Hollywood Movies

Francis Ford Coppola’s Challenges in Distribution

April 8, 20245 Mins Read

NBCUniversal chief content officer Donna Langley was there. So was Sony head Tom Rothman. Bob Iger was one of the few Hollywood heavyweights who couldn’t make it, but at least he had a good excuse, still in the midst of a vicious proxy battle with investor Nelson Peltz.

The event: The grand unveiling of Megalopolis, the self-funded epic from legendary The Godfather trilogy director Francis Ford Coppola, to the titans of the film industry. The March 28 screening — held 10 a.m. at the Universal CityWalk Imax theater — was also attended by such Coppola-verse luminaries as nephew Nicolas Cage, The Godfather series star Al Pacino and Spike Jonze, Coppola’s ex-son-in-law. Two of the film’s stars — Shia LaBeouf and Coppola’s sister, Talia Shire — were also on hand.

The project, which Coppola first began writing in 1983, cost a reported $120 million to make — funded in part by the sale of a significant portion of his wine empire (the 2021 deal was reportedly worth over $500 million). Clocking in at two hours and 15 minutes, the film follows the rebuilding of a metropolis after its accidental destruction, with two competing visions — one from an idealist architect (Adam Driver), the other from its pragmatist mayor (Giancarlo Esposito) — clashing in the process. References to ancient Rome — including Caesar haircuts on the men — abound.

Coppola, 84, has said no decisions will be made regarding a festival bow until a distribution plan is put in place. But while there was no shortage of curious suitors there — in addition to Rothman and Sarandos, Warner Bros.’ Pam Abdy, Disney live-action boss David Greenbaum, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and Paramount’s Marc Weinstock were all spotted — multiple sources inside the screening tell The Hollywood Reporter that Megalopolis will face a steep uphill battle to find a distribution partner. Says one distributor: “There is just no way to position this movie.”

“Everyone is rooting for Francis and feels nostalgic,” adds another attendee. “But then there is the business side of things.”

A third attendee noted “a conspicuous silence at the end of it,” but stopped short of writing off the film as a failed exercise. “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].”

But a boutique label like A24 or Neon would likely not have the budget for the grand marketing push Coppola has envisioned. One source tell THR that Coppola assumed he would make a deal very quickly, and that a studio would happily commit to a massive P&A (prints and advertising, including all marketing) spend in the vicinity of $40 million domestically, and $80 million to $100 million globally.

That kind of big-stakes rollout would make Megalopolis a better fit for a studio-backed specialty label like the Disney-owned Searchlight or the Universal-owned Focus. But Universal and Focus have already tapped out of the bidding, sources tell THR

“I find it hard to believe any distributor would put up cash money and stay in first position to recoup the P&A as well as their distribution fee,” says a distribution veteran. “If [Coppola] is willing to put up the P&A or backstop the spend, I think there would be a lot more interested parties.” 

Since Coppola was always keen for this to be an Imax release, there was a small screening at the company’s Playa Vista headquarters in Los Angeles prior to the buyer’s event (the first time the director saw the film in full on an Imax screen). While Megalopolis isn’t a “Filmed for Imax” movie — meaning it isn’t guaranteed a full Imax release — Coppola did use camera technology that would allow him to shoot certain sequences that would fill an entire Imax screen, and worked with the company’s chief quality experts David and Patricia Keighley, who advise filmmakers.

Imax is likely to give the film some support if it gets distribution, sources close to the project say. Like others, however, Imax expected the film to be far more commercial, sources add.

Following the muted response to the March 28 screening, it’s now not even clear if a studio would agree to a negative pickup deal, in which the studio would buy the film outright, or one in which it would distribute the film for a fee. One studio head in attendance described it as “some kind of indie experiment” that might find a home at a streamer.

Most of those who spoke to THR describe a film that is an enormously hard sell to a wide audience. Two people say it’s hard to figure out who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. The big exception is LaBeouf, who they say is the best thing about the film (he’s one of the antagonists).

Several have mentioned an especially cringey sequence involving Jon Voight’s character in bed with what looks like a huge erection; the scene evidently takes quite the turn, but we will not spoil it here.

Not everyone was turned off. “I liked it enormously,” says one specialty label founder, who describes Megalopolis as a “very big film” that “has a real life. … How do you define commercial? You look at movie like Blade Runner and it became so much more commercial than on opening weekend.” Despite the vote of confidence, Megalopolis won’t find a home at his studio: “It takes time to find right match,” he says.

Another studio head, however, was far less charitable in his assessment: “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.”

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