It was the heist of the century – the biggest steal in Hollywood history. Movie rights to The Godfather should have cost in the region of $1 million – i.e. boosting the original budget by around 20 per cent – given that Twentieth Century Fox shelled out a million bucks plus add-ons for The Love Machine published the same year and even Portnoy’s Complaint, a difficult book to transfer to the screen, went for $400,000. It was quite extraordinary that the movie rights to a bestseller which outsold the Jacqueline Susann novel and virtually everything in sight arrived at Paramount for the measly sum of $85,000. In other words, the greatest film of all time, according to the current 50th anniversary publicity splurge and notwithstanding Vertigo, had one of the cheapest starts.
Initially, around 1966, the studio had optioned a 20-page treatment entitled Mafia and paid small sums in the region of $5,000 and $7,500 and then $25,000 on publication and another $25,000 when hardback sales reached 150,000 copies, but its maximum exposure was $85,000. Had there been a Hollywood bidding war at the time of publication or shortly after it would easily have overtaken the sum paid for Portnoy’s Complaint or more likely that matched or bettered The Love Machine.
To add fuel to the fire, Puzo was paid only $100,000 for the screenplay at a time when William Goldman had received $400,000 for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Godfather was an hour longer than the western. And as if that wasn’t enough it was quite clear by the time the movie appeared that the tail was wagging the dog. Puzo had laid the groundwork for public hysteria about the movie by his book selling a staggering eight million copies.
In theory, Puzo enjoyed some largesse when Fawcett paid a record $410,000 for the paperback rights. However, paperback rights were split with the publisher of the hardback and were essentially an advance on sales. And in any case that sum was easily topped by the amount paid for Papillon published the same year. Paperbacks would bring in a royalty of about 15 cents a copy whereas the author’s share of hardback revenues would be five times that amount. So in some respects it was better for Puzo that the book remained in hardback, especially as, one year on from publication in March 1969, it was still topping the New York Times hardback bestseller chart. The Putnam hardback had sold close on one million copies split between bookshop sales and book club deals, netting the author around $700,000.
The problem with such a big hardback sale was that it invariably ate into the paperback revenues so it was in the author’s financial interest, especially for a novel still flying so high, to keep it in hardback for as long as possible. Conversely, for Fawcett, the paperback house, the longer it remained in hardback, the greater the risk of not getting its money back. So Fawcett enforced its contract and insisted the paperback appear one year after hardback publication. Although Fawcett’s initial print run for the paperback was a record 3.5 million copies that would bring Puzo less in royalties than he had accumulated from the hardback. Luckily, it didn’t work out that way.
Two years later the paperback, priced at $1.50 had sold eight million copies. In February 1972, Fawcett upped the price of the paperback to $1.65 and brought out a movie tie-in edition with 32 pages of stills. In addition, Mario Puzo, who had been paid $100,000 for The Godfather screenplay, and felt, overall, that he had been chiseled, was publishing The Godfather Papers, which was less than fulsome about his employers Paramount. But it was still extraordinary, even by Hollywood standards, that the biggest beneficiary of this publishing fairy story was the studio itself.
When the rumor mill started working overtime about who would play Don Corleone, it was reported that Puzo was dining with Ernest Borgnine and that studio production chief Robert Evans favored John Marley from Love Story. The situation at all studios towards the end of the 1960s was dicey and it was symptomatic of the continuing financial crisis that when Robert Evans passed the five-year mark as head of production at Paramount in September 1971 he was the industry’s longest-running production chief. Even so, the glory days of huge roadshow budgets were long gone. The Godfather was the most expensive project, topping out eventually at $6 million. But given its length and complexity – 102 New York locations for a start – it was surprisingly inexpensive given that Love Story had cost £2.1 million and less prestigious projects like Plaza Suite and Such Good Friends came in at $2 million.
The film was initially set to be released at Xmas 1971 – publication of The Godfather Papers was to coincide with that. But in summer 1971 Paramount changed its mind. It already had 85-100 cinemas lined up for the movie in its first big release splash. And now it was considering holding back the picture until May-June 1972. Despite perceived pressure on the director, the message Paramount’s Frank Yablans gave to the media was one of total support. “We will not sacrifice one-tenth of one per cent of quality just to hit a release date…(we are) not locked into any kind of release pattern.” And despite later reported concerns about Coppola’s production, in July 1971, while filming was not complete, Yablans commented: “the rushes have a fantastic look.”
Although it was intended as a wide release – a fraction of the 3,000 theaters that would constitute a wide release these days – Yablans was careful to distinguish the release from “saturation.” He defined saturation, wrongly as it happened, as a concentrated release in one specific area, the 50 or 100 houses in a “Showcase” strand in New York for example. He explained the difference – two or three cinemas per city across the entire country. There was nothing revolutionary about this apparently revolutionary approach. Hollywood had a habit of playing fast and loose with its own history and day-and-date releases of movies into 500-plus theaters all at once had been going on for decades. In fact the 300-odd cinemas making up the first run of The Godfather was about the same as for Billy Jack a year earlier.
What in fact was more significant was the length of the run. A really successful Showcase saturation might run four or five weeks but that was dependent on the week-by-week performance of the picture at the box office. A film that was “retained by public demand” was effectively that, it had punched so high that it was foolish to let it go. Paramount effectively fell back on the roadshow device of insisting on a cinema agreeing a specific length of run before the movie opened. Paramount specified this as twelve weeks – the original roadshow “season” was 13-15 weeks. In other words this was the “Box Office Un-Equalizer,” everything in revenue terms favoring the studio.
Then Paramount pulled the film forward from its projected May-June slot to Easter 1972 – which meant effectively Good Friday, March 31. Three months before opening, the studio had a trio of Loew’s first run theaters lined up – Loew’s State 1 and 2 and Loews’ Orpheum, all in Manhattan. Finally, it opened a fortnight before Easter, on March 15, in five top houses in New York. The first five days brought in a record $410,000 and it was another two weeks before the picture opened anywhere else. Limiting release proved highly successful in profit terms. Out of an initial gross of $101 million, Paramount received $64 million, an exceptionally high ratio for the times.
I hope you got the chance like I did this week to marvel all over again at The Godfather on the big screen. I can hardly add anything to the critical tsunami that greeted this picture 50 years ago and again in the last week so I’m not going to try. instead, I’ve rummaged through my files to uncover these few nuggets of information and look forward to next week’s episode of the saga.
SOURCES: Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release, 1913-2017 (McFarland, 2019), p179, 187-188; “Puzo’s Jackpot,” Variety, February 26, 1969, p76; “Paramount’s Bargain Price (80G) for Godfather Rights,” Variety, September 17, 1969, p1; “Record Paperback Order,” Variety, February 11, 1970, p58; “As To That Godfather,” Variety, May 20, 1970, p30; “Peak 600G Paperback deal,” Variety, August 26, 1970, p53; “Paramount’s Bargain on Godfather,” Variety, October 7, 1970, p21; “Godfather Not on Paramount Christmas Tree,” Variety, July 21, 1971, p3; “Bestsellers As Trailers,” Variety, Jul 21, 1971, p5; “Egomania Equals Fiscal Lunacy,” Variety, July 28, 1971, p18; “Record 451G Paperback Deal,” Variety, August 4, 1971, p54; “Five Years in Hot Seat Makes Bob Evans Coast’s Longest Running Production Chief,” Variety, September 29, 1971, p2; “Yablans Strategy on Godfather,” Variety, November 17, 1971, p4; Puzo Books Tells About Godfather Experiences,” Variety, December 15, 1971, p2; “Godfather at Easter,” Variety, December 22, 1971, p65; “Godfather at $1.65,” Variety, February 2, 1972, p70; Advert, Variety, February 2, 1972, p13; Advert, Box Office, March 27, 1972, p4.