The Directors Company that gave free reign to Friedkin, Coppola and Bogdanovich

Francis Ford Coppola
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The story of when Paramount let Friedkin, Bogdanovich and Coppola make whatever they wanted – and why it was short-lived…

In the summer of 1972, Charles Bluhdorn of Paramount Pictures approached three filmmakers with a unique proposition. His studio would bankroll any project the directors wanted to make, with full creative control, to the tune of $3 million per picture. He would not interfere; there would be no studio notes, and no test screenings. Yet just a year after ‘The Directors Company’ was founded, it was dead in the water. How could such a golden opportunity have come to naught– and can its failure tell us something about the state of Hollywood today?

Bluhdorn’s gambit was typical for the maverick businessman, who had worked his way up from owning an auto parts dealership in Michigan to become one of the richest men on the planet. Paramount was just one of the many holdings of his Gulf and Western conglomerate, yet he held a special passion for films. This personal interest is what moved him to approach Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, and Peter Bogdanovich – three trailblazing directors he felt a certain kinship with.

Part of a radical new wave, this trio of directors proved that films made for lower budgets, utilising inventive new techniques (many cribbed from the French nouvelle vague; try putting it through Google Translate!), could be not only artistic and critically acclaimed, but also commercial successes. Friedkin recalls Bluhdorn washing his expensive shoes with equally pricey cologne at their first meeting; presumably lighting a Cuban cigar with a hundred dollar bill was too on-the-nose.

“Art doesn’t mean sh**. This business is about money!” Bluhdorn explained as he squelched about his swanky hotel suite. “Who gives a damn about a picture that doesn’t make money?” Indeed, the group were on a hot streak financially as much as artistically. Friedkin had scored a box-office smash and five Oscars for gritty crime drama The French Connection. Bogdanovich broke through with The Last Picture Show, another low-budget feature that was a critical and commercial success, with similar awards attention.

The Last Picture Show

His follow-up, screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? was the third highest grossing film of 1971. That year, Coppola’s The Godfather was released, making between $246m and $287m for Paramount. All three were well acquainted before being gathered before Bluhdorn. Friedkin especially admired Coppola’s “chutzpah to get a major studio to let him direct personal film[s].”

They came together to celebrate their respective Oscar wins, driving the blue stretch limo Bluhdorn had gifted to Coppola for the success of The Godfather down Hollywood Boulevard. They stuck their heads out the sunroof to yell and wave their awards in the air, to the bemusement of pedestrians. In light of these triumphs, the venture seemed a sure bet. A deal was soon hammered out; the team would have no offices or staff, so no overheads – and Paramount’s seed money of $31 million would go straight into production. Each director would get a 10% share of the others’ box office and generous stock options – with the intention that, once the Company proved a winner, they would take it public and get filthy rich.

The Directors Company was formally launched in September of 1972. That was despite the fact that Bludhorn hadn’t mentioned anything to Paramount studio president Frank Yablans until the ink was dry. At a press conference announcing the formation of the Company, Yablans declared it would produce a minimum of twelve films over the coming years, and that they would be commercial pictures.

While positive in public, behind closed doors Yablans was livid. He characterised the endeavour as an ego trip, and pointed out that Paramount didn’t have an exclusivity deal with the Company – there was nothing to stop the directors jumping ship to work with another studio, despite the money his had invested. So what sounded like a utopia was, in fact, a rather fractious endeavour from the off. Their studio president was immediately against it, and the directors weren’t necessarily given freedom. A board consisting of three Paramount officials and the three filmmakers would have its say, although none could veto a project if someone was committed (or stubborn) enough.

Creatively, though, things were off to a great start. Coppola hosted extravagant dinners at his San Francisco home – where, improbably, George Lucas helped plate up – to discuss their plans. Friedkin was already prepping The Exorcist for Warner Bros, but promised to make his next picture for the Company. Coppola was similarly committed to a Godfather sequel for Paramount, but planned to make a smaller, low-budget feature before that. Bogdanovich had begun work on his next feature, Paper Moon, and it was decided that would be The Directors Company’s debut film.

Starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neal as father-and-daughter con artists, it made $13 million upon release and continued the director’s run of good reviews. It was a perfect calling card, a throwback to early film that was both a crowd-pleaser and taken seriously by the critical establishment. Bogdanovich apparently used to carry positive newspaper reviews in his wallet.

That they were also off to the races financially, adhering to the agreement that they make films that had commercial as well as creative legitimacy, ended up being a sticking point when Coppola pitched his first feature for the Company. He dusted off an old screenplay which had already been rejected by all the major studios he’d pitched it to.

The Conversation was a paranoid thriller suffused with the political tensions of the Watergate era, a small picture that cost only $1.3 million. The low budget ultimately saved the project – because both Friedkin and Bogdanovich hated it. Friedkin called the script a rip-off of Antonioni’s Blow-Up, while Bogdanovich claims it was pitched as a Hitchcock riff, and was disappointed to find out that wasn’t the case.

Friedkin also baulked at the fact that it had been rejected elsewhere, suggesting box office poison. Despite their cynicism, they had no power to stop Coppola barrelling forward. Around this time, Paramount’s vice president of production Peter Bart was drafted in as an ersatz manager. “The chief problem with The Directors Company… was that it was never really a company,” he would say, looking back. “The three filmmakers involved in its founding relished the basic precepts of the enterprise, but, as true ’70s mavericks, resisted serious involvement in its operation.”

It was Bart that ensured Paper Moon and The Conversation were greenlit, confident that each was both innovative and inexpensive. While he was right about the former, the latter was up for debate. Friedkin was the sole dissenting voice at a rough cut screening of Coppola’s film. He thought the film “unintelligible and ridiculous” and predicted “we’ll be lucky to gross $500,000.” This first hint of tension between the directors was the break Frank Yablans was looking for.

He was also down on The Conversation and, aware that Friedkin was increasingly positioning himself as a money man, went on the offensive. As far as he was concerned, the sooner he could take down this experiment, the better – a matter of personal pride as much as business. He reminded Bogdanovich that his collaborators would each receive $300,000 out of Paper Moon’s not-inconsiderable profits, despite the fact Friedkin had yet to make a picture for the Company, and Coppola’s looked like a bust.

The former was, in fact, now in the midst of making The Exorcist, which would eventually make Warner Bros $441.3 million from its $12 million budget – money Bogdanovich wouldn’t see a penny of. He encouraged Bogdanovich’s next film for The Directors Company, an adaptation of Henry James’s 1879 novella Daisy Miller, knowing it would provoke further discord. He was right. Friedkin doubled down on his nay-saying. He labelled Daisy Miller another vanity project – not least because Bogdanovich wanted to put his new girlfriend, Cybill Shepherd – in the title role. Yablans, for his part, bankrolled an insipid album of Cole Porter standards, sung by Shepherd and “produced” by Bogdanovich, and paid for a huge billboard advertising it on the Sunset Strip.

While the studio head’s shenanigans certainly helped drive a wedge between the group, he shouldn’t get all the credit. Daisy Miller turned out to be a complete flop, as predicted, receiving the first roundly negative notices of Bogdanovich’s career. His wallet would remain empty on both counts. The Conversation, which came out the month prior, made just $4 million domestically; more than its budget, but not including the costs of promotion.

Gene Hackman and Francis Ford Coppola on the set of The Conversation.

Gene Hackman and Francis Ford Coppola on the set of The Conversation.

The writing was on the wall. Bluhdorn was replaced by Barry Diller as president of Paramount, meaning there was nobody left to assuage the other execs, nervous about the level of autonomy being given to the Company. Yablans, his mission complete, tendered his resignation from the studio. Friedkin would soon follow. Frustrated at his collaborators’ choice of low-earning projects, he bailed from The Directors Company without ever having made one himself. “He wanted to make more money,” Bogdanovich later said. “The money we could make was limited to a certain amount, which I thought was perfectly good, but Friedkin felt he wanted more money.”

Bob Rafelson was more forthright in his characterisation. Having set out to do something like BBS – a company that funnelled its profits into independent filmmaking – he claimed they failed because “this wasn’t young guys fighting to make a statement. These guys were trying to fight for 10% of the gross from first dollar, and were pi**ed off that the other guy didn’t make a hit film.” Ironically, Friedkin banked the goodwill earned from The Exorcist on Sorcerer, his metaphysical remake of French thriller The Wages Of Fear.

What was conceived as a “little $2.5 million in-between movie” ballooned to a $22 million behemoth, much of which ended up being ponied up by Paramount. It made just $5.9 million domestically, and whilst he has since made many fine films, he struggled to regain the foothold he had within the studio system.

Both Coppola and Bogdanovich also moved on quickly, setting up projects outside of the Company. The Godfather Part II came out the same year, beating The Conversation to a Best Picture Oscar. The director would continue to try and keep the dream of independence within the studio system alive, first with the Coppola Company and then American Zoetrope, both of which would turn out to be colossal financial failures. Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love stalled at Fox, and he didn’t make another feature for three years. Nothing else he produced for the rest of his career would have the same success as his early films.

The collapse of The Directors Company became a dress rehearsal for a coming sea of change in Hollywood. High-profile failures such as Elaine May’s Ishtar and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate saw a significant shift away from big-budget, creatively driven projects, ushering in an Eighties dominated by ‘high concept’ blockbusters led instead by superstar producers like Bruckenheimer and Simpson.

Out with The Conversation, in with Top Gun. Things haven’t much changed in mainstream American films today, although now it’s intellectual properties that guide what gets made: the cinematic universes of Marvel, DC, and Star Wars dominate multiplexes, and the sort of artistic possibilities offered to up-and-coming filmmakers are severely limited. There has neverbeen another arrangement like The Directors Company, because the industry has never been the same. They may not have liked it, but Friedkin and Bluhdorn were right. The movie business is, at its core, a business. Looking back, Bogdanovich rued the loss of The Directors Company, saying, “That kind of freedom is worth [its weight in] gold.”

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