When Charles S. Cohen was 3 years old, his grandmother took him out on an adventure. They didn’t travel far, just to the movie theater to see Walt Disney’s new picture, Cinderella.
As he sat in the dark theater next to his beloved grandmother, Cohen recalls being transported by the magic of the film’s colors and music. “We sat through it twice and I was never the same,” he said.
Some six decades later, on a mid-November day, the billionaire New York real estate developer was in West Palm Beach to talk to business and city leaders about his plans to redo the Carefree Theatre.
The Carefree is a minor transaction for Manhattan-based Cohen Brothers Realty Corp., which owns 12 million square feet of property in New York, California, Texas and Florida. But the Carefree was a deal Cohen couldn’t pass up because it plays into his lifelong passion for film.
At the Carefree site, this part-time Palm Beach resident plans to build six theaters for art house, foreign and classic films, about 100 apartments and two restaurants. Cohen knows something about movies: He’s chairman of Cohen Media Corp., which produces new films and also owns, restores and distributes classic, foreign and independent films.
It’s rare for a person to equally pursue a personal passion while building a separate business. But Cohen has done it, and serendipitously, each business now influences the other.
Trim, athletic and impeccably groomed, Cohen fits the bill of a controlled Master of the Universe. However, a November dinner with him was anything but stiff, stretching into three hours of stories and hammy jokes. When a reporter agreed to try one of his baked clams, he replied: “That’s very shellfish of you.”
A buoyant Cohen talked about the Carefree Theatre project and other real estate ventures; his Renaissance-like interest in film and the arts; and his family, about to get bigger in two months with the birth of his first grandchild. “This is the best time of my life,” he said.
Last week it got even better. A film he co-distributed, The Salesman by Iranian director Ashgar Farhadi, was nominated for a 2017 Golden Globe award in the category of Best Foreign Film.
From English major to real estate mogul
Both of Cohen’s businesses are vast. Cohen Brothers Realty owns four design centers in four states; a dozen office towers in Manhattan; a New York movie theater; the Carefree property in West Palm Beach; plus a hotel in Dania Beach. Cohen Media Group owns a large film library, distributes foreign films, restores classic movies, licenses films to Netflix and other digital platforms and sells movies on Blu-ray and DVDs.
Cohen grew up in Harrison, Westchester County, N.Y. As a child, Cohen said his parents used to indulge his early love of cinema by sneaking him out for Friday night movies without telling his little sister, who was too young for the outings.
Cohen revered his father, Sherman Cohen, who died in 2013 at the age of 91. Sherman Cohen worked at the family haberdashery business in Newport News, Va., then joined his two brothers’ growing car dealership business in New York in the late 1940s. During the 1950s, the brothers tried real estate development and succeeded, starting first with apartment buildings and then moving on to office towers in the 1970s.
Cohen’s uncles encouraged Charles to learn the real estate business, allowing him to handle leases as a teen.
But when the time came for Charles to pick a career path, he said his father did not push him into the business:“There was no pressure. Never.”
Cohen wanted to be a film director. He began dabbling in film-making in college at Tufts University, where he was an English major. After graduation, he calculated the best path to his dream would be to work as an entertainment lawyer so he could become a producer.
But his Brooklyn Law School degree didn’t land him a job in show business. So he joined a bank training program, learned about loans, and then returned to the familiar world of real estate, working as general counsel at his father’s company.
Then came the day his father made him an offer.
“He said, ‘We’re building this office building on 3rd Avenue and 50th Street, and if you would like to join us and learn this business, this is the time to do it. Or do whatever you want to do.’ “
Cohen didn’t blink. “Being an opportunist, I ran with it,” he said.
Cohen not only followed his father’s lead into real estate, he adopted his fashion savvy. Cohen recalled his father was impeccably dressed and boasted a 2,000-square-foot wardrobe.
So it’s no surprise Cohen’s attire is selected with precision. For the business lunch, he wore a conservative Gucci blue pin-striped suit. For dinner, he donned a Loro Piana double-breasted sports jacket, transforming himself into the consummate Palm Beacher.
In addition to matching his father’s flair for fashion, Cohen adopted his father’s work ethic, too, eventually rising to lead the company in the 1980s, when he began to acquire more properties and expand the company dramatically.
On his way to building a real estate empire, Cohen found he not only enjoyed the art of the deal, he enjoyed the art in the deal, as in the aesthetics.
He sought out the world’s most famous architects, including Cesar Pelli, Helmut Jahn and the late Philip Johnson, men behind the Petronas Towers skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur, One Liberty Place in Philadelphia and the AT&T headquarters in New York.
Cohen said his goal is to create buildings that will be landmarks for years to come.
Even Cohen’s 31-story corporate tower at 750 Lexington Ave. was influenced by the admitted perfectionist’s touch. The striking design is the result of an “intensive discourse between architect and developer,” according to one description.
“Nice and neat and functional,” Cohen said. “I try to do the best job I can.”
His longtime lighting designer, Joe Kaplan of San Antonio, said Cohen can spot mediocrity in an instant. “It’s careless to try to fool him,” Kaplan said. Cohen isn’t one for excuses, either. “That frustrates him. He likes answers, not reasons,” said Kaplan.
But Kaplan said working for Cohen is empowering. “If you can show him something great, he won’t hesitate to say, ‘Do it,’ ” he said.
During the past 15 years, Kaplan has gotten to know Cohen well enough to understand his design vision: “It’s clean and crisp, but with an edge.” Not surprisingly, Kaplan is designing the lighting for the Carefree Theatre project.
Kaplan pointed out something else about Cohen: His willingness to try his hand at new ventures.
Take Cohen’s interest in design centers.
In 1996, he bought New York’s Decoration & Design Building. Over time, Cohen has spent about $25 million redeveloped the vintage property, using noted classical architect Allan Greenberg, who also is the architect for the Carefree Theatre redevelopment.
In 2005, Cohen bought the Design Center of the Americas (DCOTA) in Dania Beach. DCOTA is the largest design campus in the world, featuring 775,000 square feet of interior design products to the trade. Cohen is nearly done with a $40 million restoration, but he’s not done with Dania Beach. Now he’s redoing an old Sheraton Hotel next door. The 245-room Le Meridien is slated for completion in about 14 months and will feature acclaimed chef Richard Sandoval’s Toro Toro restaurant.
Lately, Cohen has turned his attention to yet another new challenge, boutique cinemas.
He’s converting New York’s first multiscreen theater, the Quad Cinema, into a home for first-run art house and foreign films, as well as repertory theater.
In West Palm Beach in 2015, Cohen bought the Carefree, a former destination for live comedy and musical acts, as well as art house films.
Cohen intends to make the property, just south of the city’s center at 2000 and 2020 S. Dixie Highway, home to a six-screen theater, with five screens showing first-run independent, art house and foreign films. The sixth screen will be reserved for repertory, or classic, films. Education is important to Cohen, and he’d like to invite guest curators to talk to audiences about the films they are about to watch.
Cohen’s original plan for the Carefree was rejected by city staffers who said the project was too big. So Cohen is revamping the Carefree design to assuage concerns about traffic and density. “I would never do a project that riles up the neighborhood,” he said at the business luncheon.
Cohen’s move into movies
Although Cohen spent decades immersed in real estate, his film interest always lurked.
At the age of 16, he made his first short film, winning an honorable mention at the Kodak Teenage Movie Awards competition. For a quick money-maker in the mid-1980s, he authored a movie trivia book.
In 2008, an attorney with a wife in filmmaking tapped Cohen for production cash. Cohen wrote a $300,000 check and Cohen Media Corp. was born.
The film, Frozen River, wound up winning the 2008 Sundance Film Festival Grand Prize. It also received two Academy Award nominations for best actress (Melissa Leo) and best original screenplay (Courtney Hunt).
After Frozen River, Cohen decided to try film distributing. He’s been particularly prolific with French cinema, so much so that he has been honored twice by the French government.
He’s also distributed several award-winning foreign language films, including two Oscar nominees: 2014’s French-Mauritanian Timbuktu and 2015’s Turkish drama, Mustang.
Cohen also has continued producing films, including the 2015 documentary, Hitchcock/Truffaut, featuring the historic recordings between directors Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut and a discussion of Hitchcock’s influence by other leading directors. The film recently aired on HBO.
In 2012, Cohen expanded into film collection. He snapped up The Rohauer Library, a collection of rare movie classics consisting of more than 700 titles spanning 75 years of film. Now known as The Cohen Film Collection, the collection includes films by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino and W.C. Fields. It also includes a number of British and French films, foreign classics, documentaries, and many U.S. comedy shorts.
Cohen Film’s inventory includes Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s 1924 classic, The Thief of Bagdad, which Cohen has restored and released on Blu-ray and DVD.
Cohen also has restored and distributed Jamaica Inn, the 1939 film production of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. Jamaica Inn was Hitchcock’s last British film before leaving for the U.S. to film Rebecca, based on another Du Maurier novel.
Cohen continues to add to his collection. In 2015, Cohen Media purchased 30 films by Merchant Ivory Productions, including the 1992 film, Howard’s End, featuring actress Emma Thompson. The film was restored by Cohen and the DVD was released Dec. 9. “I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey, but this makes it look like an ordinary TV soap opera,” he said.
Cohen restores and releases about a dozen films a year. They not only appear at film festivals, in theaters and on DVD and Blu-ray, but also now are streamed on various digital platforms, including Netflix.
Eclectic and proud
Cohen is as proud of his professional accomplishments as a person might be of his children.
He’s even created “family albums” of his companies: A coffee table book of Cohen Brothers Realty’s properties, and an even heavier tome of the Cohen Film Collection.
But there’s no pinning Cohen down on a favorite…..anything.
There’s no favorite building, favorite architect, not even a favorite food, he said.
Favorite director? Favorite film?
Nope. “It’s not unlike having a favorite child. They’re all special,” he said.
His tastes, he admitted, are eclectic. His four homes are examples.
The Palm Beach and West Hollywood condos both are contemporary in design. But while the Palm Beach Breakers Row home features bright colors, the California condo is an oasis of neutrals.
Meanwhile, his Northeast homes are done up in traditional but different styles: French for the New York apartment, which is rich with fabrics, draperies and wallpaper; and British for the Greenwich, Conn., country estate.
The Connecticut house is important because this is where Cohen spends time with his family on weekends. He even built a basement replica of the 1930s Paramount Theater, complete with a faux box office.
Because Cohen is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he gets to see first-run commercial films early. On weekends, he typically watches between three to five movies. “It’s a way of exposing my children to movies the way I want them to be exposed,” he said.
Love in the time of cinema
Family is an important subject for Cohen. And a sensitive one.
For a man who seemingly fails at few things, the breakup of his first marriage in 1997 was a low point.
“I’m the first person to graduate college in my family, I’m the first person to graduate grad school, I’m the first attorney, and now I’m the first person to get divorced.
“It was really tough on me,” he said of the divorce, “because it’s the first failure a person really experiences.”
After the divorce, he spent time abroad. He found someone to decorate his Ritz tower apartment while he was in Paris. He found a new love, Clo Jacobs, a former New York marketing executive for Jimmy Choo shoes. They married in 2004 and have two sons, ages 10 and 8.
Cohen sounds like a man redeemed.
When Cohen got divorced, “my son was 8 and my daughter was 12, and I really didn’t see them grow up day to day,” he said. “Now I’ve been blessed by being remarried with two little boys, and I’m doing it all over again, and I couldn’t be happier.”
With all his wealth, his material possessions, and his accolades, Cohen isn’t slowing down. But he is sizing things up.
In February, Cohen will turn 65, and the milestone has made him reflective.
He’s grown a beard in the past few months, because why not? He’s about to be a grandfather, and it’s something new.
He plans to spend more time in Palm Beach and wants to enjoy the fruits of his labor, watching movies in a proper theater at the Carefree and feeling transported, as he first felt more than six decades ago.
And he’d like other people to enjoy his passion, too. “I want to create a reason for people to come out of their homes and see something they can’t see at home, on a big screen, well done.”
With the years piling up, Cohen’s thoughts are turning to legacy.
It’s the reason he seeks out the best architects and pushes people to do their best work, so the buildings will last well after he is gone. It’s also the reason this lifelong cinephile feels a sense of urgency to restore classic films.
For all he knows, it could be his purpose. “Maybe that’s why I was put on this earth, to preserve these films for future generations,” he said.