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Is ‘Godfather III’ Next for Coppola, Paramount?

Times Staff Writer

For years, there has been talk of a third installment of the “Godfather” movies that elevated director Francis Coppola to the front ranks of American film makers. Now, with a setback in his planned defense of a $6-million lawsuit filed against him by Canadian financier Jack Singer, Coppola is rumored to be in a commercial mood to write and direct “Godfather III.”

Industry sources say the pending trial, scheduled to go before a jury June 5, may be one reason for Coppola’s renewed interest in the second “Godfather” sequel and one source told The Times that Coppola and Paramount Pictures are in negotiations.

“It’s way too soon to talk about anything,” said Paramount President Sidney Ganis, refusing to discuss further the studio’s prospects of reuniting with Coppola on the project that delivered the critical and commercial hits of 1972 and 1974.

A spokesman for Coppola said he would not be available for comment.

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The lawsuit stems from an unretired $3-million loan made by Singer to Coppola in 1981 when Coppola’s Hollywood-based Zoetrope Studios was financially strapped and in the midst of producing the costly “One From the Heart.” Singer’s lawyers contend that, with interest, the debt now exceeds $6 million.

In court documents, Coppola accused Singer of “fraud” and of imposing “economic duress” on Coppola, arguing that Singer manipulated the costs downward before he acquired Coppola’s Hollywood studio in a court-ordered 1984 auction, and that in getting the studio for $4 million under its appraised value, Singer had gotten his loan back.

Last month, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jerome K. Fields rejected that argument and ruled that it could not be used as a defense in the June trial.

Coppola’s attorney, William H. Jennings, said he has appealed Fields’ decision to California’s Court of Appeal for the 2nd District, but acknowledged there was little chance of having it overturned.

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However the jury rules, the trial will be the last act in a drama that began nearly 10 years ago when Coppola--regarded by many critics to be the greatest film maker of his generation--announced his intentions to set up a studio that would marry state-of-the-art technology with some of the features he admired from the old Hollywood studio system.

In 1979, he bought the 8.66-acre Hollywood General Studios lot on North Las Palmas Avenue for $5.6 million and hired such stars as Teri Garr, Nastassja Kinski and Frederic Forrest as his first “contract players.” The dream dissolved into a nightmare when production costs on Coppola’s first studio film, the daringly surreal “One From the Heart,” skyrocketed past the original $11-million budget.

The weekly bill on “One From the Heart” was about $300,000 and a limited partnership that had promised $8 million in cash credits never materialized. Just weeks into actual production, the film’s and the studio’s bank accounts were empty.

Faced with shutting down the production, Coppola held a dramatic international press conference inside the studio’s sound stages. He walked hundreds of reporters through “One From the Heart’s” spectacular $6-million, neon-lit Las Vegas set and announced that he did not have the money to finish the movie, or to even make that week’s payroll.

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Singer, one of Canada’s largest real estate developers, heard the plea and offered to loan Zoetrope $8 million. Singer told reporters that he considered Coppola “a national treasure” and called him “the best director in the world.” In numerous press accounts, Singer was hailed as Coppola’s White Knight, and life appeared to have imitated art.

Production was immediately restarted, and “One From the Heart” saw its way to the screen. But when “One From the Heart” finished its theatrical run, it had earned just a fraction of its $27-million cost, ranking it with “Heaven’s Gate” as the decade’s greatest commercial disaster.

The movie’s dismal public reception ended Coppola’s romantic notion of reviving the glory days of old Hollywood, and it put the fate of his studio in the hands of creditors and the court.

Foreclosure action against Zoetrope was threatened in early 1982, shortly after “One From the Heart” had been released, and Coppola began soliciting bids for the property.

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According to court documents filed by Coppola’s attorneys this fall, Coppola received bids of $16.5 million and $20 million. Since any sale would have needed the approval of studio lienholders, Coppola had to go to Singer for approval. According to Coppola’s attorneys, Singer, who had actually delivered only $3 million of his pledged $8 million in loans, rejected both bids.

Coppola argued that the actual value of the studio was determined in a February, 1983, appraisal ordered by Columbia Pictures, which was considering its purchase. That appraisal, according to the court documents, came in at $16.8 million.

In November, 1983, Singer and other creditors filed an involuntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition against the studio. On Feb. 10, 1984, the studio was auctioned off to the highest bidder. The winner: Jack Singer. The sale price: $12.3 million.

The only other bid--for $12.2 million--was made by Security Pacific National Bank.

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The $5-million difference between what Singer had originally pledged and what he actually provided is at the center of the current dispute. Singer’s lawsuit maintains that he withheld the $5 million because Zoetrope failed to obtain the necessary consent of Chase Manhattan Bank, the principal lender on “One From the Heart.” The cash he did provide in loans was secured by a personal guarantee from Coppola and by a junior lien on the studio.

Coppola’s attorneys, responding to Singer’s request for a court order outlining the issues that the jury would decide on, said that Singer never intended to provide the last $5 million, and said he had “tantalized and maneuvered Zoetrope by delaying funding of the loans.”

In the court papers explaining the issues involved in Coppola’s planned defense, his attorneys argued that Singer had effectively denied Coppola a fair price for the studio lot and that in the bargain, he more than recovered his $3-million loan.

Judge Fields didn’t buy that, and the trial edge now seems to be leaning heavily in Singer’s favor.

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“This decision is greatly encouraging for my client,” said Singer’s attorney, Bob Chapman.

For Coppola, it’s bad news on the heels of good. Earlier this year, a spokesman for San Francisco-based Zoetrope said Coppola had finally paid off his debts from his studio failure.

Critics looking back at his output in this decade say the Zoetrope/Hollywood experiment cost Coppola more than money. With the exception of “Peggy Sue Got Married,” a light romantic fantasy that he did as a “director for hire,” none of his 1980 pictures has been either a commercial or major critical success. Reviews have bemoaned the absence of a strong social edge that accompanied the stylistic innovations in “The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now,” and the “Godfather” movies.

Coppola’s “Tucker,” released this summer by Paramount, was an oddly upbeat look at the downside of the quest for the American Dream, and it was seen by most people in the film industry to be Coppola’s romanticized account of his own experiences in Hollywood. The film was about a post-World War II auto industry visionary who had his dream shattered by economic pressures, but sustained his spirit in a rousing courtroom speech in which he argued that the little guy with the big ideas is the lifeblood of America.

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Coppola may get his chance to complete the analogy this summer, not in a theater near you, but in a courtroom in Los Angeles.


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