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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.”

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