The Hustler

Never send a boy to sell a movie. Send Dusty

Barbara Amiel August 8 1977

The Hustler

Never send a boy to sell a movie. Send Dusty

Barbara Amiel August 8 1977

The Hustler


Never send a boy to sell a movie. Send Dusty

Barbara Amiel

It’s a world full of smiling, razor-toothed barracudas in natty suits with suntanned, nonchalant accountants. This is Movieland America where a clever deal can bring a film distributor millions and short-change a producer by an equal amount. Into these treacherous waters Canadian film producers rarely tiptoe. But soon it will be sink or swim time. An average feature film costs at least a million dollars and must take in about three times that amount at the box office to make its money back. Only runaway hits like The Sound Of Music or The Exorcist can possibly squeeze more than two million dollars out of the small Canadian market. So come the day—if ever—when militant Canadian film makers can persuade American companies who dominate movie distribution in Canada to show more of their movies, the real problem will still remain: how to get our films into the lucrative market to the south. As in any other business, trade protection is not enough. The imperative is Export or Perish.

The solution for Canadian producers

William Marshall and Henk Van der Kolk was to hire a bearded and stetson-hatted Toronto lawyer, Murray “Dusty” Cohl, to go to New York as agent for the selling of their film. About half a dozen Canadian features have managed to get U.S. distribution (Lies My Father Told Me, Duddy Kravitz, Death Weekend, Rabid, Black Christmas) and most of them, it is claimed, managed to escape with any money at all only by hiring seasoned American film auditors to fine-comb the distributors’ books. With this grim knowledge in mind Dusty Cohl set off to hook himself a barracuda. But getting one to swallow the bait is only the beginning of trouble. How do you reel in a barracuda?

FADE UP ON: Suite 517 in Toronto’s Harbor Castle Hotel. The suite is wall-towall beige without a hint of Early Film Development Corporation (no original Canadian woodcuts, no NFB posters, no soapstone seals.) These are the offices of Film Consortium of Canada, Marshall Pictures and the Toronto film bash called The Festival of Festivals.

On a shin-bruising coffee table are xeroxed copies of a boffo review in Variety of Marshall’s newest feature film Outrageous, recently previewed at the Cannes Film Festival. Says Variety: “It’s a human story of a relationship between a transvestite impersonator and schizo girl friend

who comes to her former high school acquaintance after a release from a mental institution ... The good fun will draw any public.” Says Marshall: “Well, we’ve got one firm U.S. offer already. It’s just a question of seeing if we can get a better deal. The whole thing ought to be wrapped up in a couple of days.”

CUT TO: Rizzoli screening room on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. It is 8:30 p.m. on Monday June 20, 1977, day one of The Big Sell. The screening room has about 15 assorted males and females in it of varied age, hue and intelligence. They have been carefully selected by Donald Rugoff, president of Cinema 5 Limited for their heterogeneity as a test audience for Outrageous. In the hagiography of Motion Picture Heaven, Don Rugoff occupies a position just east of the Holy Spirit. California film people may still be at the very top, but the East Coast is Don Rugoff land. His 14 New York state theatres (with 10 in the choicest Manhattan locations) feature the quality box office hits. To open in one of Rugoff s east side Manhattan theatres (preferably Cinema 2 on Third Avenue) is the first step to a splashy New York success.

Rugoff is only 10 minutes late. Dusty Cohl stands nervously at the entrance to the screening room, shakes a limp Rugoff hand and beats a hasty retreat to the Russian Tea Room five blocks away where Marshall and Van der Kolk are going to sweat out the Rugoff screening. Behind Rugoff trails the lithe, fluttery figure of Evangeline Rugoff, the ex-Mrs. Rugoff, who continues as a consultant to the Cin-

erna 5 organization. Evangeline walks just two paces behind her former husband.

Rugoff himself is a large man in his forties, his trousers precariously balanced under a spill of belly, his suit rumpled, his gait painful and slow and his head continuously propped up by one hand as if its natural posture would be to lie on his shoulder. Physical appearance is very much part of the Rugoff negotiating stance. Normally he appears to be on the point of falling asleep, his sentences slowly squeezed out of his mouth and his eyes behind thick glasses focused vaguely off centre. But when, like a cobra’s, his head suddenly swivels and spits out a sentence, the target is rarely missed. Whispers Hank Guettel, vice-president of Cinema 5: “When he goes to sleep you know he either loves the picture or it’s very bad.” About five minutes into the first reel, RugoflTs head is slumped over.

DISSOLVE TO: The Russian Tea Room on West 57th Street. Jewish and Puerto Rican waiters in red rubachkas are taking orders for borscht, blinis and kissel from the well-heeled Manhattan aftertheatre crowd. The Toronto contingent is sitting at a centre table, eyes fixed on the door waiting for the hoped-for postscreening entrance of Rugoff.

CUT TO: Rizzoli screening room. Outrageous is ending. The heroine, a schizophrenic nymphomaniac, has given birth to a stillborn child. She has fled from Canada and is now reunited with her homosexual hairdresser schoolfriend who is doing female impersonations in the drag bars of New York. He has found happiness living with a gay taxi driver. The film ends with a whirl of lean bodies in studded leather jackets open to the navel dancing happily with one another. Lights up.

RUGOFF: There’s something very moving, very touching about this film.

TEST AUDIENCE MEMBER: I just came from the Mid West and I don’t feel there’s an au-

dience for it there.

RUGOFF: I don’t think this is the right audience for this film. It should be tested with a freaky audience.

TEST AUDIENCE MEMBER: You’re not going to get the hard-core gays for this film. RUGOFF: (alarmed) You 're not going to get the gays?

TEST AUDIENCE MEMBER: It’s not hardcore.

RUGOFF: (thoughtfully) Maybe this could be the first Establishment gay movie, (turns to the advertising manager) 1 have a good feeling for this movie, Irving.

EVANGELINE RUGOFF: Canadian films are so uneven. But maybe that gives them vitality. If they were slick maybe they wouldn ’t be so warm and human.

DISSOLVE TO: A table in the Russian Tea Room. Rugoff is facing Dusty Cohl. In front of Rugoff is an untouched scotchand-soda. “I just don’t know how the gays will feel about this,” he says. “Will they resent it?” In breach of the agreement to have only Dusty do the talking, Van der Kolk jumps in. “There isn’t one ‘gay’ reaction. There are all sorts of gays. They’re people just like us with all different feelings.” In his excitement Rugoff spills a piece of cantaloupe down his tie. He looks at Henk with wonder and gratitude.

“That is a beautiful comment.” Rugoff looks at Evangeline and then Dusty. “Did you hear that?” he asks. “That’s a truth.” Having disposed of the nagging problem of the gays, Rugoff transfers the accumulated warmth about the table to the business aspects of the deal. “I think we’d see this opening at Cinema 2.” A quiver goes around the table. Cinema 2. The big one. Only Dusty seems unaffected.

“What sort of deal are you offering?” Rugoff looks obliquely—but sincerely—to the left of Dusty. “We’d give you our standard agreement. A 70/30 split of profits and all the publicity of the Cinema 5 organization. “You couldn’t buy that publicity, Dusty, for any money.”

“But I’ve got to give my investors some-

thing,” explains Cohl, “I need money up front.”

“We don’t do that,Dusty,’’explains Rugoff firmly. “Our new policy is no advances, I’ve been burned.” Rugoff has pushed back his cantaloupe and his chair and is talking now to his plump hands braced on the pink tablecloth in front of him. “If you think you can get any money out of us in the form of an advance or guarantees, you’re wrong.”

“I just don’t buy that,” says Dusty. “I’ve got to have an advance.”

“Then we have nothing more to talk about,” says Rugoff disarmingly. “I don’t know how you do business in Canada, but you don’t seem to understand the first thing about what’s happening here.” Rugoff eases himself to a standing position.

" REACTION SHOT: The Canadian Contingent.

CUT TO: Tuesday June 21. Day two of The Big Sell. In the 37th floor suite of the Park Lane Hotel Dusty Cohl is talking to Billy Baxter and Herbert R. Steinmann. Steinmann and Baxter made an offer to distribute Outrageous after seeing it in Cannes. But Steinmann and Baxter are only part-time distributors. So far they’ve only got Lina Wertmuller’s Love And Anarchy behind them. Baxter, 52, a promotion consultant to the Phillip Morris Company, is sprawled in one chair, his Malboro Country belt buckle gleaming and his necklace with the St. Christopher’s medal and the Star of David on the other side glinting demurely. Baxter has all angles covered. “They’re all wharf rats. You go with Rugoff and you’ll never get the kind of attention we’d give you. You know who I know? The promotion and publicity I could get you? The Tonight Show. The opening parties. We’ll open this film in the fall, not a rush summer date, and really give it the kind of publicity buildup it needs.”

Steinmann pulls a sheaf of contracts out of a folder. “This is what the big distributors do to you,” he says. “Look. They deduct $10,000 for ‘miscellaneous.’ Twenty thousand for ‘censor and screening.’ All these deductions so they don’t'have to pay

you the profits they’re making out of your picture. Now, you go with us, and I say this honestly and sincerely because we’ve been friends now and known one another since Cannes [three months]. You can trust us.” The pale blue tones of the velvet broadloom and damask upholstered furniture begin to shimmer in a wash of sincerity. “Look, I love you fellas,” says Dusty, his voice catching. “You know that.”

“Then why are you prostituting this picture around?” asks Baxter. “Take a crap shoot on me. My money is on the line.” His voice softens. “Christ, there’s going to be a whole number about me and Carroll Baker—we were out last night—in Liz Smith’s column tomorrow. You watch for it.” By the time Steinmann and Baxter leave the suite their offer has increased $10,000 to a $60,000 advance and they have lowered the money held back from first profits to recoup their expenses.

DISSOLVE TO: The Canadian Consulate, New York City. Wednesday, June 23. “Have the screening here,” said cultural officer David Smith to Bill Marshall, “we can do a really good job for you.” Today’s screening is important. It will include several New York money men and independent distributors as well as a prominent West Coast distributor. In the reception area waiting for the guests to arrive, Dusty Cohl takes a glass of wine. He feels good. Cinema 5 is now talking cash advance. The word on writer/director Richard Benner’s Outrageous is, so far, very good. The film has two strong performances—one by Canadian actress Hollis McLaren and the other by an ex-Kitchener, Ontario, female impersonator Craig Russell. There are titillating glimpses of the drag world and the brittle pay-as-youplay sex of the gay clubs. Canadian composer Paul Hoffert’s score is helping too. The theme song It A in’t Easy In This Crazy World with lyrics by Brenda Hoffert is a sure winner. The guests arrive, are handed one glass of imported wine and one piece of cheese, and ushered into the screening room. Cohl stays outside. A consular offi-

cial comes to remove the food and Cohl asks him to leave it for a minute more. “I’m not running a restaurant here,” snaps André Massé, the kindly consul in charge of public affairs. Things are not much happier inside the screening room. Cultural officer David Smith has not realized that feature films are generally shown in 35 millimetre. His National Film Board equipment is only effective for 16 millimetre films, and now the guests are listening to a sound track of Outrageous which has the effect of voices speaking through tissue paper and combs. In between the first and second reel Bill Marshall explains the situation to the audience but at least one distributor leaves. His may have been the wisest decision. When the second reel comes on, the sound has been lost altogether. The Canadian Government scores another small point in its relentless fight against free enterprise.

DISSOLVE TO: The Edwardian Room, the Plaza Hotel, day four. Dusty Cohl is sitting with a neat beige-suited man named Ted Pedas. One tapestried chair is vacant. In front of it is a large slice of cantaloupe.

Pedas is a member of the board of directors of Cinema 5 and chief executive of Circle Theatres in Washington. “I got a call at 8:40 a.m. from Don,” explains Pedas, “and he asked me to get on the 10 a.m. shuttle from Washington.” Pedas looks directly into Dusty’s eyes. “When we get behind a film, when we take it up, it’s because everyone from the secretary to the president of our organization says ‘look, we care about this film.’ ”

FANFARE. The vacant chair is filled by Don Rugoff. “We’ve got a picture playing now at Cinema 2, The Heretic. It doesn’t look like it’s going to do good business. Now that means I’ve got a spot for your picture. It could open at the end of July and that house is clear until October when the new Wertmuller film comes in. We want to take this to the best cinema we have, Cinema 2, the flagship theatre of our organization.” CUE string and choral music in background. “We’re talking about going first class.”

MONTAGE of sincere faces. TED PEDAS: Don was really very moved by your film.

EVANGELINE RUGOFF: We upset you at the Russian Tea Room. When I woke up this morning I understood and explained it to Don.

RUGOFF: We have a figure ofmoney in mind we’re going to offer you and we’re very proud of that figure.

DUSTY COHL: (in the same lyric tone) Listen, it really means a great deal to me to be sitting here and talking with this new human spirit of communication with you fellows and I think that shows we’ve come a long way. But let’s say we can’t make a deal for Cinema 5 to distribute the picture all over America. Let’s say I make a deal with someone else to distribute—what would you say to opening the picture in New York at your Cinema 2 with you simply acting as the New York exhibitor?

CUT TO TIGHT CLOSE-UP of Rugoffs face. The eyes are suddenly moist. Pieces of cantaloupe dribble onto his green raw silk tie.

RUGOFF: That hurts, Dusty. The answer is no. Under no circumstances will we exhibit your picture if we’re not distributing it. Cinema 2 will be unavailable to you.

DISSOLVE TO: Dusty Cohl’s Toronto office. It is the week after The Big Sell. After much agonizing with Marshall and Van der Volk, Cohl has decided to say no to Rugoff and go with Baxter. The reasons? They believe Baxter will devote more time to the movie, opening it in the fall, and they feel more at ease with him. CLOSE-UP on Dusty as he utters famous last words. “He may screw us in the end, but I don’t think so. I really trust him.”

CUT TO: Telephone conversation between Billy Baxter and Maclean’s two weeks after The Big Sell. BAXTER: We’re opening Outrageous in Rugoff s Cinema 2 on July 31.

MACLEAN’S: (incredulous) Cinema 2? July 31?

BAXTER: I’ve got 60,000 shares of Cinema 5. Rugoff and I go back 25 years. I like the man. I’ve got a desk now in his offices. Promotion? Well, there isn’t much time to do a big launching if we’re opening July 31, but it’s more important to get that spot in Cinema 2. But we’re putting 4,000 dayglo posters in the New York subways in reddish pink with OUTRAGEOUS diagonally on them and we’re taking full-page ads in The New York Times, the News, the Post, The Village Voice—well a minimum of600 lines in each paper anyway. Whadda ya mean did. 1 have a tradeoff with Rugoff? Listen, whatever I did with him is my own business. Darling, this picture is going to be a smash.

WIDE SHOT of barracudas in merry dance.