Francis Ford Coppola must break his spendthrift habits in reviving his own studio

By Josh Wolk
Updated July 22, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Using the $80 million he won July 9 in his lawsuit against Warner Bros., Francis Ford Coppola is reviving his beleaguered studio, American Zoetrope. (Coppola was awarded the money on his claim that Warner Bros. blocked him from bringing a proposed film version of “Pinocchio” to Columbia after the Warner deal fell apart.) The revitalized Zoetrope studio will fund four to six low-budget indies a year. Coppola is currently developing films with directors Guillermo Del Toro (“Mimic”), Werner Herzog (“Aguirre: The Wrath of God”), and his daughter, Sofia. “If he has learned to avoid his past mistakes, he’s got a real shot at making this work,” says Peter Biskind, who chronicles Coppola’s volatile career in the book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” “He’s certainly got the brains and the talent to succeed — it’s a question of him reigning in his grandiose impulses.”

Coppola first founded Zoetrope in 1969 as a filmmakers’ collective, with George Lucas, John Milius, and others. At the time, he saw it as an upstart rival to the major studios. Coppola poured his own earnings from the “Godfather” films and “Apocalypse Now” into the company, but his notoriously lavish spending habits — buying theaters, helicopters, and ornate offices — depleted the cash quickly. His 1982 box office bomb, “One From the Heart,” which cost $27 million ($15 million over budget) finally bankrupted Zoetrope.

Coppola has apparently learned the merits of frugality. His recent studio pictures “The Rainmaker” and “Jack” both came in on budget. (“Apocalypse Now,” in contrast, went nearly $30 million into the red in 1978.) Coppola declared that his studio’s projects will stay small to avoid his previous expensive failures. He also announced that he will direct one film a year himself, making some wonder whether he can keep his low-budget promise. “He should use his money to make his own great movie, or to make a company like Zoetrope,” says Biskind. “But if he does both, he runs the risk of repeating the last Zoetrope disaster.” — Josh Wolk

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