Zollo, Burning

“We’ve reached a crisis point in the American theater and, I think, in the American cinema,” was producer Fred Zollo’s cheery keynote opening Jan. 6 at the ShowBiz Expo East trade show. The crisis: “A lack of serious plays and serious motion pictures.” This is the gospel according to one of the smartest, most active – and arguably the crankiest – producers currently working on both coasts.

As a co-producer of “Angels in America,” which lost a ton of money, Zollo said, “The bottom line is that people are simply not interested in serious theater.” And as executive producer of “Quiz Show,” he said that despite a great critical reception and the likelihood of several Oscar nominations, the movie “was on more magazine covers than screens.” Noting that Miramax’s “Pulp Fiction” falls under the Disney umbrella, as did “Quiz Show,” he wondered, “Do you think if Charles Van Doren had forcibly sodomized Herbie Stempel, the film would have gone wide the first weekend?”

Zollo said it took five years to get “Mississippi Burning” made, and the obstacles didn’t change for “Quiz Show.” But in a speech as notable for its loopy humor as for the criticisms he drove home at every opportunity – the plummeting literacy rate, the bottom-feeding mentality of studios and Broadway theater owners – Zollo also paid eloquent tribute to the late United Artists and Orion chief Arthur Krim, appending it to a passionate pitch to would-be producers: Find something you believe in and get it made.

One irony Zollo missed: In the room next door, Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld – a frequent target of the producer’s barbs – was on a panel addressing precisely the same issues, including the importance of cultural education. Almost no one showed up.

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