The Early Years of American Zoetrope: A History in Two Parts (Part Two)

A man wearing a suit and tie

The Rain People

Both Coppola and Lucas were frustrated with the traditional Hollywood approach to filmmaking and wanted to try something different. Coppola suggested a project that he’d written during the Finian’s Rainbow shoot called The Rain People. The film was to be a small, personal road movie about a housewife who seeks to escape suburban life by driving across the country. Along the way she meets a brain-damaged hitchhiker, played by James Caan in his film debut. Coppola began shooting the film with a crew comprised primarily of former film school students and without a deal from any studio to finance or release it. It was a typical Coppola move – bold, bordering on reckless. Lucas agreed to help on The Rain People, and Coppola promised to help Lucas develop his THX student film into a feature. Lucas took a small crew to New York to film some flashback sequences at Hofstra University, Coppola’s alma mater. Lucas recorded sound and served as a camera assistant, production manager and art director. To Lucas, this was the way filmmaking was supposed to be. Coppola had an idea for a film. He then “wrote and directed it with no studio executive or producer, no one, telling him what to do.” Lucas was smitten early on with the idea of personal filmmaking, and Coppola was making this idea a reality.

Coppola and Lucas made an odd pair. Coppola was as outgoing as Lucas was shy. Lucas was “solitary, independent and idealistic.” He had a black and white view of the world particularly when it came to Hollywood “where the world was divided into black – the studios; and white – the artists.” Coppola’s world view was considerably more complex. At times he seemed to relish his power struggles with the studios. While Coppola dreamed of taking over Hollywood, Lucas was already dreaming of moving it somewhere quieter. Shooting The Rain People convinced Coppola and Lucas that filmmaking outside the Hollywood system was a viable, and preferable, alternative. As the production completed shooting on location in Ogallala, Nebraska, the town allowed the filmmakers to use an abandoned grain warehouse as a mini-studio. With little else to do in the small town but work and talk about work, Coppola and Lucas let their imaginations run rampant. Coppola told Lucas they could make movies anywhere in the world. They had the equipment, the ideas, the crew. Why did they need a Hollywood studio bossing them around? Inspired by their freedom, and sitting in their own small facility, Coppola and Lucas agreed that they should set up their own studio outside the Hollywood system. The idea that would become American Zoetrope was born.

The Birth of American Zoetrope

“It takes no imagination to live within your means.”
— Francis Ford Coppola

Coppola suggested he and Lucas form their own company and base it in San Francisco. Lucas immediately agreed. Growing up in nearby Modesto, San Francisco was comfortable territory to Lucas. While Coppola was finishing The Rain People, Lucas substituted for him at a 1968 San Francisco forum for high school English teachers called “Film in Relation to the Printed Word.” There Lucas met John Korty, the only filmmaker actually making a living directing movies in San Francisco at the time. Lucas contacted Coppola immediately. Korty was actually doing what Lucas and Coppola were talking about. Coppola visited Korty’s well-equipped facility and became convinced he and Lucas were on the right path.

After finishing principal photography on The Rain People, Coppola took a break in Europe. While there, he went to a film festival in Germany and saw some of the new, high-tech film equipment being developed overseas. He discovered new flatbed editing machines and sound mixers which could all be linked together to form a full-service mixing facility. Coppola was impressed with what he saw, and on a whim, bought all the equipment without the money to pay for it and without a facility to house it.

On this same trip, Coppola visited a company in Denmark called Lanterna Films. Lanterna made mostly commercials, some soft porn and an occasional feature film. It was run by Mogens Skot-Hansen and was housed in a big, seaside mansion. The bedrooms had been converted into editing suites. The garage housed a state-of-the-art mixing studio. Lanterna employees would eat lunch together in the gardens. It was an idyllic setting for the creation of movies, and Coppola knew that this was the type of environment he wanted to recreate in San Francisco — a film collective where filmmakers would come together in a bucolic setting and create art. While in Denmark, Mogens Skot-Hansen gave Coppola a zoetrope from his large collection of antique motion picture devices. In this gift Coppola found a name for his new company. He would call it American Zoetrope. He felt the name reflected a new generation of American filmmakers influenced by European sensibilities. Incidentally, Lucas had wanted to call the company, Transamerican Sprocket Works, but Coppola, with his eye to the future, wanted a more serious name that would attract potential investors. He also had plans to take the company public and wanted the name at the top of the New York Stock Exchange board.

Returning from Europe, Coppola told Lucas about his vision for American Zoetrope. The idea of a big house in the country that they would turn into a studio appealed to Lucas’ small-town nature. In June 1969 they immediately began looking for a large house in a pastoral setting that would suit their needs. Unfortunately they didn’t have much time to look. The equipment Coppola had ordered in Europe would be arriving in less than a month. Under pressure to find a facility quickly, Coppola acquired an old industrial building in San Francisco at 827 Folsom Street. Lucas wasn’t pleased with the dingy building. It looked more like a dilapidated factory than an idyllic filmmaking retreat, but it would do. They had a studio.

Coppola felt that American Zoetrope would become the center of a new elite in the film industry. Lucas looked at the company as a chance to regroup his filmmaking friends from his days at USC . He invited former classmates John Milius, Matthew Robbins, Hal Barwood, Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz and Walter Murch to join the Zoetrope experiment.

Throughout the fall of 1969, American Zoetrope began to take shape. Carpenters built “separate offices of equal size for Coppola, Lucas and [John] Korty, Zoetrope’s first official tenant.” The corporate papers for American Zoetrope were filed on November 14, 1969. They listed Coppola as the company’s president and sole shareholder, Lucas as vice-president and Mona Skager as the secretary-treasurer. When the remodeling work was finished, the Folsom Street building did indeed resemble a mini-studio. The only thing it lacked was a film lab, and of course, money.

Financing American Zoetrope

“We had the naïve notion that it was the equipment which would
give us the means of production. Of course we learned much
later that it wasn’t the equipment – it was the money.”
— Francis Ford Coppola

Coppola had his studio, now he needed the money to run it. At teh same time, he needed product. Coppola persuaded Warner Bros. to release The Rain People and tried to attach Lucas’ script for a feature-length version of his THX student short. Warner Brothers rejected the Lucas script. Warner Brothers was then bought out, so Coppola suggested they wait then try again with the new Warner’s regime. Ted Ashley, a former agent, was now in charge of the studio with his assistant, John Calley. The very day Ashley and Calley took over, Coppola sent Calley a telegram indicating that he “had a movie in production and that he was waiting for their go ahead. So they’d better shape up or ship out.” Coppola signed the telegram – Francis Ford Coppola, American Zoetrope. Calley was interested and agreed to meet with Coppola.

Warner Bros. agreed to subsidize American Zoetrope in a deal that was similar to the one Bert Schneider and BBS had with Columbia. However, the Warner Brother’s deal with Coppola bespoke less trust. BBS had a million-dollar- a-movie, hands off deal based on the enormous popularity of Easy Rider. Coppola had not made a movie nearly that successful, so the terms Warner Brothers agreed to were considerably more conservative than the BBS arrangement. Warner Brothers agreed to put up an initial $3.5 million to finance the company, and Coppola had to be personally involved with a film if its budget exceeded $500,000. Warner’s also agreed to pay $300,000 to develop seven scripts Coppola pitched, including his own script for The Conversation and the John Milius script for Apocalypse Now that Coppola had no link to other than Lucas was slated to direct it. Unlike the BBS-Columbia deal, Warner Brothers retained final cut on all American Zoetrope films and significantly, Warner’s reserved the right to demand all their money back if they became dissatisfied with the arrangement. The first movie that would be produced under this arrangement was to be George Lucas’ feature version of THX 1138.

American Zoetrope’s First Production

“The essential objective of the company is to engage in the varied
fields of filmmaking, collaborating with the most gifted and youthful talent
using the most contemporary techniques and equipment possible.”
— from the press release announcing the formation of American Zoetrope

Warner Brothers was concerned about THX 1138. The original short was virtually incomprehensible. While the feature version had a more coherent plot, it was still an esoteric, uncompromising film. Although Lucas shot it on a shoestring budget, he fiercely defended his vision. Coppola encouraged Lucas, serving as a go-between between his young protégé and the studio. While the arrangement between Warner Brothers and Coppola called for his involvement in Zoetrope projects, Coppola didn’t supervise the film at all. He simply let Lucas make the movie he wanted to make. After all, this was the reason they started American Zoetrope – to make the movies without outside interference. Coppola’s failure to monitor THX 1138 would wind up costing him dearly.

Black Thursday

“It’s either going to be a masterpiece or a masturbation.”
— Coppola after viewing a few reels of THX 1138

By May 1970, THX 1138 was complete, and Coppola arranged a screening of American Zoetrope’s first feature film for Warner Brothers executives as proof that the Zoetrope model was working. In addition to the completed film, Coppola brought the seven completed scripts he had pitched to Warner Brothers at the time of Zoetrope’s financing.company, and American Zoetrope, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist.

By all accounts, the screening of THX 1138 was a disaster. Warner’s hated the film, considered it unreleasable and demanded to know what was going on with American Zoetrope. John Calley was at the screening and thought the film “was a loser.” The basic issue was that Coppola had assured Warner Brothers that he was supervising the film, and it was clear to the studio executives that he did not. Zoetrope employees would refer to this day as Black Thursday.

Shortly after that, all the scripts that Coppola presented to Warner’s were rejected, and Warner Brothers demanded that Coppola pay back all the money they had given to Zoetrope. In addition, the studio took the film away from Lucas to re-edit it. This was anathema to Lucas and validated his distrust of Hollywood studios. It also strengthened his resolve to beat the studios at their own game.

Coppola was unable to pay back the money he owed to Warner Brothers, and Zoetrope began to crumble around him. Coppola couldn’t make his payroll. All the filmmakers who had gathered around the Zoetrope banner left the

The Legacy of American Zoetrope

“I believe in America…”
— the first words spoken in The Godfather

The failure of American Zoetrope led to a falling out between Lucas and Coppola. Lucas was determined to be his own master. He and Coppola had always disagreed on the fundamental approach of the company. Lucas wanted virtually nothing to do with Hollywood and saw Zoetrope as a means to make movies outside the system. Coppola saw Zoetrope as a means of becoming Hollywood. Although the two would remain friends, their working relationship cooled considerably. Ironically, it was the failure of American Zoetrope that in many ways created its legacy.

Just as Zoetrope was collapsing around Coppola, he received the offer to direct The Godfather. Coppola didn’t want to make the film, but Lucas persuaded him, arguing that Coppola needed the money to pay off his debts. Coppola reluctantly agreed. The Godfather would become one of the first of the New Hollywood blockbusters and would make Coppola one of the most powerful directors of the 1970s. Coppola would use his new-found clout to bring two Zoetrope projects back to life: The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. Had American Zoetrope succeeded, Lucas was slated to direct Apocalypse Now.

After the failure of THX 1138, Coppola persuaded Lucas to try something “warm and funny.” Lucas, the avant-garde student filmmaker, heeded Coppola’s advice and went on to direct American Graffiti. The movie was a huge success. Lucas would then take the lessons learned from American Graffiti and apply them to the science-fiction genre to create Star Wars. Just as Easy Rider became a seminal film that changed the movie industry, Star Wars redefined Hollywood’s approach to filmmaking.

Lucas took his profits from Star Wars to finally realize the dream he had invested in American Zoetrope. He created Skywalker Ranch, his version of Zoetrope, and finally achieved his independence from Hollywood.