This summer, while the world speculated in vain over rumors of a new Godfather flick starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Francis Ford Coppola was dreaming about another kind of Corleone hit.
The bearded, barrel-chested warrior of ’70s new-wave cinema invited a few filmmakers to his 1,654-acre Niebaum-Coppola Estate in the lush hills of California’s Napa Valley to sip his winery’s $80-per-bottle Rubicon wine, slurp spaghetti arrabbiata, and strategize. The dinnertime banter? How could filmdom’s top don buy out control of United Artists from its majority shareholder, the mercurial corporate raider Kirk Kerkorian, and recast the moribund studio— founded by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford— as an artistic haven for filmmakers young and old?
This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to discuss a film-biz coup with one of its most eccentric, enigmatic visionaries was, well, not an offer many refused. Among the dozen indie luminaries courted from coast to coast were former October Films partners Bingham Ray and John Schmidt (responsible for The Apostle); producers Donna Gigliotti (Shakespeare in Love) and Cathleen Summers (Stakeout); former Fine Line president Ira Deutchman (who produced the quirky Kiss Me, Guido); and young filmmakers like Election director Alexander Payne, who traveled to Napa last August for an afternoon meeting and wound up staying for dinner, talking film with Francis late into the night. ”He’s a nice guy and he makes great movies,” says Payne, who now refers to Coppola as Il Maestro.
Ever the maestro, Coppola’s been quietly orchestrating this plan for about a year. His connection to UA began in 1998 when he joined the MGM/UA Board of Directors. Since then, he’s functioned as a utility infielder for the struggling studio, reportedly recutting Walter Hill’s sci-fi film Supernova (due Jan. 14) after Hill left the picture. And while consulting with the MGM/UA brass on how to spin off United Artists from MGM and turn it into a boutique studio (a la Fox Searchlight), the director hit upon this idea: The best way to save UA, he figured, would be for Francis Ford Coppola to take charge.
His free-wheeling business proposal called for him to become the chairman of UA and greenlight films in the $7-12 million range by director pals like Martin Scorsese, newcomers such as Wes Anderson, and, presumably, his extended family, which ranges from daughter Sofia’s husband, Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, to nephew Nicolas Cage’s Arquette family connections. For doing this favor (and it would be a favor—UA has been bled virtually dry since Kerkorian joined in a $1.3 billion deal for MGM/UA in 1996), Coppola would have been given the right to buy the studio over a three-to-five-year period and take it private. (Kerkorian was unavailable for comment.) According to sources, Coppola’s attorney, Barry Hirsch, and MGM/UA vice chairman and COO Chris McGurk, were unable to iron out the financial details. (One former MGM/UA exec says the discussions were moot since the 82-year-old Kerkorian would never go for a deal that didn’t include all the money up front.) Coppola declined a request to be interviewed. All his publicist would say is, ”Right now, it’s off the burner.”