How Paramount’s First Big Sale Spurred a New Hollywood Era in 1966 (2024)

How Paramount’s First Big Sale Spurred a New Hollywood Era in 1966 (1)

WhenParamountPictures was finally absorbed by a conglomerate in 1966, it had been a long-running Hollywood powerhouse that was now contending with a new set of challenges.

Perfectly described by historian Robert Sklar as “the house Adolph Zukor built,”Paramountwas one of the first major studios. As its leader, Zukor set in motion both industrial vertical integration along with a carefully constructed machinery for curating and maintaining celebrity image. Though Zukor was no longer chairman of the board by the time Gulf + Western swept in to take overParamount, the founding mogul’s influence still permeated the studio gates.

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At a time when Hollywood was searching for a new identity — founding moguls were gone or largely retired, shattered self-censorship practices were making way for a modern ratings system, studios were being gobbled up by companies outside of the entertainment realm —Paramountmanaged to prevail in glorious fashion. Within a couple years, in 1968, the studio was producing gems likeThe Odd Couple andRosemary’s Baby, and co-producingOnce Upon a Time in the West.

How Paramount’s First Big Sale Spurred a New Hollywood Era in 1966 (2)

Hollywood in 1966 was at a crossroads. Charles Champlin wrote in theLos Angeles Timesthat it was a “watershed year” for the industry: “never in modern times has the actual financial control of the studios been in contention on such a scale.” Columbia was taken over by the Swiss Banque de Paris and MGM was under constant “stock holding insurgents,” while United Artists, Warner Bros., Disney and Fox were all seeing ownership changes.

Champlin also noted that the relationship between movies and television was still up in the air, highlighting thatThe Bridge on the River Kwai(1957) was leased to TV for $2 million that allowed for two airings. Studio backlogs, once seen as highly flammable celluloid clutter, began attracting big dollar signs. The scale of this Hollywood/TV deal landed the attention of Gulf + Western executive Charles Bludhorn. An unnamed executive told Champlin that the least one could expect to lease a Hollywood feature as a television premiere event was $500,000. Celluloid clutter no more.

Paramountwas taken over by Gulf + Western in late 1966 in what TheNew York Timescalled its “biggest coup yet.” After moving from earnings of $400,000 in 1959 to $20 million in 1966, G&W acquired assets from everywhere including aerospace, electrical, minerals, chemical companies, and Hollywood studios.

G&W purchased over 18 percent ofParamountstock, enough to gain control, and merged the studio and its assets under its banner in October 1966. Studio boss Howard Koch stepped down in November but was retained as an independent producer, in which role he oversawThe Odd Couple(it was and remains all too common for new management to kill existing projects to create their own, which didn’t happen here). Soon after, actor-turned-producer Robert Evans was hired by Bludhorn to serve asParamountstudio chief.

How Paramount’s First Big Sale Spurred a New Hollywood Era in 1966 (3)

Evans ranParamountfrom 1966-74, during which time the studio releasedTrue Grit(1969),Catch 22(1970),Love Story(1970), The Godfather(1972),Paper MoonandSerpicoin 1973, as well as a banner 1974 that sawThe Conversation,Chinatown,The Parallax View,Death Wish,The Longest Yard,The Great Gatsby andThe Godfather Part II, landing numerous Oscars in the process.

Evans focused on the creative element while Bernard Donnenfeld, vp production administration, kept an eye on the purse. “We discuss together the potential commerciality of each proposed project,” Donnenfeld said, speaking to 125 members of the press at The Beverly Hills Hotel in February 1967. Evans added, “our aim is to makeParamountparamountin the industry again.”

The studio’s filming output was about to reach its highest level in over two decades, when Hollywood was enjoying 85 million viewers per week after World War II.

As dramatized in The Offer, Evans did have tussles with some of his employees, such as skirmishes with Francis Ford Coppola during The Godfather. Coppola told Davis that [when casting Michael Corleone] “We used to kid, he wants a guy that looks like him and I want one that looks like me.” During casting, Evans would get a call from a columnist asking about why they would cast an “ugly” like Pacino. “Bob listens to people like that,” said Coppola.

Writing in theChicago Tribune, journalist Ivor Davis referred to Evans in 1973 as “a glory seeker but not power hungry; ambitious but not ruthless; a taskmaster but not a tyrant; a lady’s man who doesn’t have a high regard for women; a good team man with personality plus. But a loner.” Evans took risks on great stories. His talent liked him because Evans was one of them, as an actor turned studio boss, his heart was always with the talent.The Godfatherauthor Mario Puzo often spoke of his first meeting with Evans when the studio boss took a phone call in his closet. “Louis B. Mayer would have shoved us into the cupboard an taken the call at his desk,” quipped Puzo.

How Paramount’s First Big Sale Spurred a New Hollywood Era in 1966 (4)

Sam Wasson, whose book onChinatownwas included inThe Hollywood Reporter’sbest film books list, wrote inLos Angeles Magazinethat Evans turnedParamount“into a cultural revolution … he saved the lot … he saved the studio.” The range of talent brought toParamountduring the Evans period is a who’s who of the New Hollywood era — Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Alan Pakula, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Mia Farrow, Ali MacGraw, Mike Nichols, Gene Hackman, Burt Reynolds, Alan Arkin, Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Redford and so on.

At the end of his life, Evans could still captivate a room. I met him during a signing at Book Soup a few years before his death. I asked Evans who he respected more than anyone in Hollywood after all these years. “Jack Nicholson,” he said without missing a beat. “Robert Evans loved a good story,” wrote Wasson, “but he may have loved Hollywood more.” Evans is a reminder of the days when a Hollywood executive rose the ranks in Hollywood and not some disparate industry.

How Paramount’s First Big Sale Spurred a New Hollywood Era in 1966 (5)

TV executive Barry Diller was tapped to runParamountin 1974, bringing his television expertise along with an impressive crew, all of whom are well known today as “The Killer Dillers” — Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Dawn Steel and Don Simpson.Paramounthad also purchased Desilu Productions (Star Trek,Mission Impossible) in 1967 and had the machinery to create quality television. Under Diller,Paramountproduced hit TV seriesLaverne & Shirley(1976),Taxi(1978) andCheers(1982), along with generation-defining filmsSaturday Night Fever(1977),Grease(1978) andRaiders of the Lost Ark(1981).

How Paramount’s First Big Sale Spurred a New Hollywood Era in 1966 (6)

Under Frank Mancuso Sr., the heads of production were Don Simpson (1981-82), Jeffrey Katzenberg (82-84) and Dawn Steel (85-87). The number of successful and iconic films still celebrated today are nearly too many to list —48 Hrs.(1982);Flashdance,Trading Places(1983);Footloose,Beverly Hills Cop(1984);Clue,Witness, (1985);Top Gun,Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,Manhunter,Crocodile Dundee(1986);Beverly Hills Cop II,The Untouchables,Fatal Attraction,Planes, Trains and Automobiles andEddie Murphy Raw(1987).

How Paramount’s First Big Sale Spurred a New Hollywood Era in 1966 (7)

By the late 1980s, Gulf + Western rebranded and restructured asParamountCommunications to shift the conglomerate’s focus to entertainment. After a failed bid to land Time (losing out to Warner), the company took on several TV stations and further developed the USA and Syfy networks.Paramountwas ultimately bought out by Viacom in 1994, starting the Sumner Redstone era.Paramountmanaged to find trustworthy entertainment leadership in Sherry Lansing (1992-2004) who helped usher in an era of major blockbusters likeForrest Gump(1994),Braveheart(1995) andTitanic(1997). Lansing was replaced by Brad Grey (2005-17) during the acquisition of DreamWorks and a revamped Viacom that boomed with CBS, Showtime, Simon & Schuster, MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, BET, Comedy Central and many other assets.

Paramounthas a long history, dating back to its inception, of hiring “show people” to steer the ship. The studio’s history is commendable and one that should offer hope for Hollywood after years of rough seas. Movies have always prevailed, despite rhetoric from detractors of the day.Paramounthas always been a force to keep film alive. Here’s to hoping that the house that Adolph Zukor built stays a beacon of light in Tinseltown.

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