, filmmakers and other film industry figures, to piece together the history of the man. Deutchman’s journey uncovers both a comic and a tragic dimension to the story of this complex figure, who now can take his rightful place in the history of the film business.
Director: Ira Deutchman (US 2019) 94 min.