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

A group of people standing on the sidewalk talking on a cell phone

Coppola may be heard from more decisively in the future.
— Andrew Sarris, circa 1968


There’s an old adage: success has many fathers – failure has none. While this statement may hold a kernel of truth, it does not necessarily apply to American Zoetrope, the studio started by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. The legacy of American Zoetrope does not lie in the studio’s success, but rather, in its failure. The collapse of American Zoetrope as an alternative to traditional Hollywood filmmaking substantially changed the direction of its founders, the results of which would redefine the movie industry and contribute to the blockbuster mentality that dominates current Hollywood cinema.

To understand the formation of American Zoetrope requires an understanding of the times in which it was created. It also requires an examination of the formative years of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, as well as their working relationship prior to the creation of American Zoetrope.

While American Zoetrope nominally exists today as Coppola’s personal production company, its real impact lies in its original incarnation as an actual studio, which in many ways was both a product of the 1930s and the turbulent ’60s.


The late 1960s was a period of great social upheaval and change: the civil rights movement, the pill, the Beatles and Vietnam polarized the social fabric of America. Everything old was suspect, and at the time, practically nothing was older than the Hollywood establishment.

During the 1960s, many of the studios were still being run by the generation that invented the movie industry. Jack Warner was still in charge of Warner Brothers. Darryl Zanuck had returned to the helm of the ailing 20th Century-Fox. In 1965, Paramount’s board of directors featured Adolph Zukor, 92 years old, and Barney Balaban, 78. To put it in perspective, Zukor was nearly 40 when, in 1912, he put Mary Pickford under contract.

The studios weren’t just gray at the top so to speak. In the 1960s day-to-day operations were still in the hands of the pre-World War II generation of directors, producers, department heads and crews who were in their fifties, sixties and seventies. This was primarily the result of union practices from the old studio days that allowed the children of union members to enter the industry. This created an apprentice system of sorts that allowed a younger generation to eventually replace the older studio hands. However, when the studios were forced to cut back on expenditures during the 1950s, this replacement generation was the last hired and therefore, according to union rules, the first to be let go. These layoffs resulted in a generation gap that would continue to widen during the 1960s. As Steven Spielberg observed on the set of his first television show, Night Gallery, “the average age of the crew was sixty years old. When they saw me walk on the stage, everybody just turned their backs on me, just walked away. I got this sense that I represented a threat to everyone’s job.” Spielberg, as it turns out, would be the smallest of the threats to “everyone’s job.”

While Hollywood was growing older, its core audience was growing younger – and smaller. Weekly movie attendance had steadily declined from an all-time high of 78.2 million in 1946 to 15.8 million by 1971. Faced with declining revenues and increasing competition from television, studios at first put their trust in technology to lure audiences back into theaters. New film formats such as CinemaScope and 3-D were Hollywood’s attempts to stem the tide. Ultimately, it wasn’t technological gimmicks that saved Hollywood: it was the discovery of a new audience, composed of the baby boom generation that would revitalize Hollywood during the 1970s. However, in the late 1960s the situation facing the studios was not necessarily one of revitalization, but rather, one of survival. According to Peter Bart, former vice-president of production at Paramount, “the movie industry [in the late 1960s] was almost literally wiped off the face of the earth.”

The studios, in their financially weakened states, began to be purchased by large corporations whose primary interests were parking lots, insurance, zinc mining or funeral homes. While many Hollywood insiders at the time looked on in dismay as the old studios of the past were being picked off one by one, the new corporations that were taking over the industry were looking to the future. Less bound by Hollywood tradition and armed with demographic surveys, these new corporate masters realized that the future was with the youth. The big question remaining was – how do you reach this hip, young, counterculture audience? One movie came out of virtually nowhere to provide the answer.

By Hollywood standards, Easy Rider was a small movie. Produced by Bert Schneider’s tiny independent production company, Raybert (which would become BBS Productions), Easy Rider featured such Hollywood non-entities as Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and a then-unknown Jack Nicholson. The final budget for the movie was $375,000, with an additional $180,000 for post-production. Easy Rider was biker movie, like the ones Roger Corman’s AIP had been churning out for a decade. Biker movies were considered a dead genre at the time and even Corman had passed on it. According to Hollywood wisdom, Easy Rider had nothing going for it – no stars, small budget, a first-time director in a despised genre. However, when Easy Rider hit movie theaters in the summer of 1969, it would become a turning point in the history of Hollywood and throw conventional Hollywood wisdom out the door.

Easy Rider blazed across movie screens during the summer of Woodstock, eventually grossing over $60 million before finally playing out. The impact of Easy Rider on Hollywood was seismic in its proportions. According to Peter Guber, who would eventually become head of worldwide production at Columbia, “Everything seemed different after Easy Rider. The [studio] executives were anxious, frightened because they didn’t have the answers any longer.” In Easy Rider the studios had finally connected to the mass audience they needed to generate profits, and the counterculture finally had a seminal movie it could embrace as its own. According to George Lucas, “That movie [Easy Rider] more than any other completely changed the corporate concept of what would be a hit movie.” The irony, not lost to Hollywood, was that Easy Rider, despite being released by Columbia, was not a studio picture. It was produced by fiercely-independent, anti-establishment filmmakers outside the traditional Hollywood system. As John Calley, head of production at Warner Brothers during the early 1970s noted, the massive success of Easy Rider “implied a way of doing film that was not traditional nor in any way related to the [studio] mode of production.” As a result, the studios, under new corporate leadership more receptive to non-traditional ideas, began to embrace young filmmakers in an attempt to duplicate the success of Easy Rider and tap into the youth market. The outsiders were suddenly in.

Obviously it would be naïve to assume that the studios would hand a camera and crew over to anyone under 25 who wanted to make a movie. Studios, even in this transitional period, were still relatively conservative companies with shareholders to protect. What the studios needed were young filmmakers who knew how to follow the Easy Rider production model of low-cost, high-profit filmmaking aimed at the counterculture’s sensibilities and pocketbooks. What they found were film school graduates.

In the 1960s there were only two film schools on the west coast: UCLA and USC. The competition was fierce between the schools. UCLA students considered their USC counterparts to be “soulless technocrats” who were incapable of making artistic statements on film. USC students thought even less of their UCLA rivals — not that any of this really mattered. In the mid-60s, the focus at both schools was making documentary and educational films. The possibility of a film student graduating to direct a Hollywood movie was nonexistent, so the emphasis was placed in expression of personal vision through film rather than traditional Hollywood filmmaking. Indeed, no film school student had ever directed a studio feature film until a brash, young UCLA film school graduate from the Class of 1966 emerged to do just that. His name was Francis Ford Coppola.

Francis Ford Coppola

“I’m not the oldest of the young guys.
I’m the youngest of the old guys”
— Francis Ford Coppola

By the late 1960s, Coppola was already a legend among film school students. As George Lucas recalled, “We all knew who Francis was because he was the one film student who had actually made a feature film.” Overcoming adversity had always been one of Coppola’s strengths.

Coppola, the son of Toscanini’s flautist Carmine Coppola, was stricken with polio at an early age. Facing the possibility of never walking again, Coppola retreated into a fantasy life, creating puppet shows for friends and family. Although he regained the use of his legs, Coppola never fully regained his mobility. As athletics were now out of the question, Coppola drifted toward drama to experience the same sort of camaraderie experienced playing sports. Coppola eventually graduated from Hofstra University with a drama degree and enrolled into UCLA’s film program. In 1963, Coppola directed Dementia 13 for Roger Corman. Many of Coppola’s friends at UCLA thought he’d sold out because he’d “been willing to compromise.”

By the mid-1960s, Coppola had attained a modicum of success working as a script doctor for Seven Arts, which had recently bought out Warner Brothers. Coppola was growing weary of working on other people’s movies and decided to write and direct his own feature, You’re a Big Boy Now. This movie served as his UCLA thesis film and became the first student film to be released theatrically. Coppola had arrived.

The success of You’re a Big Boy Now, coupled with Coppola’s working relationship with Warner Brothers-Seven Arts, led to the studio entrusting Coppola to direct Finian’s Rainbow, a twenty-year-old Broadway musical that had for one reason of another defied adaptation to the silver screen. The runaway success of The Sound of Music in 1965 had spawned a host of big-budget

Hollywood musicals in the late 1960s. Unfortunately for the studios, most of these flopped resoundingly. Finian’s Rainbow was to be low budget response to these big budget disasters – shot mostly on the Warner’s backlot by a young, inexpensive director to keep costs to an absolute minimum. It was here, in the shadows of the once-great Warner’s soundstages, that Coppola met a young film school graduate who was visiting the studio on a scholarship. The young man’s name was George Lucas.

George Lucas

“I’ve had a very volatile relationship with Francis. It’s on
both sides, like we were married and we got divorced. It’s
as close a relationship as I’ve had with anybody.”
— George Lucas

Just as Coppola was the star student at UCLA, Lucas was the standout at USC. In many ways, it was the first time Lucas had stood out for anything.

George Lucas grew up in the sleepy little town of Modesto, California in what Lucas refers to as his “Norman Rockwell upbringing.” For most of his life Lucas was easy to overlook. He was a short, skinny kid – a loner of sorts whose father ran an office supply store. Lucas nearly flunked out of high school and was more interested in racing cars than his studies. Lucas’ father, George Sr., was worried that Lucas would never amount to anything, but he did his best to drill a hard work ethic into his lackadaisical son.

The day before he was to graduate high school, Lucas was racing his small Fiat down the back roads toward home when he lost control of the car. The tiny car flipped several times before finally slamming into a tree. The racing harness had miraculously snapped, throwing young Lucas from the car and sparing him from certain death. Lucas was bleeding internally and was rushed to the local hospital in critical condition. As he lay in the hospital recuperating, he rethought his life. The near-death experience changed him from an aimless teenager to a young man on a mission. Just what he would dedicate his life toward, he wasn’t sure. Lucas decided to go to junior college. There he discovered movies. Against his father’s wishes, he applied to USC to study film. He was accepted and entered the film school at USC as a junior. Lucas applied himself with a ferocious intensity toward film, quickly building a reputation within the department as someone to watch. Lucas was such a star at USC, he scooped up the few training opportunities available. He and three other film students received a scholarship from Columbia Pictures to shoot documentaries behind the scenes of MacKenna’s Gold. Lucas felt the “whole thing was a ruse to get a bunch of cheap behind-the-scenes documentaries made under the guise of a scholarship.” While the other students shot traditional “making-of” documentaries, Lucas went off and shot footage of the desert with the MacKenna’s Gold sets in the distant background. While Lucas’ film was more of a desert tone poem than a documentary, it was well-received.

Lucas had further success when his student film THX 1138: 4EB won a number of prizes at the National Student Film Festival. Buoyed by his successes, Lucas decided to give Hollywood another shot. He received a Warner Brothers scholarship that would allow him in the studio as an observer for six months. The day Lucas arrived at the studio was the same day Jack Warner was cleaning out his office. Lucas had planned to observe the famous Warner Brothers animation department but found it shut down. Frustrated, with nowhere to go, and nothing to observe in the moribund studio, Lucas gravitated toward the only activity on the lot — the set of Finian’s Rainbow where Coppola was experiencing some frustrations of his own.

The Rainbow ConnectionCoppola welcomed Lucas’ presence on the set. He was having difficulty working with the older crew members who were set in their ways and fought him at every turn. In Lucas, he had someone his own age he could talk to, and the two quickly developed a friendship. It was somehow fitting that the two of them would meet on this set. Finian’s Rainbow was the last film shot under the aegis of Jack Warner, scion of old Hollywood, and it was being directed by Coppola, who was one of the first directors in a movement that would quickly be dubbed New Hollywood. Coppola desperately wanted to make movies without interference from studio executives – a dream he and Lucas had in common, and a dream they would soon turn into reality.

Continued in Part Two.

Sources: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls… by Peter Biskind; Skywalking, by Dale Pollack; Legacy of FIlmmakers, by Gary Leva