Classic Hollywood: Dino De Laurentiis’ big dreams

Someone once asked the late, award-winning film producer Dino De Laurentiis to describe his job.

The answer, he told them, was simple: “to create a dream.”

And for some seven decades, De Laurentiis, who died in November 2010, at 91, created countless dreams — including Federico Fellini’s 1954 Oscar-winner “La Strada,” which he co-produced with his then-partner Carlo Ponti; Sidney Lumet’s 1973 police drama “Serpico”; David Lynch’s 1986 surreal thriller, “Blue Velvet,” through his production company; and Jonathan Mostow’s 2000 World War II thriller “U-571.”

USC’s School of Cinematic Arts is commemorating his legacy Friday through Sunday on campus at the Norris Cinema Theatre at Frank Sinatra Hall. The event will include screenings of “Serpico,” “Blue Velvet,” “U-571,” the 1949 neo-realist classic “Bitter Rice,” 1974’s “Death Wish” with Charles Bronson, 1968’s “Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy,” 1982’s “Conan the Barbarian” and Michael Mann’s 1986 “Manhunter,” based on Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon,” which introduced the world to one of cinema’s greatest villains, Hannibal Lecter.

The screenings are open to the public. A panel discussion Sunday with his widow, producer Martha De Laurentiis; his daughter, producer Raffaella De Laurentiis; Mann, Mostow and cinematographer Dante Spinotti is available only to USC students and alumni.

“Part of what made him wonderful is that he was willing to do a lot of different things,” said Elizabeth Daley, dean of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “He was a very hands-on producer who loved stories, and filmmakers loved him. I think people were truly honored that he was so hands-on. I had one director tell me that no matter what time he showed up on set, Dino was standing there waiting for him.”

De Laurentiis was also a savvy showman. Martha De Laurentiis said no distributor in Italy wanted to touch “La Strada,” a downbeat, lyrical drama set in a rundown traveling carnival.

“Dino said, ‘No worries, Fellini,”’ De Laurentiis recalled. “He went to Paris. He rented the cinema and did the marketing campaign. He said it was the most amazing thing. On the opening day, there was a line around the block. It started out in France and snowballed and then opened up in Italy.”

Taking chances was her husband’s modus operandi, she said. “Every single film was a risk because we always developed with our own funds,” De Laurentiis said. “To make it happen you had to believe in it enough so you could get others excited about it and invest in it…. Your partners were your film distributors around the world. A lot of times the pictures didn’t perform, and collections were tough.”

But even when his productions flopped — such as 1986’s “Tai-Pan,” 1993’s “Body of Evidence” with Madonna or the 2007 Hannibal Lecter prequel, “Hannibal Rising” — De Laurentiis was “always going forward,” his widow said. “You didn’t think about what you did two days ago.”

He also nurtured young filmmakers such as Lynch and Mostow.

“He really understood that ultimately it is a filmmaker’s medium,” Mostow said, “and that the producer’s job is to give the director the support that he needs, give him the tools that he needs and then really root for his success. He had a great saying: ‘If a movie is a success, the glory goes to the director. If a movie’s a failure, the blame goes to the producer.’ He really believed that. I think the proof is, look at all the filmmakers that came back to do multiple movies with him.”

De Laurentiis also knew how to charm his way out of an argument.

“If we were on opposite sides of some issue, he’d go, ‘I will do the same for you as I did with Fellini,’” recalled Mostow. “Even though it wasn’t the answer you wanted, you’d walk away saying, ‘I am getting the same thing Fellini wanted.’ You couldn’t help but chuckle to yourself and say, ‘That’s amazingly cool.’”

For information on the tribute, go to