Can Cannes Save ‘Megalopolis’? Francis Ford Coppola Prepares to Unveil His $120 Million Epic as Controversy Builds

When Francis Ford Coppola arrived in Cannes in 1979 to premiere an unfinished version of “Apocalypse Now,” he had endured a gauntlet of bad press. His Vietnam saga’s budget kept ballooning, forcing Coppola to offer his car, his home, even the profits from “The Godfather” as collateral to cover overages. The production was biblically plagued — its original star Harvey Keitel was fired days into shooting, his replacement, Martin Sheen, suffered a near-fatal heart attack, a typhoon destroyed much of the set and a shoot intended to last six weeks stretched over 16 months. To the chattering classes, “Apocalypse Now” had all the makings of a cinematic catastrophe. It turned out to be quite the opposite.

In a press conference at Cannes, Coppola was blunt: “There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and, little by little, we went insane.”

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Forty-five years later, Coppola is returning to Cannes with his latest epic, “Megalopolis,” a $120 million examination of greed and idealism set in a futuristic America that premieres on Thursday. Like “Apocalypse Now,” the film has been beset by one bad headline after another. Coppola allegedly ran a chaotic set, smoking pot, leaving cast and crew members waiting and behaving in an “old-school manner” with female extras on set, according to a bombshell report in the Guardian (reps for Coppola did not respond to a request for comment on the piece). But even before that story broke, a screening that Coppola hosted for studio executives and fellow filmmakers in Los Angeles generated bad buzz. It left many viewers baffled — one described the movie to Variety as “batshit,” while others dismissed its critical and commercial prospects.

But will Cannes turn out to be a redemption tour for Coppola, who has been able to defy the skeptics in the past, or is “Megalopolis” going to be a late-career disaster for an artist who has also produced his share of costly duds along with his masterpieces?

If nothing else, the Guardian story has made the prospect of selling the film to a distributor even more challenging. “It’s a very difficult movie from a marketing perspective,” said one source who has seen the film and thinks it is very impressive. Other more adventurous industry players said there is a way to eventize this marketing conundrum and bill the film as undefinable. After the Los Angeles screening, one attendee said he thought the film was “actively fucking with a risk-averse industry. This is Coppola tearing down the modern temple of Hollywood.”

Initially, Coppola was determined to sell the film himself and forgo working with a sales agent. And after recently firing CAA, he also has been working without a personal agent, sources say. But following the disappointing screening that drew most of the major studio heads, a group that typically doesn’t acquire big-budget movies, Coppola began working with international sales outfit Goodfellas. Ahead of the festival and on the ground in Cannes, Goodfellas has sold the film in multiple foreign territories, including France. Notably, these individual territories do not have rights to paid video-on-demand or streaming options for “Megalopolis,” perhaps by design to lure a big streaming service who could prop the movie up for global subscribers after a theatrical rollout.

While the Guardian story is an unwelcome headache for Coppola and Goodfellas, some buyers feel that it won’t impede its ability to ultimately find a U.S. distributor.

“In this case, my gut feeling is ‘no.’ I’m sure there was old-fashioned, out-of-step behavior, not to be condoned. However, in this context, the movie will stand — or fall — on its own merit,” said one buyer who is keeping an open mind heading into Thursday’s Cannes debut.

Sources say Coppola is looking for a distributor that will release “Megalopolis” in the fourth quarter of 2024, where it will mount an awards-season campaign. A24 or another awards-savvy distributor are seen as ideal fits. But some potential indie outfits have seen the film and don’t feel like there’s much upside — they don’t believe the movie has much Oscars potential beyond technical categories and they fear that Coppola will be an overly demanding partner. If the price for domestic rights drops, however, or Coppola, who put up his own money to make the film, is more interested in a domestic distributor for hire, then “Megalopolis” may become more attractive.

Another buyer also said the negative press following the screening for studio heads coupled with the Guardian piece may even help “Megalopolis” find a home.

“The way that it’s been set up is they had a bozo screening for all the people who really don’t buy movies. They wouldn’t know a Bertolucci movie if it hit them in the butt,” said that buyer. “Now that they’re here, it’s an underdog movie. And everyone is kind of pulling for it.”

Cannes, with its audience of cinephiles, may provide a warmer reception for “Megalopolis” than the one that greeted it at the earlier industry screening. However, Coppola faces another test on Friday at a Cannes press conference, where he will almost certainly be grilled about the Guardian story. How he responds could affect the film’s fate with U.S. distributors.

In the case of “Apocalypse Now,” Coppola ended up having the last laugh. Though some critics were initially dismissive, estimations of the film have only grown over the years and it is now considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made. But even in 1979, Cannes seemed to recognize Coppola’s film for the masterwork that it is — “Apocalypse Now” went on to share the Palme d’Or with “The Tin Drum.” Perhaps “Megalopolis” will have a similarly happy ending.

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