Frank Yablans’ Rough-and-Tumble Style Was Old Hollywood

Frank Yablans
Twentieth Century Fox/Photofest

Frank Yablans’ death last week served as a vivid reminder of the dramatic transformation in both the style and background of Hollywood’s power players.

Yablans, who at various times was CEO of both Paramount and MGM, was a rough-hewn, seat-of-the-pants operator who disdained the conventions of corporate management, distrusted MBAs and was excited by high-risk innovation.

He loved winning, but also understood that losing was part of the game, and was willing to pay the price. The movie business was his life adventure.

Yablans, who died at age 79 on Nov. 27, knew he was totally out of synch with the sophisticated corporate players who run today’s sprawling entertainment multinationals. The problem with those managers, he felt, was that they won’t take the risks and don’t share the excitement.

To a large degree, Yablans who grew up in Brooklyn and whose father drove a taxi, was a throwback to the tough, European-born characters who started Hollywood. He instinctively replicated their rough tactics and also their occasionally flagrant dishonesty — traits that twice cost him his jobs.

Irrespective of all that, Yablans made some important contributions to the companies he ran, and also to the careers of some of the industry’s important filmmakers.

In the interest of full disclosure, I worked for Yablans twice — once at Paramount, once at MGM; I quit once and was fired once. I loved working for him, had lofty titles and handsome offices, and amicably remained in touch with him through his final years.

Yablans was at his best when a strong movie ignited his imagination. When Paramount, under Robert Evans, produced “Love Story” and “The Godfather,” he broke convention by opening them both wide across the country, mobilizing extravagant ad campaigns and demanding big advances, which both excited and exasperated exhibitors. By contrast, when he didn’t “get” a film, as with “Harold and Maude” and “Downhill Racer,” the films would simply get tossed into the marketplace without a campaign or strategy.

Carried away by his own success, Yablans tended to blab incoherently to the press, bragging that he was responsible for creative input and editing changes (neither of which was true) and even boasting that his charisma would carry him to the U.S. presidency.

During his MGM days (1983-1985), his freewheeling tactics failed to produce a strategy for the studio. Owner Kirk Kerkorian became suspicious of his distribution pickup deals, which contained sometimes substantial personal “bonuses” for Yablans, as was the case with a film called “Oxford Blues,” which enriched Yablans but not the studio.

As a manager, Yablans didn’t foster long-term planning, and ignored important trends, such as the expansion of the overseas market. Impulsive and hot-tempered, he refused to call (or even attend) meetings to review the success or failure of films; every decision was of the moment.

In his later years, he did some writing and ran a company that distributed faith-based films. He lived quietly with a girlfriend in a condo in Playa del Rey, and did not mingle in studio circles. The business, he freely admitted, had moved past him. Studios could not be run dynamically by corporate MBAs who worried mainly about quarterly profits, he told me.

He had a point.

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  1. TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    Tough Euro emigres who pioneered Hollywood paint a stark contrast to this era of soft man boys who keep filling lead roles in every new picture as if serious blockbuster casting were a thing of the past. Who would Yablans, writer/producer of films like North Dallas 40, cast as the lead in Unbroken, an otherwise epic Xmas movie ruined by a generic cast? Only old school old souls know…or care. RIP

  2. EK says:

    Manic as he was, the studio business could use his like again. Today’s buttoned-up, risk averse, fear-driven environment at most places has all but destroyed creativity at that level. Frank was a rough-hewn guy but he also had taste, witness his lovely villa in Tuscany. Still have a Lalique statuette of a bull he gave me for Paramount’s marketing of “North Dallas 40” (Bulls was the name of the protagonist football team in the film).

  3. Kevin says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece on one of the greats from a bygone era. RIP Frank …

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