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.

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.