Between his stint as production president at Fox and chairman of MGM, Alan Ladd Jr. ran a rather singular production company — the Ladd Co. — at Warner Bros.
Forged in 1979 with Warner’s then-chieftains Steve Ross and Frank Wells, the Ladd Co.’s deal was crafted according to the United Artists philosophy, in which a studio’s purpose is to distribute films and the filmmakers’ is to make them.
As such, Laddie was given unprecedented autonomy to greenlight films (up to a certain budget) and even have a final say in marketing and distribution. (When Warner questioned the decision to open “Police Academy” abroad, seeing as it had already made back its money — and then some — domestically, Ladd insisted. The film held the record for foreign grosses until “Ghostbusters” came along.)
The films Ladd produced at Warner with his partners Jay Kanter and Gareth Wigan until the production deal ended in 1985, reflected the brash, derring-do of filmmakers unfettered by studio interference. They also bridged the gap between the auteur-driven films of the 1970s and the more commercial-oriented blockbusters of the 1980s.
There was “Body Heat” and “The Night Shift” and “Chariots of Fire,” which the Ladd Co. picked up after Fox put it into turnaround, and which took home 1981’s best picture Oscar. (Ladd had developed the film at Fox.)
Ladd, Kanter and Wigan had all worked together at Fox, overseeing a golden era that produced films such as “Star Wars,” “Breaking Away,” “Julia” and “All That Jazz,” and they brought with them to the Ladd Co. an insistence on quality.
“The measure of freedom we were given at the Ladd company was a direct result of the success of Laddie during the previous five years at Fox,” Wigan says.
“If we reacted favorably to a subject that we all liked, we’d make it,” adds Kanter.
The Ladd Co.’s films were also, in retrospect, ahead of their time. Bob Fosse’s “Star 80” still echoes in showbiz self-portraits. And though “Blade Runner” wasn’t a huge box office grosser (in part because it went up against a little film called “E.T.”), Ridley Scott’s visionary noir went on to revolutionize the genre and win an avid cult following. (His director’s “final” cut is being released in theaters in October.)
The film was also one of the first to be marketed according to the “Star Wars” model, now standard in the industry, targeting specific audiences — such as sci-fi, fantasy geeks — from early on.
Jeff Walker, a genre marketing specialist who worked on “Blade Runner,” says that a full year before the film’s release, marketing teams traveled around the country to sci-fi conventions where they presented slide shows, behind-the-scenes featurettes, storyboard and costume displays from the film, as well as talks with the filmmakers and Philip K. Dick.
“The Right Stuff” was another critical and awards darling that somehow missed the mark when it was first released. And though it’s not well known, “Twice Upon a Time” was technically the first feature release from Pixar, then owned by George Lucas, who executive produced the film. (Had “Twice” performed better at the B.O., Lucas might have thought better of selling the animation studio to Steve Jobs a few years later for $10 million.)
And then there was “Police Academy,” a film that Ladd and Co. considered a “cute domestic comedy,” per Kanter. Though Ladd openly admits the surprise hit is no “Chariots of Fire,” he adds that it “paid the rent so we could afford to do other things — highbrow movies, basically.”