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How Paramount’s First Big Sale Spurred a New Hollywood Era In 1966

How Paramount’s First Big Sale Spurred a New Hollywood Era In 1966

When Paramount Pictures 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,” Paramount was 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 over Paramount, the founding mogul’s influence still permeated the studio gates.

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 — Paramount managed to prevail in glorious fashion. Within a couple years, in 1968, the studio was producing gems like The Odd CoupleRosemary’s Baby, and co-producing Once Upon a Time in the West.

Prospective actors line up looking for a break at the Paramount lot in the 1930s.

Hollywood in 1966 was at a crossroads. Charles Champlin wrote in The Los Angeles Times that 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, MGM was under constant “stock holding insurgents,” while United Artists, Warner Bros., Disney, and Fox were all seeing ownership changes.

Chaplin also noted that the relationship between movies and television was still up in the air, highlighting that The 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 can expect to lease a Hollywood feature as a television premiere event was $500,000. Celluloid clutter no more.  

Paramount was taken over by Gulf + Western in late 1966 in what the New York Times called 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 of Paramount stock, enough to gain control, and merged the studio and its assets under their banner in October 1966. Studio boss Howard Koch stepped down in November but was retained as an independent producer, in which role he oversaw The 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 as Paramount studio chief.

Seated: Adolph Zukor, standing from left: Paramount President Frank Yablans, Gulf + Western CEO Charlie Bluhdorn and Robert Evans at Paramount Pictures’ 60th anniversary in 1972.

Evans ran Paramount from 1966-1974 during which time the studio released True Grit (1969), Catch 22 (1970), Love Story (1970), The Godfather (1972), Paper Moon and Serpico in 1973, as well as a banner 1974 that saw The ConversationChinatownThe Parallax ViewDeath WishThe Longest YardThe Great Gatsby, and The Godfather Part II, landing numerous Oscars in the process.

Evans focused on the creative element while Bernard Donnenfeld, vice president of 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 make Paramount paramount in 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 i 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 look 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 the Chicago 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 like him because Evans was one of them, as an actor turned studio boss, his heart was always with the talent. The Godfather author 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.

A December 13, 1972 article in The Hollywood Reporter.

Sam Wasson, whose book on Chinatown was included in The Hollywood Reporter’s best film books list, wrote in Los Angeles Magazine that Evans turned Paramount “into a cultural revolution … he saved the lot … he saved the studio.” The range of talent brought to Paramount during 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.

Barry Diller, chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, 1974

TV executive Barry Diller was tapped to run Paramount in 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. Paramount had also purchased Desilu Productions (Star TrekMission Impossible) in 1967 and had the machinery to create quality television. Under Diller, Paramount produced hit TV series Laverne & Shirley (1976), Taxi (1978), and Cheers (1982), along with generation defining films Saturday Night Fever (1977), Grease (1978), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

A Sept. 23, 1976 article in The Hollywood Reporter noting how TV is powering Paramount.

Under Frank Mancuso, Sr., the heads of production Don Simpson (1981-82), Jeffrey Katzenberg (82-84), and Dawn Steel (85-87). The number of successful and iconic films still celebrated today is nearly too many to list – 48 Hrs. (1982); FlashdanceTrading Places (1983); FootlooseBeverly Hills Cop (1984); ClueWitness, (1985); Top GunFerris Bueller’s Day OffManhunterCrocodile Dundee (1986); Beverly Hills Cop IIThe UntouchablesFatal AttractionPlanes, Trains and AutomobilesEddie Murphy Raw (1987).

The Paramount logo after it was rebranded as a Paramount Communications Company.

By the late 1980s, Gulf + Western rebranded and restructured as Paramount Communications 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. Paramount was ultimately bought out by Viacom in 1994, starting the Sumner Redstone era. Paramount managed to find trustworthy entertainment leadership in Sherry Lansing (1992-2004) who helped usher in an era of major blockbusters like Forrest Gump (1994), Braveheart (1995), and Titanic (1997). Lansing was then replaced by Brad Grey (2005-2017) 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.

Paramount has 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. Paramount has 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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