Superstar George C. Scott is making the rounds personally peddling, his new film to theater owners. Director Francis Ford Coppola, the biggest moneymaking filmmaker of all time with "The Godfather," plans to distribute and exhibit films through a company he controls himself. The independent producers of the hugely successful "Billy Jack" will launch a sequel with a direct appeal to the public via $2 million worth of TV advertising. Meanwhile, the major Hollywood studios, whose distribution and sales techniques have hardly changed in 50 years, are not only adopting the mavericks' methods but launching some new ones of their own. It could add up to a revolution in the way Hollywood gets its pictures to the public.
Filmmakers have always griped about the way studios treat their films. They aren't promoted properly. If they don't do well first in New York, they're allowed to die in the boondocks. Blockbuster movies, including turkeys like "The Great Gatsby," eat up the studio's advertising budget, so little money is left for promising smaller films made without stars. Distributors can't collect from exhibitors. Exhibitors complain they don't get enough "good" films to turn a profit. The list of complaints is endless.
Until recently the gripes were just that. Nobody in Hollywood succeeded in seriously challenging "the system" until Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor, the husband‑wife team who are the stars and producers of "Billy Jack," sued Warner Brothers over the way the studio was handling their film. In settling the suit early last year, the studio agreed to some unorthodox marketing techniques. With Warners footing the bill, "Billy Jack" reopened simultaneously in 62 Los Angeles theaters after a $500,000 saturation advertising campaign‑75 percent of it in television.
To an industry which had never really used television to do its advertising before, the results were astounding. Warners got its outlay back the first weekend and "Billy jack" grossed $1.2 million the first week. But Taylor‑Laughlin did not split the grosses with theater owners in the usual way. Instead, they rented the theaters beforehand for a flat fee. This method is called "four‑walling" -the distributors literally rent the four walls of the theater from the movie exhibitor. To date "Billy Jack" has grossed $26 million and Hollywood has quickly picked up the message.
Suddenly movie‑marketing executives are feeding the television hand that bit them. Film moguls, chattering happily of "gross rating points" and "demographics," are starting to sell movies like soap Columbia Pictures has an eight‑man team busily researching, among other things, why some people are heavy moviegoers and others of similar background aren't. Says Max Youngstein of Warner Brothers: "We are the only business in the whole world which makes a commodity without understanding what the hell the market is."
Gamble: But the most significant new ideas are being pushed by disgruntled creative people who want to outflank the studios altogether. George C. Scott financed, produced, directed and starred ‑along with his wife, Trish Van Devere- in his new film "The Savage Is Loose.
The story, about a family marooned on a desert island, made the studios somewhat nervous because it deals with incest. So Scott is offering it to theater owners on an individual basis for a negotiable fee. The film then becomes the exhibitors' property. They pay for the advertising which Scott supplies and closely supervises.
The film, which was made for $1.5 million, has already grossed $3 million in sales even before exhibitors have seen it. If it becomes a blockbuster, Scott will make a fraction of what the exhibitors will make but he's willing to gamble for higher stakes. "I want to take my picture straight to the public," he says. "It's a stultifying process to put so much work into something you believe in when so often it doesn't reach the public in the form you envisioned. The only way to counteract this is to maintain complete control."
Director Coppola is also eager for complete control "from script to, projector.” He hopes to acquire controlling interest in Cinema 5, a distribution company which also owns fifteen New York theaters. Coppola is one of the few directors today with real power to deal with the majors on his own terms and one of the few to successfully create both blockbusters ("The Godfather, Part II` will be released this fall) and more personal films ("The Conversation"). His is the most important move by a creative artist to control both the production and distribution of films. "I hope to see distribution in the hands of men who really like film," says Coppola, "not people who treat filmmakers as children they have to keep around."