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The Operators: Screen Scene

After the movies get made come the people responsible for really making the movies

On a warm Wednesday night in September, sometime after 10 p.m., Andrew Saffir, the founder of modern-day movie salon The Cinema Society, strolled the room at The Top of the Standard hotel with intent, New York’s skyline twinkling dramatically through floor-to-ceiling windows on every side. 

It was the thick of screening season. Armed with their carefully honed lists, a trio of New York characters—events maven Peggy Siegal, operator Andrew Saffir and upstart Darin Pfeiffer—were throwing bash after bash to get some of the year’s most anticipated pictures seen by the right set. While some film studios greenlight these screenings to lure Academy voters, others simply wish to drum up buzz by attracting the media influencers and A-listers sure to generate an ever-expanding ripple of clicks and column inches.

This party, for the Liam Neeson police thriller A Walk Among the Tombstones, was in full swirl, with Neeson ensconced in a corner with an animated Seth Meyers. Along with a coterie of pretty young things with only semi-bold names, the guest list included fashion heavy hitters like Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Bruce Weber; entertainment types like Andy Cohen and Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong; and cultural characters like artist Will Cotton. 

Andrew Saffir holding court

Andrew Saffir holding court

As the night wore on, the dressy, animated crowd, occasionally lit by a photographer’s flashbulb, settled into banquettes with their passed Standard burgers. Saffir, whose business model has paired budget-starved film companies with image-savvy, deep-pocketed sponsors and glamorous VIPs, would later e-mail, in a tone polite yet firm: “Can you also hopefully mention that people drank Qui Tequila cocktails (named Scudder’s Nightcap, in keeping with the film) and Taittinger Champagne, if possible?”

Movie premieres have traditionally been major events, with thousand-person guest lists and red carpets packed with dozens of news outlets. But ever since the economic upheavals of 2001 and 2008, there’s been a shift in New York away from giant movie premieres, which had come to seem both gaudy and wasteful. While they still happen in L.A., to an extent, and for summer popcorn behemoths like The Hunger Games franchise, for more than a decade, film studios have been banking on the power of what they term W.O.M. screenings, for word of mouth. Execs host a privileged few for a small, seated dinner or cocktails and appetizers in the hopes of generating conversation and eventually driving box-office takings nationwide. (It doesn’t always work: A Walk Among the Tombstones grossed just $26 million domestically during its first four weeks in theaters.) 

Saffir with The Weinstein Company’s Harvey Weinstein

Saffir with The Weinstein Company’s Harvey Weinstein

Peggy Siegal built her company on this smaller-is-better model; in the last decade Andrew Saffir has too, making the prospect all the more attractive to studios by bringing in fashionable blue chip sponsors like Dior or Chanel to defray the significant costs of bubbly and hors d’oeuvres at the latest boȋte. “I don’t claim to have invented the idea of sponsorship,” says Saffir, “but I think it was unique to pair fashion sponsors and film; those worlds work well together.”

Saffir spent 11 years as a VP at Ralph Lauren before launching his company in 2005 with a splashy premiere for the Gwyneth Paltrow film Proof. He is described by film-industry insiders and media reporters alike as solicitous and suave, an agile host who makes everyone in the room feel significant and is known for his dapper fashion sensibility, all starched collars and pocket squares and loafers. He regularly appears in the pages of lifestyle magazines with his boyfriend, Daniel Benedict, also a society fixture.

After Saffir’s fall premiere for the coming-of-age music drama Whiplash at Carnegie Hall, Sony Pictures Classics studio boss Tom Bernard lauded Saffir’s talents for getting a movie talked about. “Andrew runs an impeccable show,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it in an events group. He runs it like it’s at his house, and he’s a wonderful host.” The intimate event, co-hosted by Brooks Brothers (with booze by Grey Goose), lured creative types like Darren Aronofsky, Paul Haggis and Zac Posen. “He makes [a place like] the Crosby Street Hotel look like it’s a Ziegfeld event,” added Bernard, referring to the storied midtown theater that’s set the scene for many a major film premiere. 

But while Saffir exudes a calm, calculated charm, the 67-year-old Siegal, who began throwing “tastemaker” film screenings and after-parties in the late 1980s and is often considered the awards-season go-to, is a ball of nervous, spitfire energy and punchy one-liners.

Peggy Siegal with actor Ezra Miller

Peggy Siegal with actor Ezra Miller

Described by veteran entertainment reporters and industry insiders as by turns brusque, challenging to work with and old-school, Siegal, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, is seen by some as obsessed with strict hierarchy, seeing New York in black and white, divided between those who matter and those who don’t. Says one influential film reporter, “You can go to her things for years and she pretends she doesn’t know who you are. That’s part of her shtick.”

NEXT: “It’s never a monopoly, that wouldn’t be entirely fair.”

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