My Many Adventures at the Paris Theater

Ira Deutchman’s film Searching for Mr. Rugoff will play at the Paris Theater on Friday, August 13 at 7:30 p.m., followed by a conversation. For more information about the film, visit the film websitePictured above is Don Rugoff. (That's not Ira.)

The first time I ever went to the Paris Theater, I arrived in a yellow school bus. I was on a field trip with my Paramus High School English class to see a weekday matinee of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet, and I remember looking out the school bus window and thinking, this place is really classy. Part of that impression stemmed from its location across from the Plaza Hotel. It looked less like a movie theater and more like a sophisticated emporium. It was impressive.

The movie also made an impression. We were a bunch of high school kids who were looking forward to a trip to the city mainly to have the day off from classes. The fact that Mrs. Greenstein had brought us to see a film that had actual nude sex scenes in it was too good to be true. Little did I know then that what I had just experienced would not only be a defining moment in my own sensibility, but also one that was emblematic of a certain identity that the Paris would always have in my mind—a melding of sexiness with a veneer of art.

In high school I started reading Variety, and I was fascinated by the detailed grosses that were listed for all the Manhattan theaters. I learned about what a “house nut” was and started to see the patterns of which films played in which theaters. One of the things I learned was how certain Manhattan theaters required exclusivity when they showed a film—meaning, no other theater on the East Side could show it, or no other theater in Manhattan could show it, or no other theater in the five boroughs could show it. Uniquely, the Paris required exclusivity for the entire New York metropolitan area. The Paris had the most restrictive policy of any theater in the country. Film distributors respected it because the theater had earned it.

A film like Romeo and Juliet would be booked into the Paris and play for 52 weeks (which it did). The exclusivity (what we in the business call the “clearance”) was the reason my English class had to shlep in from New Jersey to see it. It wasn’t until after the run at the Paris ended that the film would move over to neighborhood theaters around the city and to theaters in the surrounding suburbs.

After I graduated from college in the mid ‘70s, I got a job at Cinema 5, the company that booked and managed the Paris among many other theaters. The Paris was treated differently than the other theaters not only because of its exclusivity policy but also because the actual owners of the theater, the French company Pathé, kept a close eye on the theater’s reputation. They made sure that the films being booked were appropriate and that the theater was kept in tip-top shape. For many years, the person who had that particular role was Duncan McGregor, a classy gentleman who was the perfect embodiment of the Paris aura.

During my time at Cinema 5, all the artiest, sexiest European films (and some American art or indie films) played at the theater. I kept up with the latest by Buñuel, Truffaut, Vadim, Chabrol, and so many others, and I started to realize that the art/sex combo, which I had first experienced with Romeo and Juliet, was part of the mystique of the theater. It was also the DNA of all the most successful art films in the U.S.

As my career went on, and I leaned more into the marketing and distribution of art films, I worked on many films that played at the Paris, including Truffaut’s The Woman Next Door and Schlondorff’s Circle of Deceit. When I later co-founded a company called Cinecom, we hit the jackpot with Merchant/Ivory’s A Room With A View, which played the Paris for 36 weeks. After its theatrical run had ended, an analysis found that the state with the highest gross on the film was California followed closely by New York. In third place was The Paris theater, with a gross higher than any other state.

One of my funniest Paris Theater experiences involved Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. My role on that film was as a producer’s rep and then, after it was acquired for distribution by New Line Cinema, I stayed on as a marketing consultant. Whit told me that his dream was for the film to play the Paris; it was my job to try to make that happen. When I asked Mitch Goldman, who was the head of distribution for New Line, if we could book it at the Paris, he informed me he was “at war” with City Cinemas, which now controlled the Paris, and that it was out of the question. Huh?

I called Ralph Donnelly, who ran City Cinemas at that time and was a friend. Ralph was one of the good guys in the business, so I couldn’t imagine what this “war” could be about. When I told Ralph that New Line was distributing the film, he told me he would refuse to book it. They were indeed at war.

I was not about to give up. The Paris was still owned by Pathé, and a guy by the name of Marcel Ariane was now holding Duncan McGregor’s position. I showed Metropolitan to Marcel and he loved it. He also understood why the Paris was the perfect venue for the film, which is a sardonic look at the upper-class youth scene on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. (The Paris is technically on the West Side, but that’s another story.)

Marcel and I cooked up a scheme to work around this so-called “war.” I called Mitch Goldman and told him that he could book the film at The Paris without dealing with City Cinemas; that Marcel was really the decision-maker. Mitch told me that as long as he didn’t have to deal with Ralph Donnelly, he would be OK with it. I then called Ralph and told him I was actually handling the bookings of the film, and that he could book it into the Paris without doing business with New Line. Ralph said that was fine as long as he didn’t have to talk to Mitch Goldman. And from then on, every phone call about the booking went from Mitch to Marcel, who would then carry the message to me and I would carry it to Ralph. Then when Ralph would respond, he would call me, I would call Marcel and Marcel would call Mitch.

Ralph and Mitch never knew that they were, in fact, dealing with each other. It was like some convoluted version of Cyrano de Bergerac. Metropolitan opened at the Paris and set the house record the opening week.

One other interesting Paris story had to do with Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table. At the time, I was running Fine Line, and I thought the Paris was the perfect venue to launch the film. The Paris had just been taken over by Loews, and by this time, still had a policy of exclusivity for Manhattan but no longer required exclusivity for the entire New York metro area.

The week before the film was set to open, I got a call that Loews was insisting that the film also play in a new multiplex they were about to open down in the Village. I pushed back, explaining that the exclusivity of the Paris was part of its appeal and that I didn’t want to water it down by playing another Manhattan theater. Loews started making threats about pulling the film from the Paris if I wouldn’t agree. Long story short, the Paris lost its exclusivity. Industry standard is that once you’ve removed a clearance, it’s gone. The Paris was now just like any other theater in Manhattan. An Angel at My Table opened to reasonable numbers at The Paris and died in the Village.

With all of this personal history, you can imagine how devastated I was in 2019 when it was announced that the Paris was set to close. So I can’t overstate how pleased I am that it was taken over by Netflix, renovated, and is now re-opening with a celebration of the theater’s history. As if that isn’t enough, I’m thrilled that my first film as a director, Searching for Mr. Rugoff, will be playing at the Paris as part of its re-opening. And it’s not an accident; my film is about Don Rugoff, the crazy genius who booked the Paris from 1958-1978. I can’t wait to see the film on that screen and think about how much of a role that majestic space on West 58th Street has played in my life.

Ira Deutchman is a veteran indie film distributor, marketer, producer and now director. He is also a Professor in the Film Program at Columbia University School of the Arts.