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A Plea for Someone to Save Megalopolis

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Dear France,

Our culture is failing. It’s always failing. We worship the wrong things and ignore great stuff that’s right under our noses. 

You know this about us. And you’ve often been there to say, “Hey, buddy—look down for a second, there’s a beautiful flower right there near your foot—don’t step on it!” 

Can you help us out one more time? 

You must know how “Megalopolis,” the movie that Francis Ford Coppola, the writer and/or director of multiple all-time classics, is being treated by the film industry here? 

It’s disgraceful, yes? 

The Cannes Film Festival just announced that “Megalopolis” had been selected to play in competition this year, which is fantastic. But can you step it up a bit from here? Is that possible? 

Remember that in 1979, Coppola had gotten thumped by the American media for spending so long shooting and editing his phantasmagoric Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now,” and he showed an uncompleted cut at Cannes, and it jointly won the Palme d’Or along with “The Tin Drum,” and the momentum from that carried over to the theatrical release a few months later, translating into a surprisingly healthy box office, nominations and awards, and a cultural afterlife that continues to this very day? 

Even if it doesn’t win in competition, could you maybe give it something? I mean, if only to shame our own entertainment industry for treating Coppola the way Orson Welles was treated in the 1960s and ‘70s, when he had to spend the money that he made by acting, plus whatever he raised by charming rich people, to finance low-budget movies in Europe, because nobody here would give him a dime?

Coppola is a giant of that magnitude. He won an Oscar for writing “Patton” and then went on to direct “The Godfather” and its sequels, plus “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now,” as well as “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “The Outsiders,” “Rumble Fish,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and a lot of other films that are fondly remembered and became widely seen even when they didn’t connect with audiences or critics in the states on first release. Even “One from the Heart,” his gobsmackingly obsessive 1982 Las Vegas musical shot entirely on sets, has started to find an audience, after basically bankrupting him, and has even proved influential on young filmmakers (“La La Land” and HBO’s “Euphoria” would not exist without it). He has often financed films with his own money, a thing that filmmakers are warned never to do. He’s a romantic that way. 

And he did it again with the futuristic parable of governance “Megalopolis,” selling a chunk of his family’s wine business to finance it to the tune of $120 million. He’s got more courage in his pinky than most executives have in their whole bodies.

And now he can’t get anyone to distribute it in the United States. 

Hollywood has always been known a place where the powers that be, the suits, The Man, whatever you want to call executives, didn’t truly understand the art of motion pictures, much less have the humility to embrace the number one rule of showbiz, which is “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” or, more succinctly, William Goldman’s maxim “Nobody knows anything.” It’s true that it’s not show friends, it’s show business. But until fairly recently, you could bet your house on the certainty that the executive suite at a Hollywood studio would include a fair number of people who liked movies, or pretended to, at least on general principle, and perhaps even had seen enough of them to be able to fake their way through a five-minute conversation with a famous director they wanted to sign, and had at least a vague sense that you can’t grow an industry and create new moviegoers by endlessly repurposing the same old “Intellectual Property” (what a dreary phrase). That, at some point, you have to try something new, something different.  

Our current system is not up to the present challenge. A Hollywood Reporter piece summed up the general pessimism towards “Megalopolis” in a pile of anonymous quotes. “There is just no way to position this movie,” said “one distributor.” “Everyone is rooting for Francis and feels nostalgic, but then there is the business side of things,” said “one attendee” (Whatever that means. A studio boss? A personal assistant?) According to “one studio head” (finally, somebody in a position to make a deal!) it’s “‘some kind of indie experiment’” that might find a home at a streamer (bummer, never mind). Somebody identified as “a third attendee” (Who? A chief content officer for a streaming platform? An actor’s personal masseuse?) told the publication, “Does it wobble, wander, go all over the place? Yes. But it’s really imaginative and does say something about our time. I think it’s going to be a small, specialized label [that picks it up].” 

The kicker came from “another studio head” who “was far less charitable” about the movie. “It’s so not good, and it was so sad watching it. Anybody who puts P&A behind it, you’re going to lose money. This is not how Coppola should end his directing career.” 

An actual LOL update appeared the following day: “Megalopolis will premiere in Cannes.” 

That’s a wonderful first attempt to turn this ship around. But it’ll take more than that, I’m afraid.

Give him something. It doesn’t even have to be a competitive award. You can make something up, create some category that never existed, to jump-start or rescue a career or a movie. 

It would be the perfect year in which to do it: You’re already giving a special award to George Lucas, whom Coppola mentored at the University of Southern California in the 1960s, and who collaborated on “Apocalypse Now” (Coppola paid John Milius $15,000 out of his own pocket to write the script, which Lucas was originally going to direct.)

Then maybe this could be followed up by a few European studios, streaming platforms, or even some film funds writing checks to Coppola to hire his own marketing and promotion team and take “Megalopolis” on the road in the USA, city by city, for the promotional value. Then go straight to YouTube and let people rent it, all over the world. While it plays theaters in the rest of the world.

I don’t know exactly what to do! I’m not a distribution expert. 

But I do know a lot about entertainment history, and I can tell you for a fact that there is an ignoble tradition of people insisting it was impossible do a thing in the entertainment business until somebody figured out that it was do-able. Added to which, plenty of things that were dismissed as uncommercial turned out to be industry-altering successes, in the fullness of time, if not immediately.

I don’t buy the idea that the film is inherently uncommercial. Universal just made a billion dollars and won an armload of Oscars by releasing a three-hour, R-rated nonlinear film about Robert Oppenheimer that was so dense with historical detail that people were standing around in theater lobbies afterward looking up Isidor Issac Rabi and Luis Walter Alvarez on Wikipedia. Nobody wanted “Star Wars” until 20th Century Fox took a gamble on financing it, and Hollywood has been chasing the next “Star Wars” ever since. 

Streaming platforms and studios have dropped billions on projects that are no more or less innately box-office viable than “Megalopolis.” It’s not an inconceivable proposition to take on this film as well. 

Lots of projects have gotten picked up or completely financed because the companies understood the value (and awards potential, and subscriber-bait nature) of helping established filmmakers do personal epics, a value that goes far beyond arithmetic on a balance sheet. Streamers have financed a ton of them, including “The Irishman,” “Okja,” “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” “Da 5 Bloods,” the miniseries “When They See Us,” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Napoleon” and the Snyder cut of “Justice League.” But for some reason they’re drawing the line at this one, despite the fact that they could recoup the estimated $120 million needed to properly promote “Megalopolis” over the long haul, through a combination of box office, online rentals and purchases, and new subscribers to a streaming service. These things do happen. “Blade Runner” bombed in 1982, and do you think Warner Bros. regrets financing it today? 

I think they just need a nudge here. 

A little signal that France (and perhaps a few other countries) are willing to expend critical or cultural capital, and even better, actual capital, to honor one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and who has (if we must be crass about it, and at this point I think we must) pumped billions of dollars into the global economy via his previous work, and inspired through example successive generations of filmmakers who were just as acclaimed, and in some cases far more popular, than Coppola. I’m talking about “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Shaming, through the tactical installation of Fear of Missing Out. The chances of somebody wanting “Megalopolis” in Coppola’s home country might improve once it becomes clear that others want it. Nobody wants to be left out of a trend, right?

I know, I know—you’ve ridden to our cultural rescue many times over the last century-plus. You’re constantly recognizing that forms of expression derided as folk art or vulgar or “mere product” in the nations that invented them—including the United States—are in fact honest-to-goodness art forms, even when the people who control the levers of commerce and official culture in that country are too dense to figure it out for themselves. 

You have parades in honor of artists, writers, and other cultural giants after they die. Jean-Paul Sartre got one, and he didn’t even make people feel good! 

You get it. You’ve always gotten it. We don’t, by and large, and we never have. That’s why you have traditionally been our wise big brother when it comes to artistic matters, saying, “No, no, no, America, stop looking at this dumb, obvious thing, and instead look over here at this thing that’s interesting.” 

Your track record is so extensive that “they love me in France” has long been a self-deprecating joke among American artists who can’t raise a nickel to do anything here, but can’t enter a theater, gallery or concert hall in France without somebody handing them an award or writing them a check. 

Whether extolling the virtues of jazz, rhythm and blues, film noir, the gangster movie, the Western, the Hollywood musical, and comics, you folks have proved that you have a more discerning eye, ear and mind than we do. I’m hoping you’ll prove it again on behalf of Mr. Coppola.

We’ll even put you on the poster. Right at the top, it will say: “From the Country That Gave You The Statue of Liberty.”

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