In the summer of 1972, Gulf+Western chairman Charlie Bluhdorn approached Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and William Friedkin, and proposed a novel idea. Bluhdorn wanted to create a company made up of film directors. They would be able to make movies with complete autonomy, and eventually the company would be taken public and everyone would get rich off of the stock options. The films they made would be distributed by Paramount Pictures, which Gulf+Western owned at the time.
For the directors, the scheme was too good to pass up. Under the rules of the company, the directors could make any picture they wanted for under $3 million (a medium-level film budget at the time) without having to submit anything to Paramount for approval. The studio had also agreed to capitalize the company to the tune of $31.5 million. They could have their cake and eat it too, artistic freedom and the promise of big profits down the road.
To Charlie Bluhdorn, it was an inspired plan. He could corral the three hottest directors in the world at the time and get them to make movies for him. And since they were sharing in the profits, it almost guaranteed quality work. But that was only the beginning, Bluhdorn envisioned raiding other studios and stealing their top directors, especially Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols away from Warner Brothers. This part of the idea particularly appealed to Francis Ford Coppola, who wanted revenge on Warners for canceling his production deal and for the way they handled the Coppola-produced THX-1138.
William Friedkin was already involved with making The Exorcist, but he promised that he would make his next film for the Directors Company. Peter Bogdanovich eventually agreed to make a Paramount pet project called Paper Moon. Francis Ford Coppola used the Directors Company deal to dust off an old script of his, entitled The Conversation, which other studios had soundly rejected.
Trouble and infighting between the directors began almost immediately. Both Friedkin and Paramount studio head Frank Yablans hated The Conversation and thought it would be a total flop. After watching an early cut, Friedkin told Coppola that he thought the picture was “unintelligible and ridiculous” and “we’ll be lucky to gross $500,000.” But since the directors weren’t allowed to veto each other pictures, and since Coppola had made The Conversation for only $1.6 million, there was nothing they could do about it.
Paper Moon opened to rave reviews and eventually made $16.5 million, ($52.8 million in today’s dollars, excellent for a small family comedy). According to the bylaws of the company, each director was entitled to a cut of the others’ pictures. Both Coppola and Friedkin took $300,000 out of Paper Moon’s profits. This enraged Bogdanovich, especially since Friedkin had done nothing and Coppola’s film was considered to be an uncommercial mess.
Bogdanovich quickly did another film for the Directors Company called Daisy Miller, starring his girlfriend Cybill Shepard. The film ended up being an absolute bomb, with one critic calling Shepard “a no-talent dame with nice boobs and a toothpaste smile and all the star quality of a dead hamster.”
After the box office flops of both The Conversation and Daisy Miller, Friedkin demanded to be let out of the deal. He felt that the other directors were doing vanity projects and it was to the detriment of the company as a whole. He also blamed the failure of the company on Frank Yablans, he felt that Yablans never liked the idea of the company in the first place and was allowing those projects to go through in order to destroy it. With his dropping out, the company disbanded.
After hearing about the Directors Company, I have always been intrigued by the idea of a film studio being run by the filmmakers themselves. To me, this is exactly what independent directors who have trouble getting financing, such as Terry Gilliam, need in order to get their movies made. The key of course would be to find a someone with enough capital to get it started and to somehow prevent it from getting torn apart by greed, much in the way the Directors Company was.