Frank Yablans: “Make wonderful films at the lowest possible cost and the highest possible return”

This interview with former Hollywood studio executive and film producer Frank Yablans, who deceased late November 2014 in Los Angeles at age 79, was conducted in 1998 when he was on location in Flanders, Belgium, filming “A Dog of Flanders.” We sat at a table on a square in a rural Flemish town called Mechelen, in the shadow of the Saint Rombouts cathedral, built in the 13th century, where several interior shots were filmed. A warm and inspirational film with traditional and everlasting values and standards, “A Dog of Flanders” was directed by a wonderful filmmaker, Kevin Brodie, with Jon Voight, Cheryl Ladd and Jack Warden in the principal roles.

A number of subjects that Mr. Yablans and I talked about during our conversation, need to be put in the right perspective – meaning we’re now almost 17 years later. But since he was a extremely fascinating man to talk to, very talented, most knowledgeable and hugely experienced, this interview about his ideas, his views and goals, as well as his career, his work as producer and former head of a major Hollywood studio (Paramount) may give an impression of how his brilliant mind functioned.

When did you get involved with “A Dog of Flanders”?

I became involved in 1996 with the project. I was with a company that was just starting up and the film was going to be financed by that company. They never really raised the funds for it. The picture was initially supposed to made in Canada, outside of Montreal, and shortly before photography, they ran out of funds and the picture had to shut down. After that I became involved. I had read the script and then I met Kevin Brodie who wrote the script and who’s directing the film. I loved it very much and I said ‘let’s see if we can put this thing together again’. As a producer, that was my work and from that meeting came an opportunity to try to go even on a grander scale with a company that was going to raise financing for prints and advertising which is very difficult to do. This is not a film that a studio would have financed. It’s not a big picture, it doesn’t have special effects or Mel Gibson or Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s a precious little movie. So to get American studios involved in a film like this as an independent producer, you have to come in with something, whether it’s prints and advertising campaign, or the film financed from outside sources or a combination of both, so that’s what I set out to do and it took three years to do it. I had a very, very difficult time with banks and assurance companies, attorneys, lawyers, the studio. Fortunately we put it all together. And you know we had a false start here in Belgium too because we came over and we went into pre-production and didn’t have a financing… and at the last moment the banks kept delaying us and delaying us and we had to shut it down. And I’m sure nobody in Belgium believed we would ever come back. I told them we’d be back and here we are making our film with the same people that we started out with in December 1997. So I’m very pleased about that.

You worked for the majors, including as head of Paramount, and now you’re an independent producer. Which do you prefer?

Well, after being president of Paramount I became chairman of MGM/UA. The early years of Paramount I preferred because they were fabulous years. We made wonderful films and I had total control of the entire corporation. And so I was able to do what I wanted to do which was a combination of those films and we needed to make them commercially, so that the company would thrive and then do some little films which I consider to be our building for the future. Cause I ran it very small, I ran the company very tightly; we didn’t have big operations, I had closed the studio and operated the company out of one little building in Beverly Hills, just so that everybody would know this was not a place you could come to for free lunch; this was serious filmmaking time. So that was the best time I ever had. I enjoyed being a producer within the studio system cause I was a producer at both Paramount and Fox at the same time, I liked that very much. Independent production is very difficult, it’s maybe the most difficult thing anybody could do because you’re constantly fighting the fact that you don’t have the money available. And so you’re using all of your wit, all of your experience, all of your background, everything you can accumulate to get people to do things for you – a fraction of what it would take if they were doing it for a studio. And so you got to have very strong material and you got to have a huge commitment to the process of filmmaking. Independent filmmaking is filmmaking, major studio productions aren’t necessarily filmmaking. But it’s rewarding when it happens.

When accepting his Oscar for “Leaving Las Vegas” (1996), Nicolas Cage said that independence is the answer, as a counterbalance to the big-budget films. Do you agree with that?

Yes, that’s true; I mean the independent world has an opportunity to do things and to do types of films that the studio simply won’t do, they can’t afford to put their energy into that, they can’t afford to put their financial resources into that, not because they can’t make money, but because they can’t make enough money. And so they’re concentrating now on hundred million budgets and potential returns of three to five hundred million dollars on a worldwide market. That’s where their energy has to go and so the independent producer has an opportunity to augment that program and give them films of certain stature, certain quality that they wouldn’t normally get which we saw in 1996 to a significant degree with the films that are being done by Miramax – only that independent producers can supply. And you get lucky if one becomes huge at the box office, like “The Full Monty” [1997] which was made basically an independent film even though it was backed by Fox on an international level. So it isn’t that it is an answer, it is fulfilling a need that doesn’t exist in a so-called global market place that exists today where you have to have the international market drag the domestic market along with it so that you can afford the kind of money you’re spending. That creates the problem because if you’re running a studio and you’re looking towards the international market to augment your business and your box-office, the international market is basically looking for action-adventure movies – what’s important is the visual, the effect, the special effect, the bang bang, the shoot ‘em up, the chase, the crash. We deal with language, we deal with visions, we deal with images, so that’s the role that we’re trying to fulfill. Also our particular company is basically interested in films that are going to appeal to families, because we can’t compete with the major studios on the big pictures. That’s not our role. And if you’re not gonna compete on that level, you’re only left with certain genres of film that you can afford to make. We don’t wanna make horror movies, and so we’re left with the family market which is a market we love very much because it’s good for storytelling.

Despite the commercial success of “Titanic” [1997] for instance, do you think the American film industry is in great health?

No, I don’t think it’s in great health at all. I think that “Titanic” was a very dangerous adventure and the fact that it worked as hugely as it did, is probably an accident and they averted a potential disaster. I’ve been around too many years, I know what it’s like when the cycle changes and no one can predict when that cycle will change, when an audience’s taste will change. And sooner or later someone is going to get hurt very badly with these hundred million dollar films that require fifty or seventy-five million dollars of marketing costs to go with it. Where do the restrains begin – if Cameron spends two hundred million dollars, the next guy at that level is gonna spend two hundred and fifty million dollars and you can’t stop that … it goes on. Somebody sooner or later is gonna get hurt very badly. It’s a downwards spiral. The thing that saved “Titanic” was a love story, I don’t have to be a genius to understand that, everybody knows it. But you could have told that love story without spending two hundred million dollars. So I’d be very concerned if I were running a studio, very concerned.

What were your goals when you were running Paramount and MGM/UA?

(determined) To make wonderful films at the lowest possible cost and the highest possible return.

So you’re like to old pioneers like Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn, …?

Well, I straddle the old and the new. I was trained by the old guard, I started in the business in 1956 so I’m kind of an old throwback. And yet I’m young enough to be a contemporary; I’ve always been incredibly disciplined in terms of costs, in terms of creative appetite and to understand what’s important in a film, what is the value of the film itself ? If you’re going to make films about people, then words are becoming important. And you don’t need all this other stuff that goes along with it. The effects are only there for only one reason: to hide the fact that you don’t have a screenplay, you don’t have words and it’s no mystery that “Titanic” which is the most successful film in the history of the industry – box-office wise – didn’t get nominated for a screenplay, because there was nothing to be said in that movie. So my goals were to make wonderful stories like “The Godfather” [1972] or “Chinatown” [1974] and “The Great Gatsby” [1974], and little films that were wonderful, that didn’t necessarily do well at the box-office, but then hid a lot of talent, like “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” [1973] or “The Gambler” [1974], these are little gems. The way I used to plan, I would schedule for the year two big stones that I used to call my crown jewels and then surround those crown jewels with little films, little films form a wonderful piece of jewelry for the year. That’s what I did and that’s the way it should be done, in my opinion.

Would you ever consider to become president of a major studio again?

No, no. First, I wouldn’t because I wouldn’t be considered, so it’s a question I would never have to answer. I’m too strong a personality, much too strong and I run a cooperation with a pretty iron fist. I never get along with the board, I only get along with the creative people and so I’m too old for that now. Right now I only have to get along with me.

What you went through, was entirely different from what David Puttnam went through at Columbia?

Absolutely. David’s been a friend of mine for years. He came into a situation where he really didn’t understand the system. I understand the system cause I’ve grown up with the system, but David came in from England with an anarchist point of view. He was going to tear down something; the problem was he had nothing to put into its place. So if you’re going to demolish something, you have to build something and you have to know what you wanna build. And he just took on too much of it, too soon and didn’t have much of a vision himself. So, no, it wasn’t that at all, it was that David’s career doesn’t cross my path at all. Only we’re very, very dear friends.

Frank Capra said he lost interest in filmmaking when actors started earning ten times as much as a director and then they felt ten times as important as the director. Do you agree with that?

I don’t agree with that comment at all. Frank Capra was a respected man no matter what the actor got paid. He shouldn’t have worried what the actor got paid, he should have only worried that he had enough money to realize his vision. Actors are not the problem, and the costs of films are not out of control because of actors. The costs of films are out of control because the studios don’t have the stomach to control the cost. That’s why they’re out of control; they’re giving directors a 120 days to make a film. You don’t need 120 days to tell a story. And when those days are running at five or six hundred thousand dollars a day, you’re just indulging a ridiculous amount of waste. If anything drags the production down, adrenaline is what makes this creative process go, and the more adrenaline is flowing, the greater the challenge, the greater the pace, the better the end product. They just take it too long, too much time to make movies. Some of the greatest movies in the history of our business, were made in 40 days, in 12 days and in 18 days. “Casablanca” [1942] I think was made in 18 days; I’d like to make “Casablanca”, I might even do it in 22 days. So it’s ridiculous. The whole system is out of control and the problem lies again at the studio level because you have executives who do not plan on being there long-term, so they don’t have the best interest of the system at their heart. They feel they’re gonna be fired at any moment so they’re more interested in giving the actor and the director what they want because once they get fired and they try to become producers, they need to have a relationship with the creative talent. And in fact you don’t: the only relationship you have with creative talent is to show them a great story, a great screenplay, a good director and then you have a relationship with the talent. And there’s not a piece of talent out there that won’t cut their price for a truly great story.

You don’t sound too optimistic, do you?

Well, I’m always optimistic. The only thing about our industry is that it’s an industry of cycles. There are good times and there are bad times. Right now we’re going through a period where there’s a lot of indulgence, there’s a lot of waste and if somebody gets hurt on the bottom line, it will be corrected. Once that happens, it will be corrected and we’ll start getting good screenplays again. We’ll start getting good material and not effects, we’ll start telling stories, so I’m very optimistic that that will happen, it’s just a shame that it’s going to take some casualties. But let’s face it: the world is always fighting wars. If they learned, we’d always have peace, but no one learns, so why should we be any different than countries?

Yet, in the late 1960s the studios had a very difficult time, they had huge losses, they had to sell their back lots, etc. Then you came in, took over Paramount and it flourished. How did you do that?

Paramount had flourished for a long time. It took a couple of years, but – remember, I came into a situation where they had already eaten their young. They had eaten their children. So I had the opportunity to start something different again.

They were accessible to that?

They had no choice, they were going bankrupt, they would never have hired a young turk like me if they were healthy. I mean, I was fortunate that they were bankrupt. Thank God for that or I’d be driving a taxi cab in New York City instead of having the successes I’ve had. I was very fortunate because I came into a company that had five incredible negative, expensive films: “Darling Lili” [1970], “The Molly Maguires” [1970] and three others that thank God I can’t remember right now. The only good one was “Catch-22” [1970] which was also very expensive and should have done better, but it came out at the same moment as “MASH” [1970]. So there were two films of the same genre and “MASH” of course was an incredible hit while “Catch-22”, well it was a great piece of filmmaking but it never achieved a commercial success. So – I think we also had “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” [1970] – these were expensive negatives and I went into the company as the general sales manager worldwide and I got back the money – “Paint Your Wagon” was another one by the way. These were very expensive movies, these were twenty, twenty-five million dollar movies in the sixties which today would be a hundred and fifty million dollars each in today’s dollars. So after we got back most of our costs, that when Charlie Bluhdorn, who was my mentor on the business side of it, said: ‘Okay, go at it.’ But I said: ‘Okay, but you gotta stay away from it Charlie, because if I fail, I have nothing left to go back to. If you fail, you can still trade sugar. I can’t trade sugar.’ And that was how we made our deal. And we were fine until we became successful. Once we became really successful, he wanted to come back in it and interfere again cause he loved Paramount. But for him it was a hobby and for me it was a career. And so we had a clash. And’s why I ultimately had to leave, we just couldn’t get along. Then I went into my own production company and had some success there and enjoyed that very much. That was incredible freedom.

“The Silver Streak” [1976] was your first hit film?

That’s right, that was my first one. That was very successful, although it wasn’t my favorite. I smile when I think of it because it was fun, it was successful and it was my first film. I lived in New York, not in Hollywood, outside of the Hollywood establishment, so a lot of people were waiting for me to fall, to really fall hard because Hollywood loves to see success fail. They like two things: they like to see failure succeed and they like to see success fail. Mostly they like failure because when you think of it, most people out there have failed. So somebody else’s failure makes them feel a lot more safe and secure. Somebody else’s success makes them crazy.

It’s that an enormous hectic life?

It’s that frantic. It’s a little factory town, it’s like General Motors, it’s a very frantic town. So “The Silver Streak” surprised everyone. We made that picture for very little money. At one point, the train crashes through – which everybody told me I couldn’t do, it would be too expensive – and the studio was saying ‘Take it out of the movie, why do you have to have it?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you take it out you don’t have a movie.’ We did it by getting an airplane hangar in Burbank, California, laying down a track, getting a semi-trailor truck and putting a metal front in front of the semi-trailor truck to assimilate the train and we ran that right through the hangar. And we redressed the inside of the hangar to look like Union Station, we got the shot in one night with sixteen cameras. It only costed a couple hundred thousand dollars to do it, they said I couldn’t do it for less than two million dollars. And that’s what’s wrong with the system: people don’t know to make movies in that system. You got people running studios with zero experience. Zero.

So in the end you’re still the man to give advice to anybody.

Well, I’m always giving advice, people just don’t listen (laughs), I give advice. Whether they listen or not, I still give advice. Not only don’t they know the answers, they don’t even know the questions. You have to be able to ask the questions first and then you can come up with an answer. It’s all about issues and solving specific issues. But if you have no production experience, or any particular script experience, then I think you’re in trouble. It took me a long time to learn my craft, it took a long time, and I’m still learning. This whole new thing of independent productions is totally new to me. I never had to do my own banking and deal with insurance companies, deal with crews and get them to work for less than they ever worked for before, this is all new.

You go out a totally new direction. Where do you get the energy?

This is how you stay young, you know, otherwise I get old. I was in semi-retirement and I had gained forty pounds. One day I looked in the mirror and said: ‘I got to get back to work because this retirement is really an ugly thing to look at.’ And also this script energized me, I believed so much in the story that I would not be deterred from getting it delayed. No way.

Still it’s strange that after four US film versions of “A Dog of Flanders”, one Japanese film and a German miniseries, it’s still an unknown story in Belgium.

I don’t understand why the Belgian people don’t know the story, it’s shocking to me that they don’t. This book is required reading in many countries on an elementary school level. Perhaps after this film they’ll start to read the book again. It’s a little book, and it’s something they should read to their children cause it’s a very spiritual story and it’s a story about survivalism, a story about overcoming odds, about realizing your dreams – maybe the Belgian people aren’t dreaming enough today, I don’t know (laughs).You know what the problem is, there’s too much emphases put on the world bank, on NATO, on oil, on other international things that are happening, perhaps they haven’t looked back at their own identity. Maybe it’s all become too international. Also, young people today are a television generation, they begin with cartoons, and cartoons are action mini-shorts. The guy’s head gets cut off, it goes back on. His head explodes, it comes back. They have no reality, so they become desensitized to violence. Violence is so much a part of their upbringing, and if you got to supplement it and build it on the sensitivity, that only comes from written words, stories with moral basics. When I went to school as a youngster, as a lad, kindergarten, we were told stories about what does it take to be a better human being in society.

Mechelen, Belgium
May 1998