The late Dino De Laurentiis can be remembered for a spectacular producing career but he also invented the foreign sales business and spawned a breed of international movie moguls.
The death of Dino De Laurentiis last week also marks the death of a unique movie showman.
A pioneer on a number of levels, De Laurentiis took on Hollywood and its institutionalized studio system, acquiring desirable properties, financing them independently through a foreign pre-sales model which he essentially devised and attracting some of the biggest talent in the business to his films. In the process, he often worked with the studios in different distribution arrangements but the idea was always to remain independent, financially and creatively.
Of course he was always a high roller. Running through his wildly erratic filmography spanning back to 1941 was his passion to bring epic spectacles to the screen. He shot War And Peace in 1956; he took on The Bible in 1966; he staged lavish battles in The Battle For Anzio (1968) and Waterloo (1970) and dared to remake King Kong in 1976. He put Orca in the water in 1977, brought Flash Gordon and Conan The Barbarian to film in the 80s, remade Mutiny On The Bounty (again) and introduced us to Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter (1986). In Ragtime, Tai-Pan and Dune, he dared to film vast, apparently unfilmable novels. His ambition was limitless. Like Cecil B DeMille or DW Griffith, he endeavoured to bring audiences sights and sounds they had never seen before.
But he also knew the value of sex appeal. He was the producer of Barbarella, which turned Jane Fonda into one of the world’s biggest sex icons; he produced Mandingo and Drum, those exploitation 70s hits blending sex and slavery in 19th century America; he put a scantily clad Jessica Lange in Kong’s giant hand, served up Margaux and Mariel Hemingway in rape thriller Lipstick and did what any sane movie producer would do – cast sexy pop queen Madonna in a steamy thriller called Body Of Evidence. Many of these films are famous for being awful, of course, but Dino was often selling the package, the sex appeal of what he was making. How it turned out was a different matter altogether.
Along the way, Dino took creative risks and matches of talent with material which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Was sensitive Swedish master Jan Troell really the right man to make the disaster movie Hurricane? And De Laurentiis would clash with David Lynch over the final cut of Dune, a film about which Lynch is still reluctant to talk.
But he also gave crucial breaks to Sam Raimi, the Wachowski Brothers and Michael Mann and along the way worked with Bergman, Fellini, Altman, Cronenberg and Huston.
None of this would have been possible without his beguiling charm and personality, his entrepreneurial skills and his marketing chutzpah, his sense of internationalism, his brilliance at the hustle.
I was lucky to interview Dino a few times, once when he turned 80. I was instructed to show up at his Wilshire offices at 7am (when he would be at his best, I was told) and his eyes lit up as he recalled key moments in his glittering career. A few years later he called me in Cannes to give me the exclusive that he and Thomas Harris were collaborating on Hannibal Rising, a book and movie which would tell the “beginnings” story of the popular cannibal. The excitement in his voice was palpable as he also discussed his Alexander The Great project with Baz Luhrmann directing Leonardo DiCaprio. Even in his mid-80s, he was plotting the next big thing. And I mean big.
Of course Dino paved the way for many non-Americans to take on Hollywood with a combination of independent finance and fearlessness. Arnon Milchan, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Andy Vajna and Mario Kassar, Ashok Amritraj, Avi Lerner and Danny Dimbort, Elie Samaha. They all brought ambition, colour and bragadaccio to a Hollywood business which was becoming increasingly corporatized.
At a time when creative risk-taking is largely verboten in studio movie-making, the death of the grandest risk-taker in the movies arouses particular despondency.