The walls of Frank Yablan's office suite at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel are decorated with photographic mementos. Perhaps the most intriguing is an invitation to the premiere of Paramount's 1974 movie version of "The Great Gatsby," a resounding critical disaster.
Why that one?
"To remind myself that you mustn't oversell a picture," Yablans explained. That sounded a little odd coming from the most astute salesman in the movie business, and whose current project is Brian De Palma's "The Fury." In fact, Yablans, who resigned the presidency of Paramount and turned to independent production for 20th Century-Fox in 1975, has become as well known as David O. Selznick and Darryl F. Zanuck before him.
Is there such a thing as overselling a picture?
"I don't think so," Yablans replied reassuringly. "The critics thought so. They raked us over the coals. But it made money. The last I heard Redford was into profits with it. Ironic, huh? He (widely disparaged) it when it was released."
Yablans has spent more than enough time in the movie business - half his 42 years - to take the long view of most issues that once stirred controversy or outrage. "Just last summer," he recalled, "I was getting brutalized in the press over "The Other Side of Midnight." Now a lot of the same people seem to have become closet freaks for "The Other Side of Midnight."
"You've gotta keep these things in proportion. After all, it's just a movie. We tried to take a class approach, but it came from a schlock novel, and I stayed as close to the book as I could, since that's the audience it was intended for. I'll admit I didn't get everything I wanted. Like Warren Beatty.If he'd played the lead, it might have been easier to understand why the heroine waited and schemed all that time to get him back. But you can't wait forever for Beatty to say yes."
Yablans got a reputation for saying no when he was the highest executive authority at Paramount from 1971 through 1974, and it was not a reputation he found gratifying. "When you're the president of a movie company," he said, "you don't enjoy much interplay with the creative talent. You're isolated from them. The way I ran Paramount was the least devious way in the world. It was either yes or no, right off the bat, and 90 percent of the time the answer was no. Obviously, this creates resentment in the people who get turned down, and the film-making world is a very, very small world full of very, very large but fragile egos.
"Someone has to play the heavy. Robert Evans, who was head of production, could pass the buck. He's out in Hollywood to begin with, so if someone feels abused, it's easy for him to say, 'I know, I know,' to Dusty or Al or Jack or whoever. 'I want to make your picture too in the worst way, but what can I do? There's this lunatic back in New York running things. He won't let me.'
"Now the same people who resented me look back nostalgically and say, 'You weren't so bad, you know? At least you made a decision. I'd rather deal with you than these guys who keep you dangling forever while they pretend to make up their minds.' What I'm doing now is really much more in keeping with my personality and much more satisfying."
Yablans now has three productions to his credit: "The Silver Streak," which has returned $44 million in worldwide rentals on a production cost of $5.3 million; "The Other Side of Midnight," which has returned domestic rentals of $23 million on a cost of $7.2 million; and "The Fury," a semi-delirious shocker directed by Brian De Palma, which cost $5.5 million and opened at several hundred American theaters last week.
Yablans does not believe in gradual, selective release patterns. "All it means," he says, "is that you don't have confidence in what you're selling." As contemporary production costs go, his films have not been remarkably expensive, a point he takes pride in.
"At Paramount," Yablans said, "I never made a picture over $6 million except 'Godfather II,' and that was a total indulgence, an indulgence Francis Coppola made for himself. "The Godfather' was made with great financial restraint. I have this mythological reputation of being a man with a monstrous ego. Coppola's the one with the gigantic ego. The egos of Frank Yablans, Bob Evans and Charlie Bluhdorn combined wouldn't compare with it. It's gonna catch up with him and cost him on 'Apocalypse Now.' To make a picture for $30 million is an outrage. It disgusts me. No one should be allowed such an indulgence.
"Studios are making fewer films because costs are rising. It's an inescapable economic problem. It may cost more to promote a film than make it. When you make a film for $2 million, you've actually made a $6 million film, considering the costs of mass advertising, exploitation and distribution. The so-called small film tends to suffer because it costs the same to sell a $10-million production as the $2-million production. All the same, that extra production cost had better show up on the screen.
"Of course, it's become very difficult to lose money on a presentable film these days because film companies have so many ancillary sources of income - television, records, paperback books. When home video systems become widespread, they'll create an enormous additional market and almost certainly lead to an increase in production.
"And don't waste any tears over movie celebrities who claim they're being robbed. A top producer gets a minimum of $250,000 to start with and a top director starts at around $300,000. There is always a disparity between profitability for a studio and for the filmmakers who have profit participations, but none of us are starving."
Does Yablans' own prominence require a special form of etiquette with the directors he hires?
"Definitely," he testifies, "and the etiquette begins when we decide to work together. A director who works with me knows that it may say a Frank Yablans presentation but it will be a Brian De Palma film. In the final analysis I'll go with what he wants to do. I'm a working producer. I'm on the set every day prepared to work my butt off. That doesn't mean I interfere with the director. But if I think something on the set is wrong or isn't being utilized, I may bring it to his attention. We develop an eye contact, walk out of earshot and discuss whatever seems to be wrong.
"The old business of throwing your weight around on the set or bombarding the company with memos is totally uncalled for. The great option you have as a producer is that you're always seeing the dailies. If something didn't work in yesterday's shooting, you can shoot it over. Why risk a personality clash on the set, where egos are quick to boil over anyway, when you can go back and correct your mistakes?"
Yablans was interrupted by a telephone call. "Kirk!" he exploded. "You good-looking son-of-a-gun! How's the aging wonder? Kirk, I've come to a painful decision. I'm not gonna do the Mike Douglas show with you. You look too goddamn handsome, that's why! How would it look? Here's this short, bald-headed Jewish guy from Brooklyn next to this tall Russian Jewish hero with the profile and the head of hair! It's Don Rickles against Spartacus! One favor please: Stop talking about Michael; brag about my kids for a change."
After completing this hearty exchange with the star of his latest production, Yablans flashed his characteristic and somewhat unnerving smile, in which the corners of his mouth turn way, way up. His reputation as a killer may be grossly exaggerated, but that's a precious killer's smile.
"That's part of the job," Yablans confided. "Stroking the talent, keeping everybody in the company happy.Everybody needs love and reassurance. I love everybody and everything, and you can quote me on that."