Barry Hirsch put together what may be the biggest prefinancing deal ever garnished from foreign distributors.
Andrew Laskos, American Film, 1979

It’s Cannes season in Hollywood, and naturally I think back to the moment when Francis Ford Coppola threw his Oscars out the window of his Napa Valley home. In 1975, he had five. One for writing Patton, one for writing The Godfather, and three for writing, directing, and producing The Godfather: Part II.

Frustrated, baffled, dejected, at the crest of a triumphant winning streak (between the first and second Godfather movies, he made The Conversation) unmatched in the history of the movie business, and he couldn’t get a studio—not Warners, not Universal, not his home team, Paramount—to say yes to his next picture, Apocalypse Now.

He needed, give or take, between $12 and $14 million—a lot of money for a mortgage, but not for a movie. His last, The Godfather: Part II, had come in at around $13.6 million. Why were they saying no? What kind of industry turns down its M.V.P.? And when he’s got a commercial picture? Apocalypse Now wasn’t My Night at Maud’s. It was a war movie.

O.K., a Vietnam war movie. That scared them. The U.S. Army had just evacuated Saigon in defeat that April. But what scared the studios more than controversy was the deal Coppola was seeking: he wanted to own the negative, which in those days meant he would own the movie. Why, he figured, should the studio get all the benefit? Back end was nice, but points were kid stuff. Why should a director labor to make somebody else rich?

The fact that studios just didn’t make those kinds of deals would not deter Coppola. If anything, the lack of precedent only fired him up. That’s part of the reason why he wanted to make a Vietnam movie in the first place. No one was doing it.

A 1978 screening of an unfinished cut of the film in Westwood, Los Angeles.

Having been turned down by every studio in Hollywood, the most successful movie director on the planet became an independent filmmaker. He would have to put Apocalypse Now together himself. And it wasn’t just about the money; it was to send a message to the studios: You think we need you? We don’t need you. You need us.

Agents? After The Godfather: Part II, Coppola didn’t need them either. Agents were, if anything, salesmen selling to the studios, but Coppola didn’t need to be taken to market. Why pay their percentage? He wasn’t looking for work and wasn’t looking for a package. Writers? He was a writer. As for stars, they’d call him. So Coppola did what so many dream of doing but few actually do. He fired his agents.

Was Coppola too late? Maybe the era of the filmmaker was over. Jaws had taught the studios they could hard-sell their way to a hit, and increasingly it was stars, not executives, that were holding the cards. On The Godfather: Part II, for instance, Al Pacino had script approval. “The night before photography,” says Barry Hirsch, Pacino’s lawyer, “I sent a letter to Francis saying that Al disapproved the screenplay and was not going to do it.” (Coppola stayed up all night re-writing.) Who was making the movies here? Actors? Lawyers?

After winning his Oscars for The Godfather: Part II, Coppola strode into Hirsch’s office and said, “I want you to be president of my company.”

They had never met before. But Coppola remembered the letter—and was impressed.

“I don’t think so,” Hirsch replied.

A couple of weeks later, Coppola asked Hirsch to be his lawyer. Hirsch said yes.

As for those stars, if Coppola got one, he could get at least some of the financing he needed. But Steve McQueen, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson—they all said no. In New York, Coppola locked himself in a room with Pacino and wouldn’t let him out until he got a yes. “I remember I was skiing in Park City,” says Hirsch. “And after each run down the hill I’d lean into the phone booth and call Francis. ‘No, he hasn’t said yes yet … ’”

It was around then that Francis Ford Coppola threw his five Oscars out the window. Four broke.

A Very, Very Good Deal

Hirsch, who had been lawyering since 1958, lost his mojo in the mid-70s. “I was kind of getting bored with the practice of law,” he says. “It seemed like the deals were getting the same. Numbers changed, but everything began to be the same except the names of the people. At that point in my life, I guess I was interested in more challenges.”

Barry Hirsch, Coppola’s lawyer—and a practicing psychologist trained in family-and-child analysis—in 2019; a page from the script of Apocalypse Now shows an alternative ending.

Hirsch went into group therapy. He got interested in transactional analysis and the work of the psychiatrist Eric Berne, author of Games People Play, an offshoot of Freudian psychology that looked for parent-child dynamics in social and professional situations. Hirsch earned his master’s in family-and-child analysis from Azusa Pacific University. It was an education that “helped me survive the vicissitudes of the business,” he says. He started seeing patients. Patients and clients. Was anyone in Hollywood more qualified to negotiate?

The challenge he was looking for he got in Apocalypse Now. Coppola, Hirsch says, was “the financier and the production company and the employee all wrapped into one.” And he wanted to own the negative.

“It was ultimately something he could borrow against,” explains producer Tom Sternberg, “or keep making money from.” “And of course,” Hirsch says, “one of the other reasons Francis wanted to own his movie is because of Hollywood accounting,” the creative bookkeeping practices of studio lawyers. “We wanted to control those back ends,” he says, referring to the lucrative percentages of dollars earned, “the definitions and the control and administration of all that stuff.” But how?

They’d go—brandishing a fresh yes from Marlon Brando—to United Artists. Not a studio in the traditional sense (it had no lot of its own), U.A. in those days was a friend to filmmakers at odds with the studio system. Also, Hirsch and Coppola had nowhere else to go. “United Artists was the only player,” Hirsch says. “It was in our best interest for them not to know that they were the only player, and we made a very good deal—a very, very good deal.”

It wasn’t just about the money; it was to send a message to the studios: You think we need you? We don’t need you. You need us.

U.A. agreed to put up $7 million for domestic-distribution rights. But here was the beauty part: seven years after the movie’s release, the rights to Apocalypse Now would revert back to Coppola. He would own the negative and all the proceeds from the movie, less payouts to profit participants such as Brando (who for only four weeks of work got a jaw-droppingly huge 11.3 percent of the movie). None of Coppola’s gross was contingent on U.A.’s advertising expenses. “I don’t imagine anybody else owns a negative of a picture like this, except Francis,” Sternberg says. “Certainly, nobody’s owned it since. And I doubt that anybody was owning them before.”

By the time they made the domestic-rights deal with U.A., Coppola had already started shooting—on his own dime. According to Sternberg, “a couple of million at least of Francis’s money was in it. I mean, certainly all the pre-production. But that was Francis’s style. His philosophy was always ‘I’m going to go and make the movie. And if everybody knows I’m going to make it, it will fall into place.’”

Coppola on location for Apocalypse Now. He started shooting the film on his own dime.

Fear of missing out, Coppola knew, lit a flame under the money. As great a producer as he is a director, he’d worked that way since he started shooting his first original screenplay, The Rain People, before Warner Bros. had agreed to finance it. “Interestingly enough,” Hirsch says, “of all of the entrepreneurs, the successful filmmakers who have gone on to make huge careers and much money, never, except for Francis, none of them was willing to put his tail on the line. They all let the studios take the risk.”

But U.A. put up only half the budget. Coppola needed more. About seven million more.

The Other Cannes

May 1976. It was Hirsch’s first visit to Cannes.

“I was kind of naïve,” he says. “I mean, I didn’t really know what to expect. We knew how much we needed from foreign territories, but it was all brand-new. There were independent movies before that were sold on this kind of format, but never at this level.” In an increasingly fearful Hollywood, they would become more commonplace. But back then, “I was kind of flying blind,” Hirsch says. “There was never anything for me to call upon as precedent.” And no turning back: Coppola was already months into production.

Hirsch started taking meetings from his bedroom at the Carlton Cannes Hotel, sometimes with his wife looking on. (“It was really pretty funny,” Hirsch says.) For the next week, he would barely see the lobby, and certainly no movies. In that room, he encountered the other Cannes, far off the red carpet, and farther still from Hollywood, whose parallel customs of equivocation (“We’ll get back to you … ”) and urgency (“Let’s make a deal!”) did not apply to the practice of pre-selling foreign rights.

Dennis Hopper as the unnamed photojournalist.

“I didn’t know how to negotiate with different cultures,” Hirsch says. “The Italians were coming in and out, the Turks were coming in and out, the Israelis were coming in. With the Japanese, it’s very slow. With the Italians, it’s very fast. Because with the Italians, you make a deal, you say yes, and then they start to negotiate terms. With the Japanese, you always think it’s a yes, but you never quite get anything.” Twenty meetings, twenty territories. Hirsch saw the whole world without leaving the hotel.

What he found, thankfully, was a universal excitement about Coppola. And where Hollywood was scared of Vietnam, the international market, as it turned out, was “enamored of it.”

“The idea of them buying the movie was not in question,” Hirsch says. “I didn’t have to pitch anything. I just had to negotiate.”

A full three years later, after tremendous (and costly) typhoons, revolutions in the Philippines, Martin Sheen’s heart attack—“Everything that could happen on a movie happened,” Hirsch says—Coppola was flying (coach, to save money) to New York to show his latest cut of Apocalypse Now to United Artists. Dining on a picnic lunch of cold chicken, Coppola turned to Sternberg with an idea: What if we took the unfinished film to Cannes?

A work in progress had never been screened at Cannes before. “If we’d been savaged in Cannes, then we wouldn’t have had a movie,” Sternberg says. “And just the opposite happened.”

In Cannes on May 13, 1979, Coppola gave a press-conference performance to rival any film in competition, even his own. “The way we made it,” he said to a roomful of entranced journalists, “was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.”

Apocalypse Now shared the festival’s highest honor, the Palme d’Or, with The Tin Drum.

But it is on the deal—my favorite deal in movie history—that Coppola keeps winning. “We own the movie,” Hirsch says. “We own all the proceeds of the movie,” which grossed more than $100 million worldwide. “The only thing we have to do is pay out the profit participants on the movie—like Marlon.”

Sam Wasson is the author of several books, including The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. His next book, The Path to Paradise: Francis Ford Coppola, the Apocalypse and the Dream, will be published by Harper in November