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.

MI6 Confidential features Armstrong, Picker in new issue

David Picker

David Picker

MI Confidential is out with A NEW ISSUE that, among things, includes features on stuntman/second unit director Vic Armstrong and former United Artists executive David V. Picker.

Armstrong worked on the 007 film series in such films as You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He was interviewed for John Cork-directed documentaries about those movies, providing some behind-the-scenes perspective about how stunts were performed. From 1997-2002, Armstrong assumed the helm as stunt coordinator and second unit director for three Bond films starring Pierce Brosnan.

Picker was among the UA executives who reached a deal in 1961 with producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to get the 007 film series started. His memoirs were published last year, including A CHAPTER ON THE BOND FILM SERIES.

Also included in the issue are stories about Lana Wood and her experiences filming Diamonds Are Forever and Ian Fleming’s taste in cars.

The price for MI Confidential No. 25 is 7 British pounds, $11 or 8.50 euros. For more information about the contents or to order, CLICK HERE.

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.

David Picker discloses some 007 tidbits

David Picker

David Picker


David V. Picker, the former United Artists executive, provides some interesting behind-the-scenes 007 background in his memoir about his long film career.

Among them: Robert Shaw’s name surfaced in the earliest stages of casting Bond; Dr. No really cost $1.35 million, not the $1.1 million it had been budgeted for; and producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman started clamoring to renegotiate their deal with UA shortly after From Russia With Love was released.

That’s all part of the James Bond chapter in MUSTS, MAYBES AND NEVERS.

“Much has been written about Bond,” Picker writes. “Until now, no one has written in detail exactly what happened, how it happened and why it happened for one simple reason: they weren’t there.” The Bond series “would not have happened had it not been for this author’s belief in their potential.”

Picker, 82, was in his early 30s and head of production for UA when it negotiated a deal with Broccoli and Saltzman in 1961. He was the only one on the UA side who had read the Ian Fleming novels. The Bond chapter in the memoir expands on comments he has made in documentaries such as Inside Dr. No and Everything Or Nothing.

Picker doesn’t provide much in the way of details about Shaw, who played Red Grant in From Russia With Love, as a potential Bond. Broccoli and Saltzman were conducting the search and UA gave the producers a lot of a leeway. UA didn’t see anything in detail until Sean Connery was presented, according to Picker’s account.

The former executive has more to say about the budget. Columbia Pictures, which had released a number of Broccoli’s U.K.-produced films in the ’50s, wasn’t enthusiastic but was willing to provide a budget of $300,000 to $400,000, according to Picker. UA agreed to the $1.1 million.

Just before the start of filming on Dr. No, the final budget from Broccoli and Saltzman was for $250,000 more. “In today’s world that may not seem like a lot of money, but then it was a very big deal,” Picker writes. The author describes some subterfuge, enlisting the help of his uncle, Arnold Picker, one of the UA partners, to get the higher budget implemented.

As the series succeeded, Broccoli and Saltzman wanted their deals re-done. UA, however, wasn’t aware of Connery’s growing unhappiness until You Only Live Twice. “United Artists relied on our producers to deal with problems on their films.”

Picker describes how he took the lead at UA to get Connery back for Diamonds Are Forever, a film he credits with saving the franchise.

Picker does make one factual error in the chapter, listing Guy Hamilton as the director of From Russia With Love, instead of Terence Young. That aside, the chapter is an interesting read. The UA side of the Bond story often doesn’t get told and Picker’s viewpoint is worth checking out.

You can CLICK HERE to check out the memoir on Amazon.com

UPDATE: Non-007 reasons to read Picker’s memoir: anecdotes about how Stanley Kramer’s first cut of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was 4:01 and the director vowed not to cut one frame; the backstory behind the movies The Beatles made for UA; how UA passed on movies such as The Graduate and American Graffiti. And much, much more.

REVIEW: Everything or Nothing

Doing a documentary about the James Bond film series, on the surface, would seem to be daunting. After all, some would say, is there really anything left to be said? The answer is yes, and, for the most part, director Stevan Riley does so with his Everything Or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007. At the same time, it’s not the definitive story and there is one major, inexplicable omission.

On the plus side, and the positives are overwhelming, the 98-minute documentary, moves quickly and tells it story efficiently. It gives James Bond creator Ian Fleming and founding 007 film co-producer Harry Saltzman their full due, something that HASN’T ALWAYS HAPPENED DURING THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY YEAR of the Bond film series. The film also makes excellent use of 007 film scores, especially those composed by John Barry.

What’s more, there are glimpses of candor: one-time 007 George Lazenby talking at length how he squandered the opportunity of a lifetime; former United Artists executive David V. Picker expressing exasperation that Saltzman and partner Albert R. Broccoli re-negotiated their deal with UA multiple times while letting Sean Connery get away; current-Eon Productions co-boss Barbara Brocoli dismissing her father’s former partner, Irving Allen, as a “blowhard” without naming him; how Saltzman favored hiring Roger Moore as 007 while Broccoli initially opposed the move; and how Kevin McClory, who won the film rights to Thunderball in court, lurked as a recurring foe to Eon Productions.

The latter, though, leads up to the one omission that’s hard to explain — because had it been included would have reinforced one piece of 007 history that’s explored in detail. Much of the first half of the documentary deals with how Connery felt he had been exploited by Broccoli and Saltzman, to the point where the star refused to do anything on the set of You Only Live Twice as long as Saltzman was present.

What’s the omission? The documentary never mentions Irving Allen beyond the one Barbara Broccoli comment. Albert Broccoli was partner with Allen for years, so the breakup probably wasn’t very comfortable. But more importantly, once Allen was proven wrong in his opinion of James Bond — Allen thought the character wasn’t movie material — the producer ended up producing THE MATT HELM MOVIES RELEASED BY COLUMBIA PICTURES.

To get that series off the ground, Allen had to make Dean Martin a full partner and that, in turn, meant that Martin got paid more for The Silencers than Connery did for Thunderball. The documentary goes into great detail about Connery felt he was being exploited. The Silencers is Exhibit A and Broccoli’s former partner Allen was a major player. As the cliche goes, Irony is so ironic. That would have been a great point to make.

Also, it would have been interesting to ask the following questions: Ms. Broccoli, your father’s former partner did the Matt Helm movies where Dean Martin got paid more than Sean Connery. Could that have contributed to the way Connery felt about his Bond salary? Or: Mr. Picker, what was your reaction when you found out Dean Martin got paid more for doing Matt Helm than Sean Connery got for playing James Bond? The answers would have enlivened the documentary even more, we suspect.

Also, the documentary’s candor seems to run short concerning later movies. It talks about the 2006 Casino Royale while not discussing Quantum of Solace very much, aside from a few quick clips.

If it sounds like we’re ragging on Everything Or Nothing, we’re not. It’s very well done. It even, for a Bond fan, flirts with perfection. There are some other omissions (there’s basically no mention of the spoof 1967 Casino Royale or how American John Gavin was signed to do Diamonds Are Forever before Connery came back).

Overall, Everything Or Nothing is a great show for hard-core fan or casual 007 viewer. It just could have been even better without much more work. GRADE: A-Minus.

UPDATE: We’re watching the documentary a second time. We didn’t mention how Lazenby says Broccoli and Saltzman “sent a girl” to his room to make sure the one-time male model was heterosexual.

Diamonds Are Forever’s 40th anniversary: a star returns


Producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman and the United Artists studio wanted the seventh film in the James Bond series to emulate Goldfinger. Bring back Ken Adam to design the sets? Check. Have John Barry do the music and have a title song performed by Shirley Bassey? Check. Hire Goldfinger’s director Guy Hamilton to come back? Check.And the most expensive step, offer Sean Connery so much he couldn’t refuse to reprise the role of 007? Check.

It wasn’t that simple, of course. Making Diamonds Are Forever, which premiered 40 years ago this month, wasn’t as easy as taking the direct route from point A to point B.

Broccoli and Saltzman signed American actor John Gavin to play Bond. In their minds, Bond was bigger than any one actor. It was UA, and executive David Picker, who wanted Connery back. And since UA paid the bills, that’s what happened. The financial package included $1.25 million (huge for those days), hefty overtime pay if the movie exceeded its shooting schedule and financing for other Connery film projects.

Saltzman, again being prickly about music matters, didn’t like the title song that Barry wrote with Don Black. The volatile producer wanted to kill the song but cooler heads, particularly Broccoli’s, prevailed.

The script also wasn’t as simple as devising “another Goldfinger.” The 1956 Ian Fleming novel didn’t have a larger-than-life Goldfinger style villain. Richard Maibaum took a literal approach to the idea of “another Goldfinger” with his initial draft, making the villain Auric Goldfinger’s twin brother. Eventually, Broccoli and Saltzman wanted another writer to revamp the material. Broccoli decided the hook should be based on a dream he had of discovering that his old friend, reclusive industrialist Howard Hughes, had been replaced by someone else.

Enter American writer Tom Mankiewicz, devising a story where villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld has taken over the business empire of the Hughes-like Willard Whyte. Mankiewicz shared the screenplay credit with Maibaum in the final film.

Under Mankiewicz, the script took a lighter tone. You can CLICK HERE for a more detailed examination of Mankiewicz’s “revised first draft,” which featured an actual final confrontation between Bond and Blofeld, something that wasn’t filmed. Mankiewicz’s early drafts also had more material from Fleming’s novel that also didn’t make the final cut.

The movie isn’t ranked that highly in survey of HMSS editors, with grades ranging from a high of B to a low of D-Plus, and one of our staff saying it was the start of the “Dark Ages” of the series. Connery, though, generally gets a pass, even though he proclaimed during filming it had the best script in the Bond series up to that time.

Decades later, it’s not unheard of to hear a conversation something like this:

BOND FAN No. 1: I think Diamonds Are Forever is where it started getting goofy, don’t you agree?

BOND FAN No. 2: Yeah, but it’s got Connery!

In any case, the movie was a success financially, earning $116 million at the box office worldwide, more than either 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or 1967’s You Only Live Twice. But it fell short of Goldfinger’s almost $125 million or Thunderball’s $141.2 million.

It was also the end of an era, the last time Connery would work for Broccoli or Saltzman; when he next donned 007’s shoulder holster more than a decade later, Connery would be starring in a Bond production in competition with the Eon Production series. In any case, Diamonds did well enough to ensure that James Bond would 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.