“More money has been lost trying to imitate ‘Rocky’ than ‘Rocky’ has made,” producer Irwin Winkler remarked at lunch a few days ago.
That might be hard to prove--"Rocky” times four equals an awful lot of money. But it is true that “Rocky” continues to be the most inspirational film of recent years, having inspired “Underdog makes good” movies in almost every sport this side of hurling the caber.
“When studios start telling me why a particular film project won’t work, I remember ‘Rocky,’ ” Winkler went on. “I remember that the biggest success Bob Chartoff and I have had was a film nobody wanted to make.”
To sweeten the contract that tied them exclusively to United Artists, Chartoff and Winkler had a provision that let them make what they called “put” pictures.
“If we could make a film with a budget of under a million and a half, we could do it without script approval. So ‘Rocky’ was going to be a put picture. We could make it for under a million five and we showed the script to UA.” But the UA officials contended the film couldn’t be made at that price and refused to put up the money.
“They gave us all the reasons the film would be a disaster. That was really why they didn’t want to go with it. Fight pictures don’t do well. Women won’t go. It’s violent and people don’t like violence. It will never sell overseas. Not only all that, you want to star this unknown, Sylvester Stallone.”
So, Winkler says, he and Chartoff said they would re-budget the film for a million flat, and would mortgage their houses or whatever it took to put up the completion bond. In other words, if the film did go over budget, they would pay.
It proceeded, not without adventures. The film presumably had wrapped when Stallone and directed John Avildsen called the producers to say they had a great idea for a sequence in which Rocky would run up a long flight of steps and finally make it to the top and dance about triumphantly. The producers resisted briefly--it was more money on a thin budget--but finally said, “Go ahead and do it.” They are glad they did.
“So when people give me reasons, I tell myself, if you’d listened to reasons, you wouldn’t have made ‘Rocky.’ ”
Winkler has been listening to reasons on an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which Martin Scorsese would like to shoot in Israel. “It’s a great humanistic story, and I am passionately devoted to it,” Winkler says. No takers yet, but he hasn’t given up hope.
He has been commuting to Paris, working with director Bertrand Tavernier on “Round Midnight,” a film based on the life in Europe of the expatriate black American musician Bud Powell, which is now in post-production.
The project took shape on a rainy Sunday in Paris when Winkler and Scorsese were en route home from a location-scouting trip to Israel on “Last Temptation” and met Tavernier for a drink.
“Marty and I had been kidding that we never found a really satisfactory ending for ‘New York, New York.’ But now here we were and we said well, of course, that’s what would have happened--De Niro would have come to Europe where he could play the kind of music he wanted to play.”
In the early ‘60s Winkler was working as an agent in the William Morris office in New York. “I was mediocre; boy, was I mediocre,” he says. “Here’s how mediocre I was: Usually when they want to get rid of you, they say, ‘Get out of here in five minutes’; to me they said, ‘Take all the time you want.’ ” He’d met Chartoff, who was representing a stable of young comics (“some of whom are unknown to this very day”). They joined forces to meld their thin prospects.
An English producer Chartoff also represented called to say he had invested $200,000 in a half-completed film he couldn’t make head or tail of and wanted to dump. Could they come and look at the footage and try to sell his interest?
“The truth was we didn’t have plane fare to London,” Winkler remembers. “But we heard about a gambling junket--the Victoria Sporting Club flew you to London. Not only that, you could eat your meals at the club.”
The footage turned out to be the first half of John Schlesinger’s “Darling,” with Julie Christie. They sold their client’s interest to Joseph E. Levine, who rode it to glory.
The deal led them toward films, and the first Chartoff-Winkler production, “The Split,” with Jim Brown, and, in their first films, Gene Hackman and Donald Sutherland, in 1968. John Boorman’s “Point Blank” was their first critical and commercial success.
Over the nearly 20 years since, they have varied between the indubitably commercial--"The Mechanic,” “Breakout"--and the remarkably ambitious: “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” Karel Reisz’s “The Gambler,” “The Right Stuff.”
“ ‘The Right Stuff,’ ” Winkler says with a sigh. “That was the best film I ever produced. The best. And it never, never, never found an audience. The acceptance level is very high with those who see it. We could just never get anybody to see it. I knew we were in trouble when my son’s history class at Beverly High got the afternoon off to see it. No pay; all they had to do was sign up. Nobody signed up. They preferred to stay with their books.”
“Raging Bull,” another Chartoff-Winkler-Scorsese production that appeared to be a critical success and commercial disappointment, has proved not so disappointing. “The most recent statement is that it has returned $30 million in rentals--rentals, not grosses. That’s all right.”
“Rocky IV” is currently doing heavy grosses for Chartoff and Winkler, and there will be a “Rocky V"--if, Winkler says, someone comes up with a strong enough idea (“Rocky in space” has been suggested). Winkler’s own production of “Revolution” has taken critical lumps, but he retains a father’s love for it, and he insists that it is finding audiences.
“You’ve got to keep trying for something different,” Winkler says. “If you fail, you fail. But if you succeed, then you become the norm. And even now, you can find studios that will take chances on different material. What you look for are stable managements that have been in place for a while and have some confidence. That’s true at Warners. There aren’t that many stable managements; unfortunately, that’s true, too.”