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It’s been almost 40 years since “Rocky,” which I helped make as the head of production at United Artists in the seventies, and I’ve been in the business for 50-odd years. (By the way, I don’t look a year older.)
I really liked “Creed,” the latest movie in the “Rocky” franchise,” because it felt real when I didn’t expect it. I thought Sylvester Stallone was the best I’ve seen him in years. The director, Ryan Coogler, did a great job; the camerawork was amazing. A number of films I’ve been involved with over the years have been redone, but they only work when they’re fresh.
The original “Rocky” cost $1.5 million, but went $40,000 over budget. There were obvious doubts about whether Stallone would get any money to make it all — rightfully so, since he hadn’t really done anything yet.
The rule, at that point, was that boxing movies didn’t work. (Even “Raging Bull,” which was the last movie we greenlit at UA, didn’t work at the box office.) “Rocky” was an exception.
At that time, “Easy Rider” was a hit, and studio heads were saying that every movie would cost $1 million from that point forward. So we wanted to do “Rocky” as cheaply as we could.
The producers, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, were under exclusive contract with United Artists. They were working with us on Martin Scorsese’s movie “New York, New York.” We had really high hopes for it: De Niro, Liza Minelli, and Scorsese all doing a musical together! We were pretty sure it was going to work. (It didn’t.) UA’s lawyer, Bill Bernstein, was negotiating the deal for “Rocky” at the time. He had the company cross the profits from “New York, New York” with the so-called losses of “Rocky,” when it turned out the other way around.
The director of “Rocky,” John G. Avildsen, wasn’t a household name either. I just felt they could all make a good movie. It was really all on Winkler and Chartoff. They deserve a lot of credit for pulling it together, but so does Stallone — for both writing the script and acting in it. They put together a great cast.
We showed the movie at the MGM studio lot, where there was a big screening room. People really got into the fight. Then I went to New York and saw the movie at a theater on Broadway. The audience was so into the fight that I thought the crowd was going to start throwing punches.
Interestingly, however, the picture didn’t take off right away. It opened in just a few cities at first, and it did okay, not great. I remember Arthur B. Krim, the chairman of UA, called UA president Erik Pleskow, who called me. He said, “Hey, what’s the big deal? You kept saying the picture was going to do well.” And it didn’t.
But then it slowly started taking off. Of course, the awards it received pushed it over the top. All of that happened because it’s a movie that moves audiences emotionally with the story of an underdog. Most people can’t tell you who won that fight. It wasn’t Rocky. But his whole thing was that he wanted to be in the game and not embarrass himself. Isn’t that true about everybody?
Eventually “Rocky” was a blockbuster, but only by the standards of its time. Today, the standards are ridiculous. When a movie costs $100 million, everything has to do 10 times better. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Fortunately, I think it will always be possible to make movies on a smaller scale that defy the odds. The challenge is getting it done. An audience goes to a movie and either gets involved with the character and story or they don’t. “Rocky” worked in a completely participatory sense. Everyone started yelling during that fight: “Hit ’em, Rocky! Hit ’em, Rocky!” It was like they were in it. Talk about a lesson in making movies.
Speaking of which: “Creed” is a terrific movie. Go see it; it will make you feel good, and inspired.