“The Godfather” Steal And Other Stories

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.

The movie tie-in edition appeared after the paperback had already shifted eight million copies. interestingly, it had already reached saturation point, only another couple of million sales added after the release of the film, though future instalments of the series brought in further sales. So you could easily argue that the book benefitted the movie far more than the other way round.

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.

The Making of “The Godfather” (1972)

With the 50th anniversary imminent it’s no surprise to see a further addition to the already weighty library of works on The Godfather. What is surprising is just how good it is, wrapping up all previous research as well as adding copious new information about the making of the Mafia saga, in particular relationships between the filmmakers and the Cosa Nostra itself. A battle of egos as much as anything else with a budget that lay in tatters, quite how such a masterpiece emerged could have been a film in itself. Journalist Robert Seal has delivered a riveting book, replete with fascinating anecdotes, and with an insider’s knowledge of how a movie gets put together.

Some of the drama is certainly overplayed, the financial threats to Paramount at the end of the 1960s, the presence on the set of an auditor (hardly unusual with a director who had never handled such a big budget before), and the conflict with legendary producer Robert Evans who, after the event, claimed a greater share of the glory than he was entitled to. Evans at least had a track record – Rosemary’s Baby (1968), True Grit (1969) and Love Story (1970) among his successes during his tenure at the studio – compared to official producer Albert Ruddy with three flops to his name including Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970) and best known for television hit Hogan’s Heroes. But Ruddy was known as a producer who could bring a project in under budget. As an indication of the kind of penny pinching that Evans expected, he made Ruddy buy his own copy of the novel.

Australian distributors took a different approach to advertising the movie.

Paramount had little interest in Mafia movies after the under-rated The Brotherhood (1968) – reviewed in the Blog – had flopped at the box office and Burt Lancaster was waiting in the wings ready to take the project off the studio’s hands. Compulsive gambler and impoverished author Mario Puzo had no screenwriting credits when brought in to work on the picture. And no idea how to write a screenplay. So he mostly played tennis. His biggest contribution when he was sitting in meetings with little to show for his efforts was to suggest Marlon Brando as star. A suggestion that met with complete silence because Brando was box office poison.

Francis Coppola – himself the creator of three flops and as impoverished as Puzo had once been – was hired as director in part because Paramount got the notion that the reason The Brotherhood had failed was lack of cultural assimilation, director Martin Ritt having no Italian heritage. Coppola was pushed as having an insider’s knowledge of Italians even though as Paramount executive Peter Bart pointed out that he “may have had pasta now and then but I don’t think their family is any more Italian than my family.”

Paramount took out an eight-page ad in “Variety” (March 29, 1972) to publicize the colossal initial gross and listed the receipts from every cinema where it had been playing for mostly three or five days.

As the makers of Succession have realised, there is a classic story to be told about business inheritance. Coppola wanted to make a movie that was about “more than guns and goons and sex and spaghetti.” He envisaged a “classic succession concerning a great king who had three sons, each of whom had a single element of what made the king great.” Prior to Coppola making his presentation to the studio, Ruddy told him to play up the low budget. Instead, the director gave “one of the great sales jobs of all time” convincing executives to at least give him a shot at doing it his way. He was hired for $175,000 and six per cent of the profits. “I had two kids, a pregnant wife, and no money. I was terrified,” said Coppola.

As well he should have been. Not only did he have mobsters knocking on his door complaining on the one hand about how the film could adversely present Italian Americans and on the other hand determined to land a role in the picture to the extent of paying for their own screen tests. So many talent schools charged $100 to shoot screen tests for any gullible schmuck that Paramount had to take out restraining orders. But made man Gianni Russo did land the role of Carlo Rizzi. Al Lettieri’s brother was involved in the business. Ex-wrestler Lenny Montana with no acting experience was picked out of a crowd watching the shooting to play hitman Luca Brasi.

Not the ideal balladeer to sing about the Mafia.

Although Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Laurence Olivier and Rod Steiger were among the stars pitched for the Brando role, Puzo had sent a handwritten letter to Brando imploring him to consider the role. The Brando test, with the star improvising his own make-up, was electric. But the greatest actor of his generation had to accept a pitiful deal – $50,000 for six weeks’ work – though, thankfully, a percentage had been tagged on.

Robert Evans wanted Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty or Ryan O’Neal for Michael. “One of the reasons I got the job,” said Coppola, “was because they thought they could push me around.” He stuck to his guns, holding out for his dream team of James Caan, Al Pacino, Robert  Duvall and Diane Keaton, “eccentric and kind of weird in a way…to enliven the straight boring character” of Kay Adams.

But the casting was just the beginning of a momentous battle to keep Coppola’s vision intact. He came close to getting fired several times (“I was getting fired every other week,” recalled Coppola), especially as the budget, initially figured at $2 million, headed towards $6 million. The story of the shoot is told here in forensic detail. Come post-production, Evans wanted Henry Mancini to do the score so Coppola threatened to take his name off the picture unless the Nino Rota music was kept. 

Finally, when the film was ready it was met with – deafening silence. Paris premiere – silence. New York premiere – silence. When Albert Ruddy and Al Pacino watched it in an ordinary cinema with an ordinary audience the result was the same – silence. But the lines around the block indicated something else – a phenomenon.

The only area where author Seal gets it wrong is in his understanding of release strategy. “Its distribution was a revolution,” claimed Mark Seal. Only it wasn’t. I know because I wrote a book on the subject (In Theaters Everywhere if you’re interested) and there was nothing at all novel in releasing a movie in New York in 26 cinemas all at once.

But apart from that glitch, Seal has produced a brilliant, incredibly readable book, that covers the saga of the making of the film in as much detail as an aficionado would want. Drawing on the dozen other books written previously about the film and adding his own fulsome research, Seal has created a book that will be as much a monument to this film as the film is to Hollywood cinema in the 1970s.

For some reason the guy who created the best movie of the year wasn’t good enough to be named Best Director at the Oscars- that went to Bob Fosse for “Cabaret.”

In 1972, there was no such thing as a global wide release. Although it was shown in the U.S. in March that year, in Glasgow, Scotland, where I lived, The Godfather did not get its first showing until the end of August. It opened at the ABC 1 in Sauchiehall St in the city centre as well as over the River Clyde at the ABC Coliseum. It was competing with two roadshows, Young Winston and Mary, Queen of Scots at the Odeon 1 and Odeon 3, respectively, Robert Redford in heist picture How to Steal a Diamond at the Odeon 2 and What’s Up Doc? at the ABC 2. Western The Hired Hand was playing the arthouse Cosmo and the arty Made for Each Other at the gigantic Green’s Playhouse. The La Scala had the double bill of Dr No/Thunderball and the Regent was in the second week of Dirty Harry, somewhat unusual in that this was a second run house where pictures were rarely retained.

There were three performances a day for The Godfather but no advance booking – as would have been the case if it had gone into roadshow – so the queues outside both cinemas were huge. It had such an impact on me I saw it twice in the same day. When I moved to London I used to take regular advantage of the double bill The Godfather / The Godfather Part II when it used to play a cinema in Regent St on occasional Sundays, so I have no idea how many times I have seen both. Never enough, I would guess.

Where were you when you first saw The Godfather?

And where will I be on February 26 when The Godfather will be reissued in cinemas all over Britain (and possibly worldwide for all I know)? I leave it to you to guess.

To cash in on the 50th anniversary, cinemas all around the world are planning to screen all three parts of the trilogy. So watch out for them.

Book into Film – “The Godfather” (1972)

Watching King of the Roaring 20s (1961) and Murder Inc (1960) and struck by the number of similarities to The Brotherhood (1968) that could be found in The Godfather (1972) induced me to examine how well the original novel by Mario Puzo survived the often dangerous transition onto the screen.

There could not be a more textbook example of how to turn a big bestseller into a compelling motion picture. Although director Francis Coppola added texture and style to the bestseller, the film owes far more to the memorable characters created by author Mario Puzo. Apart from some slight structural changes and the elimination of a couple of subplots, the movie follows Puzo’s brilliant structure almost to the letter. And except for a few lines, virtually all the dialogue and many of the most unforgettable lines come directly from the book.

The opening wedding feast is an excellent example of the screenplay approach. The order of the action occasionally alters but the novel’s structure is strictly adhered to. The film’s striking opening line “I love America” by the undertaker is a slight but significant adaptation of that character’s line “I believe in America” in the book. But the screenwriters junk the book’s actual opening section which gives the background to the issues the three characters appealing to Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) for intervention against perceived injustice from Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and goes straight to the book’s wedding.  Here, too, the various elements are taken directly from the book with slight changes. For example, to the FBI men taking down car number plates in the novel the screenplay adds in photographers so that, to demonstrate his temper at an early stage, Sonny Corleone (James Caan) can smash a camera.

Straight from the book: fat Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) dancing, wiping his brow and calling for wine from Paulie (John Martino); Sonny whispering in the ear of bridesmaid Lucy (Jeannie Linero); the frightened undertaker being told off by Vito; the  Luca Brasi story Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) tells Kay Adams (Diane Keaton); Sonny and Lucy having sex and being interrupted by Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall); and the screams that greet  singer Johnny Fontane (Al Fontane) and the subsequent scene where Vito shouts at the singer to act “like a man.” Additions are slight: in the book Sonny’s wife is in the kitchen not at a wedding table in dumbshow making jokes about her husband’s manhood, and Luca Brasi rehearsing his speech.

Indicative of the ruthlessness with which the screenplay treats the book is the elimination of a moving scene at the tail end of the wedding where Vito goes to see his dying partner Genco. As indicative of the author’s brilliance is that he invented degenerate film producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) and the decapitated horse in his bed.  But the storyline, the film’s core, from the attempted murder of Vito, Michael’s assassination of the Turk Solozzo (Al Lettieri) and corrupt cop McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), the exiled Michael struck by the “thunderbolt” falling in love, the ambush of Sonny and the stricken Vito suing for peace, is pretty much exactly that of the book. In some case, it’s clear that actors have drawn from Puzo’s characterizations, the chilling way Michael takes control of the Family, how Fredo goes from useless gangster to hotel dandy.

There are occasional additions. In the book Enzo’s hand outside the hospital is  shaking but Michael lighting his cigarette is the movie shorthand to demonstrate his icy calm, Sonny’s “bada-bing” isn’t in the book nor is Luca Brasi sleeping with the fishes, though there is something similar “Luca Brasi is sleeping on the bottom of the ocean.”

Occasionally, in the novel, for technical reasons, Puzo drifts away from the central characters to provide some more background or detail about a subsidiary person and in this manner we enter into the minds of Paulie, Carlo (Gianni Russo), Kay, Clemenza, McCluskey and Albert Neri just as they are about to play a significant role in forthcoming action.  Other subsidiary characters featured more prominently in the novel, in particular Johnny Fontane whom the book reveals develops from Oscar-winning actor to successful movie producer and from manic seducer to more considerate male.

Fontane also helps revitalize the career of another singer Nino who does not appear in the movie at all and plays a role in developing the Family’s interests in Las Vegas. Lucy, who disappears entirely from the film after the wedding, is more significant in the book, finding romance after Sonny’s death with a surgeon and there’s a part of their relationship that would only now be permissible to film. Sicilian shepherd Fabrizio, instrumental in the attempted assassination of Michael, also reappears in the book. The book also devotes more attention to Michael’s new breed, Alberto (Richard Bright) and Rocco (Tom Rosqui).

The death of Vito in the garden is almost identical to the book with the grandson present except for Marlon Brando’s improvisation of stuffing his cheeks with orange to frighten the boy. And Michael’s betrayal by Tessio and the subsequent mass murder of all his enemies is also drawn from the book except for Moe Green having been killed earlier (Fabrizio the shepherd slotting into his place in the book’s action). Some slight detail is changed – Barzini (Richard Conte) killed beside his waiting car not on the steps, Tattaglia (Tony Giorgio) murdered in a chalet not an apartment block. Somewhat surprisingly the image of acolytes paying homage to Michael as briefly viewed by Kay has its origins in the book. The two final scenes in the book, both concerning Kay, are excluded from the film, in the first, having run away, she is challenged by Hagen and in the second she prays for Michael’s soul in church just as (in the book) Michael’s mother had prayed for his father

A lengthy chapter on Vito’s beginnings, explaining his early relationships with Clemenza, Tessio (Abe Vigoda) and Luca Brasi, was wisely held over for The Godfather Part II.

Having by now read a number of books that were subsequently filmed, my over-riding impression was that in many cases (The Secret Ways, Arabesque) little survived of the original tale or that characters, locations and timescales (The Detective) were substantially altered. In some instances the book’s length precluded a straightforward adaptation. Occasionally, subjects easily dealt with on the printed page were not so welcome on the screen. But, for whatever reason, change appeared inevitable for a bestseller being translated into a movie.

The Godfather almost stands alone as a novel that made the transition with virtually no alterations. All the main characters are present as described by Puzo and the storyline entirely reflects the book. The bulk of the dialogue was originally written by Puzo. While there is no doubting the Coppola’s achievement in putting the book on film, there is equally no doubt that the book leant itself to easier adaptation than most bestsellers.

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