Back in the 1980s, before I became a Variety “mugg” (as journalists were once known in our parlance here), I was an ink-stained wretch, aka an indie screenwriter with a pirate picture getting peddled to the buyers in the Cannes market. And before he became an Oscar best picture-winning producer (for Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” in 1987), Arnold Kopelson, who died Oct. 8 at his home in Beverly Hills at age 83, was already a Cannes market big shot, running his fast-growing international shingle Inter-Ocean Film Sales.
Established in the early ’70s, Kopelson’s firm was a two-person outfit perhaps better known as “Arnold and Anne,” as Kopelson and wife-to-be Anne Feinberg were, along with Dino De Laurentiis and the Salkinds (Ilya and father Alexander), pioneers of presales of North American films to independent distributors all over the world. One early success that helped catapult Inter-Ocean to the top ranks of sellers was the critically acclaimed 1974 Canadian film “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” starring about-to-be-superstar Richard Dreyfuss. Kopelson also hit gold in 1981 as executive producer on the raunchy teen laugher “Porky’s,” which was, at the time of its release, one of the biggest comedies in film history.
So when I was beckoned to the Hotel du Cap in the early ’90s to interview Kopelson on behalf of my new employer, Variety, it was very much as a Cannes market newbie meeting an international film biz titan. As I stepped out onto the du Cap terrace, where he was holding court on that sunny May afternoon, I got my first Kopelson lesson in his greeting to me: “This is Cannes, kid. Lose the tie.” So I ripped off the cravat (I never really have learned to put it back on) and sat down for a memorable lunch and crash course in Film Sales 101.
Once it was established that I’d been in the sales fray myself a few years earlier, Kopelson enthusiastically told me about the “old market days” when he and Anne were a dealmaking army. “We would hit the Majestic Hotel with our sales flyers, and floor by floor, room by room, we slid them under every door in the hotel. And then we hit the Carlton and did the same thing there.”
Decades before cell phones made communication instantaneous, Kopelson recalled: “We brought walkie-talkies to Cannes, and soon everyone on the Croisette wanted their own pair. We were like a military operation, and nobody could match us.”
That sense of enterprise, enthusiasm and zeal for working and succeeding led to another Oscar best picture nomination, for the 1993 blockbuster “The Fugitive,” and also begot the groundbreaking David Fincher crime classic “Seven,” among Kopelson’s many notable film hits.
“We brought walkie-talkies to Cannes. Soon everyone on the Croisette wanted their own. We were like a military operation; nobody could match us.”
Perhaps it’s the wide, wild range of entries on his résumé that has stuck with me.
Like the famously fractious Cannes market itself, Kopelson’s filmography has no limits, and in it you’ll find a corrosive, classy social satire like “Falling Down” (1993), starring Michael Douglas, nestled nicely alongside the cheerfully déclassé cheerleader comedy “Gimme an ‘F’” (1984). It’s a career packed with big-budget actioners starring names like Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Travolta, Charlize Theron, Dustin Hoffman and Harrison Ford as well as a nice chunk of midrange melodramas and a smattering of low-budget thrillers.
Looking back on the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted and the thousands of showbiz industry players who have passed through the pages of Variety since that day at the du Cap, Kopelson’s ebullience, intelligence and diligence have maintained a special place in my memories. And I’m sure mine is not a minority view among the former and present film-flogging set.
For everyone who’s ever toiled in the grimy yet overpriced trenches of international film markets, Arnold Kopelson is that shining example of success, that one-in-a-million showbiz story that shouts, “I may be schlepping cheerleader comedies today, but tomorrow I will be onstage lifting a best picture Oscar over my head!”