Michael Cimino and the art vs. commerce conflict

Heaven's Gate poster

Heaven’s Gate poster

Director Michael Cimino died over the weekend at the age of 77, as noted in obituaries by various outlets, including the Los Angeles Times. In death, as in life, Cimino was a reminder of the age old movie conflict of art vs. commerce.

Cimino’s third movie, 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, lost a lot of money for United Artists. The director, coming off an Oscar for The Deer Hunter, had a lot of clout. He used it, with Heaven’s Gate running over budget and over schedule as the perfectionist director pursued his vision of a Western that addressed broader social issues.

The project lost so much that UA’s parent firm, Transamerica Corp., threw in the towel and sold off the studio. The buyer was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, itself a financially struggling entity. That had a big impact on the James Bond franchise, beginning an era of tension between MGM and Eon Productions.

With Cimino’s passing, memories broke into two camps.

The first was that of unjustly punished artist, whose career never recovered. (This article in The Guardian is an example.)

Second, that an of an out-of-control director who helped wreck a studio, a view popularized by Final Cut, the 1985 book by the late Steven Bach, one of the UA executives unable to bring Cimino’s spending under control.

What this debate overlooks is Cimino and Heaven’s Gate were just one of a long line of directors whose projects got caught up in art vs. commerce. It wasn’t even the first time for United Artists.

In 1965, UA, then headed by Arthur Krim and his lieutenants (the same bunch smart enough to do a deal to get 007 films made), were in the same boat as their eventual successors at UA were with Cimino.

In ’65, UA was backing another perfectionist director, George Stevens. The main difference between Stevens and Cimino is that the former had a long track record, including such films as Gunga Din, Giant and The Diary of Anne Frank.

No matter. Stevens was far over budget and over schedule on The Greatest Story Ever Told, the director’s film about Jesus Christ. Ex-UA executive David Picker goes into detail in his 2013 memoir Musts, Maybe and Nevers how studio management couldn’t bring Stevens under control.

Greatest Story bombed big time for UA, coming out as audience interest in Biblical movies faded. The Krim management group, however had a life line: Thunderball (released at the peak of 1960s Bondmania) and movies featuring The Beatles (which had low budgets and high profits).

While UA made it through the crisis, the same couldn’t be said of Stevens. He’d only make one more film, 1970’s The Only Game in Town.

20th Century Fox faced a similar crisis a couple of years earlier with Cleopatra. It actually was popular at the box office, but its mammoth budget meant a lot of red ink.

Fox leaned on its television division, headed by William Self, to recover from the financial crisis. The TV unit was able to sell small-screen versions of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, 12 O’Clock High and Peyton Place in time for the 1964-65 season.

Meanwhile, like Stevens, Cleopatra director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s career also suffered after his big flop. Going further back, the likes of D.W. Griffith and Erich Von Stroheim, among others, ran into the art vs. commerce buzzsaw.

In short, Cimino wasn’t unique. He was, however, a colorful example of a conflict that continues to shape the film industry.

Wilson & Broccoli, an appreciation

Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, the co-bosses of Eon Productions, are scheduled to get an award from the Producers Guild on Jan. 19. The half-siblings this week were featured in a write-up on Variety.com previewing the event.

Evaluations of second-generation business leaders (and running the Bond franchise qualifies as a business) can vary. Occasionally, the second-generation outshines the first (think Thomas Watson Jr. of IBM). Sometimes, the second generation’s ambitions are frustrated by the first (think Edsel Ford). Sometimes, the second generation can make its own mark that’s simply different than the first (think Richard D. Zanuck).

In any case, it can be a balancing act. In the case of the 007 franchise, Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli was a co-founder and a showman. His stepson and daughter succeeded him in the 1990s but had entirely different styles.

Wilson and Broccoli’s main accomplishment may have been to deal with changing executive regimes at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman initially had the support of a firmly entrenched group of executives at United Artists, including Arthur Krim, Robert Benjamin and David Picker. That began to change in the 1970s (and after Saltzman departed the series). MGM acquired UA in the early ’80s and changes in the executive suite accelerated.

Also, Wilson and Broccoli were handed the reins in the midst of a six-year hiatus that might have killed the series. In the 21st century, MGM went through bankruptcy, another time of uncertainty.

Wilson and Broccoli may not have the publicity flair that Albert R. Broccoli had. Wilson has his P.T. Barnum moments, where his statements don’t always square with each other. Barbara Broccoli can rely on a few catch phrases such as “the money’s on the screen.”

Still, the pair remain in charge of the Bond franchise, which will result in the start of production of Bond 24 later this year.

Dr. No’s 50th anniversary conclusion: legacy


In evaluating the legacy of Dr. No as it approaches its 50th anniversary, start with the obvious: There’s still a 007 film series to talk about.

James Bond isn’t the biggest entertainment property in the world the way it was in 1965. But its longevity is unique. The five decades that have passed include more than a decade of enforced hiatus (a troublesome 1975 financial split between Eon co-founders Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman; a legal fight in the early 1990s between Broccoli and MGM; and MGM’s 2010 bankruptcy) disrupting production of the Bond movies. But the Bond films soldier on, with the 23rd entry in the Eon Productions’ series, Skyfall, coming out soon.

The series turned actor Sean Connery into a major star. It made Roger Moore, known mostly as a television star, into a movie star. The same applies to Pierce Brosnan. It made Daniel Craig a star. Even George Lazenby (one movie) and Timothy Dalton (two) who had limited runs as 007 are identified with the series.

The films generated new fans of Ian Fleming’s hero to the point that the movie 007 long ago outsized the influence of his literary counterpart. Finally, the film 007 helped form an untold number of friendships among Bond fans who would have never met otherwise.

All of that began with a modestly budgeted film, without a big-name star, led by a director for hire, Terence Young, who’d be instrumental in developing the cinema version of Agent 007. Dr. No, filmed in Jamaica and at Pinewood Studios, made all that followed possible.

Fans may fuss and feud about which Bond they like best. This 007 film or that may be disparaged by some fans, praised by others. The series may get rebooted. Bond may get recast. The tone of the entries may vary greatly.

In the end, Bond continues. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. can’t say that; The Avengers, the John Steed variety which debuted the year before Dr. No, can’t say that; Matt Helm can’t say that. In time, we suspect, Jason Bourne, which influenced recent 007 movies, won’t either.

Many of those responsible for Dr. No aren’t around to take the bows. They include producers Broccoli and Saltzman; director Young; screenwriter Richard Maibaum; editor Peter Hunt; United Artists studio executive Arthur Krim who greenlighted the project; Joseph Wiseman, who played the title charater, the first film Bond villain; Jack Lord, the first, and some fans say still the best, screen Felix Leiter, who’d become a major television star on Hawaii Five-O; art director Syd Cain, the main lieutenant for production designer Ken Adam; and composer John Barry who orchestrated Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme and who would later define 007 film music.

That’s too bad but that’s what happens with the passage of time. The final product, though remains. It’s all summed up with these words:

James Bond will return.

The 50th anniversary of United Artists making a bet on 007

This past week was the 50th anniversary of the United Artists studio cutting a deal with two middle aged movie producers, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. The result of the 1961 agreement would be the James Bond film series, which would make its debut before audiences the following year with Dr. No.

United Artists today is an occasionally used brand controlled by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. A half century ago, it was a functioning studio, albeit one that functioned differently than other studios. It didn’t have its own backlot, a la an MGM or Paramount. In fact, at that time even two companies primarily engaged in television production (Desilu and Revue) had their own backlots while UA didn’t.

What UA did have were executives including Benjamin Krim, Robert Benjamin and David Picker. Krim and Benjamin acquired UA from founders Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford in the 1950s. Under the Krim-Benjamin regime, UA would cut deals people such as producer Walter Mirisch, producer-director Billy Wilder and actor-producer Burt Lancaster.

You might not get the same money at UA as you might get at other studios. But UA was also known to grant more creative leeway. Today, UA’s selection of films are part of MGM’s film library; the MGM lion logo is shown at the start of the UA films when they’re shown on television.

Anyway, UA was where Saltzman (who had a six-month option on the bulk of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels) and Broccoli ended up going. The John Cork-directed documentary Inside Dr. No described UA and its interest in Bond. Here’s the start of that documentary. At the 5:13 mark, you can see a copy of the June 29, 1961, press release UA issued about its agreement with Broccoli and Saltzman.

We’ll give a shoutout to the MI6 James Bond fan Web site, which reminded us of the UA/Broccoli-Saltzman anniversary. You can read its post about the subject BY CLICKING HERE.

For more about United Artists — whose non-Bond projects included The Heat of The Night, The Fugitive, The African Queen and many others — you can view Wikipedia’s recap of UA history BY CLICKING HERE. And, if you can track down a copy, we’d also recommend the excellent 1985 book Final Cut by the late Steven Bach, a one-time UA executive who writes about how the movie Heaven’s Gate wrecked the studio.

Cubby Broccoli’s relationship with United Artists

Steven Bach, a former United Artists executive, died March 25. He wrote a great book, Final Cut, about the making of Heaven’s Gate, the movie that doomed UA as a studio.

As it turns out, Bach’s 1985 book has a recurring, cameo chracter: Albert R. Broccoli, the James Bond producer. The book gives an insight (albeit in small doses) of the Eon bossman’s relationship with the studio that released the 007 films.

First, some background. In 1951, Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin took over and revived UA. It was the Krim-Benjamin regime that first made the deal with Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to start the 007 series. Transamerica, an insurance concern, bought UA in 1967, while keeping on Krim and Benjamin. By 1978, Krim and his people bolted to start Orion. That led to the promotion of executives, including Bach, into key decision making roles.

In his book, Bach describes another UA exec, Danton Rissner and Andy Albeck, the new president of UA:

Rissner’s number two production job in the company had involved some important responsibilities, inclduing supervision of the James Bond pictures produced by Albert (“Cubby”) Broccoli and Blake Edwards’s successful Pink Panther series starring Peter Sellers, both of which were major sources of UA pride and income and which Albeck hoped to perpetuate. (Final Cut, page 68)

Later in the year, things weren’t going so well.

True, there were some bright spots. Moonraker was starting production in July (though there was still no formal budget when Albeck and I met with Cubby Broccoli and his staff at Studios Boulognes in June). (Final Cut, page 90).

UA hoped to control the Moonraker budget. It wasn’t going so well but UA wasn’t that concerned:

I filled the others in on my day at Studios Boulognes, where Moonraker was finally finishing months of production. We had hoped in June to contain the picture’s cost at $20 million, but it had gone beyond $30 million, a figure I was not about to raise here and now, and there was still unpredictable and costly special-effects work remaining at Pinewood…Whatever urgency I tried to convey about budget concerns was muted by assumptions everyone, including UA, made regarding Moonraker: James Bond couldn’t miss*

*He didn’t. Moonraker went on to become the biggest box-office success in the history of that remarkable series. Until the next one. (Final Cut, page 193)

Broccoli next comes up a couple of years later as the UA executive team is getting the ax following Heaven’s Gate and its heavy financial losses. Broccoli seems to act oddly when encountering UA exec Hy Smith in New York

Cubby seemed strangely, atypically nervous to Smith and left the restaurant quickly…

When Smith returns from lunch

Smith realized why Cubby Broccoli had beaten so hasty a retreat from Vesuvio’s…Broccoli confirmed that he had known Hy was fired and was shocked to realize…that everyone “on the street” but Hy knew that Hy was out of a job. Broccoli asked Hy to stay on with him as special marketing consultant on For Your Eyes Only. (Final Cut, pages 386-387)

If you can find it, Final Cut is a great read. And if you’d like to see Steven Bach’s obituary in The New York Times, you can just CLICK RIGHT HERE.