Dino De Laurentiis has consistently confounded Hollywood's movie-making establishment. Year after year the flamboyant and diminutive producer announces record-breaking budgets for his newest releases only to see most of them founder at the domestic box office ("Dune," "Flash Gordon," "The Bounty").
"The one question everyone always asks about Dino is: 'How does he do it?' " said one former MGM production executive. "He keeps coming back."
This week, in his own inimitable style, De Laurentiis was back again. At a press conference at his own DDL Food Show in Beverly Hills, the 67-year-old producer invited in a group of film reporters to discuss his first crop of movies for Embassy Pictures. De Laurentiis acquired Embassy from Coca-Cola for $35 million in late September.
The purchase surprised Hollywood insiders. Three years ago De Laurentiis seemed to have finally tapped out when he sold his Beverly Hills mansion for $14 million, packed his bags and moved his operation to New York.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of De Laurentiis' return is that this time he has opted to join the ranks of an establishment he has eschewed for many years. Ever the Independent Producer, in the past, De Laurentiis let the studios distribute and market his movies to help offset some of those giant budgets. But over the years he has battled all of the major studios on a variety of the 400 to 500 movies he says he has made.
Now, in addition to his own production facility in Wilmington, N.C., (where nine films have been shot) De Laurentiis has his own distribution system and he believes he can do a better job marketing his movies than the so-called "majors" did. "After I decided to increase production, I realized I must have my own distribution system," De Laurentiis said to the reporters. "The ancillary rights (cable and foreign sales) are so important today you must handle the picture the best way you can."
Though De Laurentiis refused to comment on MGM's handling of his most recent release, "Year of the Dragon," (which has taken in a disappointing $19 million in ticket sales at the box office to date) sources suggested that may have been a factor in his decision to buy Embassy. "It's easy to say they (the major studios) are wrong and we are right, but I have my own personal ideas," De Laurentiis said. "We are going to spend the same amount everyone else does for prints and advertising (about $6 million per picture) but I want to explore the possibilities of spending it a different way."
The quote was vintage De Laurentiis. Dressed nattily in a gray silk pinstripe suit, deeply tanned and sipping an espresso, he had answered the question without explaining his strategy. However, he did announce that Embassy will release about 10 pictures in 1986. Highlights include:
"Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive": Budgeted at only $9 million, this marks Stephen King's debut as a director and stars Emilio Estevez. The first De Laurentiis title for Embassy opens in March or April.
"King Kong Lives!": Despite poor reviews, De Laurentiis' 1976 King Kong remake hatched the movie career of Jessica Lange. The upcoming "King Kong," an original story, budgeted for "at least $18 million," will be directed by John ("King Kong") Guillerman. It's due out for Christmas, 1986.
"Crimes of the Heart": De Laurentiis is famous for avoiding stars and their expensive price tags, but this one is packed with American female talent. Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek headline this adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Directed by Bruce Beresford, Freddie Fields will produce. Budget: About $20 million.
In addition, De Laurentiis has an Arnold Schwarzenegger contemporary cop movie called "Raw Deal" budgeted at $11 million that will open in September and a David Lynch ("The Elephant Man") original called "Blue Velvet" coming next October. De Laurentiis has also signed Michael Cimino to direct "Hand Carved Coffins" based on the Truman Capote short story.
Now that he has gone corporate, will De Laurentiis be forced to modify his colorful business style? In the past he was known as a stylish showman who made decisions quickly. Recalls International Creative Management literary agent Bill Block: "He was always the classic mogul. I remember we once met to pitch him a story idea and there he was in Bungalow 9 at the Beverly Hills Hotel, with this whole entourage including an interpreter. He didn't make a sound and then at the very end he looked left, he looked right and then he slapped his hands and said, 'We make a deal!' "
Producer David Permut remembers meeting with De Laurentiis to try to persuade him to make his movie. "I was there to sell a story but he kept asking me, 'How much money you want?' " said the producer. "I finally said something outrageous like $500,000 up front and a healthy profit position, and he became hysterical. He stood up and started waving his arms and he lost complete control of the English language. Then his associate Dino Conte told me, 'What Dino means is, you're asking for too much money.' "
De Laurentiis wound up financing the picture, "Fighting Back."
It seems clear that some belt-tightening already has begun. Most of the old Embassy staff has been let go and De Laurentiis has hired Larry Gleason, former president of Mann Theaters, to run his distribution and marketing arm along with Robert Lawrence, a former production executive at Columbia as president of production.
De Laurentiis said at his press conference that budgets will average about $9.5 million per picture for Embassy releases and around $11 million for DDL Productions (he will continue to make some movies as Dino De Laurentiis Productions).
"Let me tell you the difference between the studios and myself," De Laurentiis said. "Ninety percent of the studios today are public companies. We are private. We are playing with my money. We are going to pay attention to every penny we spend. Because if we lose, we lose my money, not the public's."
De Laurentiis deflected questions about precisely where he got the money to purchase Embassy. He said two banks, Credit Lyonnais and Bank of America, help finance his pictures but that no banks contributed to the purchase of Embassy. "Dino De Laurentiis is the sole owner of Embassy Pictures today," he said. "I never take on any partners."