Peter Bart: Coppola’s Utopian Epic Stirs Debate At Cannes While Former Partner George Lucas Quietly Sets His Own Pricey, Futuristic Surprise

The Megalopolis parties and debates last week generously fed Cannes’ appetite for media buzz. Fest-goers were reminded that Francis Coppola’s journey had been a thrill ride for those who witnessed it, invested in it or were impacted by its turmoil.

The auteur was trailed all week by fans and family, many having survived the melodramatic ordeals of One from the Heart, the operatic intrigues of Apocalypse Now and finally the utopian fever dream titled Megalopolis, which he financed by putting $120 million of his own money on the line.

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All represented a defiant challenge to the pre-algorithmic definitions of risk and reward. But one long-term participant in the Coppola drama was a non-presence in Cannes last week — though he is receiving an honorary Palme d’Or on Saturday.

He’s George Lucas, the billionaire nerd from Modesto who in former years contributed a discipline and order to their company’s (Zoetrope) unruly landscape.

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Director Francis Ford Coppola and producer George Lucas on the ‘Tucker’ set in 1988
Director Francis Ford Coppola and producer George Lucas on the ‘Tucker’ set in 1988

But as Cannes honored Coppola this week, Lucas was on a different mission — celebrating his 80th birthday at his Skywalker Ranch. It was a lavish but off-the-radar gathering for the Spielberg-Oprah-Harrison Ford crowd. It was festive and unpublicized.

The legendary Lucas-Coppola camaraderie over the decades had been at once close and distanced. While Coppola hustled ambitious schemes to interest diverse funding sources, Lucas quietly was nurturing modestly budgeted movies like American Graffiti and THX 1138 and helping his partner navigate The Conversation through complex re-edits.

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Graffiti initially was rejected by Universal and other distributors, but, after test screenings before young audiences, Hollywood realized that the movie had perfectly captured its ‘60s moment – the cars, the kids, the music.

From left: Ron Howard, Candy Clark and Charles Martin Smith on ‘American Graffiti’ set in 1973
From left: Ron Howard, Candy Clark and Charles Martin Smith on ‘American Graffiti’ set in 1973

While pleased by the sudden acceptance, Lucas imagination already was free-roving the cosmos, hatching grander scenarios. Hollywood soon would belong to the innovative visions of Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Lucas earlier had come to understand the limitations of the Zoetrope dreamscape when Warner Bros. rudely rejected the company’s projected overhead and development slate that Coppola had patched together. Daunted by this rejection, Lucas was perplexed further by his partner’s repeated rejection of an offer from Paramount to develop a best-selling new novel titled The Godfather.

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I had advanced the offer on behalf of my studio, but Coppola insisted he had no interest in making “a gangster film.” When Lucas learned of our exchange, and even overheard one of our spirited phone conversations, he alertly reminded his Zoetrope partner of two important realities: Zoetrope was broke, and so was Coppola.

Of course, both Lucas and Coppola were destined to become billionaires — Coppola from his vineyards and expanding wine business, Lucas from the cosmos. Lucasfilm was sold to Disney for $4 billion in 2012.

Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and R2-D2
Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and R2-D2

Next year, the bearded, silver-haired Lucas will open a mega-production of his own — his billion-dollar art museum in Hollywood called The Museum of Narrative Art. He has remained silent on details of its opening other than to say that, despite its spaceship design, the museum will encompass all forms and genres of storytelling, not just the futuristic.

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There have been no events or press conferences to elaborate on its specific plans or break down its expansive budget – it’s personally funded.

When I asked him about it at a dinner a year ago, Lucas replied, “Wait till you see it!”

Apparently, no Cannes parties are planned.

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