You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Forerunner to Dreamworks, Coppola’s risky Zoetrope Studios bucked system

Francis Ford Coppola

The graying Hollywood cognoscente was about the only group still mourning the loss of the big studio system by 1980, but that year it was 40-year-old director Francis Ford Coppola who set out to replicate it.

The method was Zoetrope Studios, an outgrowth of Coppola’s boutique operation American Zoetrope, which sprung forth in a San Francisco warehouse barely a decade before. The filmmaker’s highly ambitious new venture involved the purchase of a 10-acre lot on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Las Palmas Avenue in Hollywood. Directors, writers and cinematographers would be under one roof, and enormous sums would be invested in research and development, including a futuristic production process dubbed “electronic cinema.”

But two years and the expensive failed feature “One From the Heart” later, Zoetrope faced foreclosure.

While Zoetrope Studios was short-lived, it nevertheless is still remembered as a high-stakes gamble to work outside the system, even to take it on via new distribution techniques. And in the midst of all the bad press, court dates and threatened foreclosure sales, Coppola nevertheless presided over an eclectic mix of filmmakers such as Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Powell and Paul Schrader, whose work was expected to stand out from a rising tide of studio event pictures like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Superman.”

Zoetrope, the Hollywood studio, got its start in the wake of the success of “Apocalypse Now,” the award-winning, problem-laden production that was the basis for battles between the director and United Artists.

For $6.7 million, Coppola purchased the Hollywood General Studios, formerly the General Service Studios. The lot had a rich history, having been the site of the production of pictures such as “Hell’s Angels” and the TV show “I Love Lucy.” And Coppola was one of the few filmmakers who could take such a risk. In addition to the critical acclaim, Coppola, as a businessman, had amassed wealth with “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II,” and as the producer of “American Graffiti.”

In the press, Coppola spoke of renovating the lot — investing returns from the studio’s projects into his dream of an electronic cinema, where the production process would be streamlined, and movies would be beamed into homes via satellite. Perhaps most important of all, the studio would be freed from the authority — and the meddling — of the majors, populated by lawyers and former agents.

“The larger significance of Coppola’s purchase of Hollywood General and his attempt to create an alternative studio in the very heart of Hollywood was that it carried with it the promise of an American auteur cinema in which the director might someday control the product from development to release,” Oregon State University professor Jon Lewis writes in his 1995 book, “From Whom God Wishes to Destroy…,” a history of the Zoetrope years. “It was, though it might not have seemed so at the time, one of the boldest moves in the history of the movie business.”

The problem, as Lewis notes in his book, was that Coppola’s company emerged at a time when even the best-capitalized independents were struggling; when virtually all the major studios had been absorbed into diversified, multinational corporations, enabling them to weather the ups and downs at the box office; and when interest rates were hovering around a staggering 20%. “He could not have picked a worse time in the history of Hollywood to try to use his prestige as a motion picture director to take on the studio establishment,” Lewis writes.

Zoetrope’s first movie was “One From the Heart,” a stylish romantic comedy-fantasy about seeking love in Las Vegas. The pic starred Frederic Forrest, Teri Garr and Nastassia Kinski, but was perhaps best noted at the time for its visual look, particularly the pricey scale re-creation of Sin City on the studio’s lot.

By 1981, the studio was in the midst of money troubles, with the budget of “One From the Heart” soaring past the $20 million mark. Responding to endless questions about his studio’s financial woes, Coppola told Time magazine: “I’m always in money trouble.”

Well-chronicled in the press, “One from the Heart’s” escalating cost and production delays seemed to cast a pall over its box office prospects, as Coppola tried to line up a distributor. In a now infamous tactic, he generated loads of publicity in early 1982 by renting out Radio City Music Hall to screen the film, even though he had yet to tell Paramount, which was supposed to distribute it. The studio pulled out, and the picture eventually landed at Columbia. The movie was a box office disaster.

“I’m very proud, and I imagine that years from now, just as with my other films, people will see something in it,” he told Time after a screening of the pic. “It was an original work. It’s not a copy of anything.”

The returns of two other pictures, “Hammett,” directed by Wenders, and “The Escape Artist,” directed by Caleb Deschanel, were similarly doomed at the boxoffice, although they did earn some respectable, and even a few rave, reviews.

By 1984, after fending off foreclosure for months, Zoetrope was auctioned off, bought by Canadian investor Jack Singer, and Coppola moved his operations back to San Francisco.

While Coppola did score hits later in the 1980s with “The Outsiders” and “Peggy Sue Got Married,” for more than a decade he struggled with the losses over “One From the Heart,” filing Chapter 11 for the third time in 1992.

“This bankruptcy filing closes the book on a complicated, decade-long series of financial and legal problems stemming from ‘One From the Heart,’ ” he said that year. “It will finally let us resolve all remaining debts and obligations stemming from this film and enable me to focus my attention on current projects.”

But while Coppola’s Hollywood Zoetrope venture stands as an economic failure, it did venture into new territory. Electronic cinema, in which satellite technology is used to beam pictures into theaters and homes, is still in the R&D stage. DreamWorks envisions building a studio of the future, utilizing its own kind of streamlined production process using advanced technology.

And after years of ups and downs, Coppola’s new company, American Zoetrope, launched in 1991, has enjoyed success with “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” It also has ventured into other media, with a TV movie and miniseries deal with Robert Halmi’s RHI Entertainment. Among its projects: Showtime’s “Riot” and CBS’ miniseries “Titanic.”

“He was doing all of these things that were revolutionary,” Lewis says of Zoetrope’s studio foray into Hollywood, “he really was a visionary. The problem was the money… I look at him as a heroic figure. He rolled the dice but he did it absolutely terribly.”

More Film

  • Jodie Foster'Money Monster' photocall, Palais, 69th

    Film News Roundup: Jodie Foster to Direct, Star in Remake of Icelandic Thriller

    In today’s film news roundup, Jodie Foster is remaking Iceland’s “Woman at War,” the Art Directors Guild honors production designers Anthony Masters and Ben Carre, “47 Meters Down: Uncaged” gets cast and Melissa Takal directs “New Year New You” for Hulu. PROJECT ANNOUNCEMENT Jodie Foster will direct, co-produce and star in an English-language remake of [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal to Star in Remake of Denmark's Oscar Entry 'The Guilty' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Bold Films, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Riva Marker’s Nine Stories banner have acquired the rights to remake the Danish thriller “The Guilty,” with Gyllenhaal attached to star. The pic won the world cinema audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was also named one of the top five foreign language films of 2018 by [...]

  • Toxic Avenger

    'Toxic Avenger' Movie in the Works at Legendary

    Legendary Entertainment is developing “The Toxic Avenger” as a movie after acquiring the feature film rights. Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz of Troma Entertainment will serve as producers. Alex Garcia and Jay Ashenfelter will oversee for Legendary. Kaufman and Herz produced the original 1984 comedy, set in the fictional town of Tromaville, N.J., and centered [...]

  • Constance Wu

    'Crazy Rich Asians' Star Constance Wu in Negotiations for Romantic Comedy

    “Crazy Rich Asians” star Constance Wu is in talks to join Sony’s Screen Gems’ untitled romantic comedy, with Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman producing. “GLOW” actress Kimmy Gatewood is making her feature directorial debut on the project. She will be directing from a Savion Einstein script about a woman who becomes pregnant with two babies [...]

  • Maggie Gyllenhaal AoA

    Maggie Gyllenhaal on Why a Woman Director Doesn't Automatically Make a Story More Feminine

    Having a female director doesn’t automatically make a story more feminine, says “The Kindergarten Teacher” star Maggie Gyllenhaal, but when it comes to her film with director Sara Colangelo, she says the female narrative is fully encapsulated. “Just because something is written or directed by a woman doesn’t necessarily make it a feminine articulation,” she says [...]

  • Kevin Hart Hurricane Harvey

    Academy Looks Warily at Oscar Host Options as Board Meeting Looms

    Kevin Hart’s abrupt departure as Oscars host has left the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences scrambling to find someone to take the gig. As of now, the situation remains fluid as the group’s leadership explores options, including going host-less, individuals familiar with the situation told Variety. The Academy was blindsided by Hart’s announced departure Thursday [...]

  • Regina King Maggie Gyllenhaal

    Maggie Gyllenhaal, Regina King on Intimacy Experts: 'I Could Have Used the Help When I Was Younger'

    Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sex-trade industry series “The Deuce” features one job that’s unlike any other in television: an intimacy expert. During her Variety Actors on Actors interview with Regina King, “The Kindergarten Teacher” actress explained how the strange role is actually important in helping young actresses stand up for themselves, especially when it comes to sex scenes on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content