Borin in Brooklyn in 1935, Arnold Kopelson is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Kiev who fled to America to escape pogroms. His father died at age 50 when Arnold was ten.
For ten years in his youth, Arnold practiced the piano two hours a day, hoping to become the next Van Cliburn. He eventually gave it up to pursue law and business. He graduated from New York University with a degree in business and marketing. Then he graduated from New York Law School. He worked as a lawyer for the firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore and then Gettinger & Gettinger. He was assigned to the Chemical Bank account where he oversaw lending money to the film industry.
With his second wife Anne, he started the film distribution company Inter-Ocean Film Sales, Ltd. around 1972.
"I flew to Rome and met Sergio and his brother-in-law/interpreter, because Sergio spoke only Italian and French," says Kopelson. "I remember telling him - he laughed at me and told me I was very brazen - 'You are the best in Italy, I am the best in America.' He was laughing that this young kid had the balls to say something like that." (The Hollywood Reporter, 9/2/97)
Kopelson's company, Inter-Ocean Film Sales, Ltd., rose with the growing demand for American films overseas and then declined in the early '80s as competitors pushed into the field. Kopelson became a producer.
One of his biggest hits was 1993's The Fugitive, which seemed like a disaster during the shooting, writes The Hollywood Reporter (9/2/97):
A screenplay that had seemed rock-tight proved unfilmable in certain ways. Some scenes - such as one in which a car races along the rails of a subway - just couldn't be made to work before a camera.
"We ended up sitting in a hotel room until three in the morning almost every night while we were shooting," Kopelson recalls, "with Andy Davis, (the film's second credited writer) Jeb Stuart and (co-producer) Peter Macgregor-Scott and (Warner executive) Bob Brassell and Harrison Ford, with Harrison acting out the scenes before they weere written. And he'd say, 'This is the way I see it' and move around the room. And Jeb and Andy Davis and I would join in. This went on for the entire period when we were in Chicago because we did not have a third act when we started the movie."
When it was over, Ford, for one, was convinced he had a disaster on his hands.
Peter Bart writes in the 10/97 issue of GQ: "A decade ago, Arnold Kopelson wrote himself off as a failed, middle-aged lawyer. But the death of his first wife, combined with a series of disastrous investments, set Kopelson on a new course: reinventing himself as a showman. A succession of megamovies, such as The Fugitive and Eraser, earned him one of the richest producer deals in town at Twentieth Century Fox, where he, like his stars, earns a percentage of the gross of each movie in which he is involved. "Arnold is the most relentless negotiator and also the most decent human being in the business," says one Fox executive. "Only he could have negotiated his own deal here." Kopelson employs his intense negotiating skills in making deals for material and talent, but his relentlessness is cushioned by an almost childlike enthusiasm for his movies and the talent he mobilizes. "What sets him apart is that he's a teddy bear," says a top agent. "You have to love him even though he drives you crazy."
Producer Pierre David told me 7/12/02: "I was instrumental in Arnold Kopelson's career. When I first met him, around 1976, he was a lawyer in New York. He was doing tax deals. He brought in my 1981 movie Dirty Tricks.
"I was friendly with [Italian director] Sergio Leone. Sergio was upset at his American distributors. I told him that Arnold Kopelson would do well by him. I called Arnold."
Pierre: "Arnold, you know Sergio Leone?"
Pierre: "Sergio Leone. He makes spaghetti westerns."
Arnold: "Oh yeah, I've heard of him."
Pierre: "You can have his next movie."
Arnold: "Why would I want a movie by an Italian?"
Pierre: "You don't understand. These movies have a following."
Arnold: "Yeah, well, it'll be my standard deal. Tell him..."
Pierre: "No, no, no. This is an enormous name. You have to go to Rome to sell yourself."
Arnold: "What? Me have to go sell myself?"
Pierre: "You have to go sell yourself and trust me, you can make a lot of money."
Pierre: "So Arnold borrowed the money to fly first class because Arnold would never fly economy. He went to Rome. He was impressed by Leone. Saw his work. And Arnold came back with the movie My name is Nobody. Arnold made a deal with Universal Pictures for US distribution. I distributed it in Canada. Arnold made $300,000 and he used that money to buy his present house on Sunset Blvd.
"I moved to Los Angeles May 1, 1983. Arnold sponsored me for my greencard. He asked me to be president of his production company. I put at least 20 projects into development. I left as Platoon went into production.
"I remember when I called agent Jeff Berg at ICM, who represented Oliver Stone, and asked for an option on Platoon for a few months, he said, you can have any option you want. Nobody has been able to put it together and you won't be able to. It's a waste of time.
"It had gone to every producer.
"Platoon came to Arnold's desk. He read it. I read it. I found a domestic distribution deal. It was not easy as everybody had already passed on it.
"I went to Barbara Boyle (head of production under Mike Medavoy at Orion), who agreed to read it. She changed her mind about it because of her kids. They asked her what she was reading. She said a really good script about the Vietnam war, but who wants to see that? Her kids said, mom, we talk about Vietnam in school. We ask questions. We're interested. That was a revelation. She came back Monday morning and said, let's do this. Pierre, my kids want to know about the Vietnam War. What if other kids want to know about the Vietnam War? We will make the movie. We will give you the money for US rights.
"That immediately triggered the sale of the foreign rights and Arnold went to make the movie. We then parted company."
Luke: "What ended your relationship with Arnold Kopelson?"
Pierre: "Egos. We liked each other but we didn't see eye to eye and it became better that we didn't work together."
Producer Chris Mankiewitz told me 5/20/02: "When I developed A Perfect Murder , Arnold Kopelson was invited in on my project against my will by Warner Brothers. Arnold had a big deal with Warners and he didn't have many pictures [in production], so Warners brought him on to my movie. Arnold told me he didn't like the script. I asked him what he did like about it. He said, 'I love the title [based on the Alfred Hitchcock film Dial M For Murder].' I said, 'We can't use that original title. We're not making a remake.'
"I said to myself that this is insane. He looked around for something to find, and he looked for good titles. That's how deep it went. He never attended a single writers meeting during the entire development of the movie. As soon as the script was finished and we started looking for a director, it came time for him to strut his stuff. Suddenly he wanted to get involved. Suddenly his wife, Anne Kopelson, who I never even met, showed up in the credits as a producer. How bizarre! Gee, maybe I have a cousin that I could make a producer too."
Luke: "Has your wife ever shown up in the credits as a producer?"
Chris: "No. She has nothing to do with the film business, thank God."
Luke: "Tell me more about A Perfect Murder ."
Chris: "It's not a happy subject. Arnold tried to package it with different combinations of mostly lowball talent.
"I've been a fan of Hitchcock material. I had a deal to develop projects at Warner Brothers. I thought that we should take one of his less successful movies, Dial M for Murder, which was shot as a 3-D stage play. It was made to get rid of a commitment [by Hitchcock] to Warner Brothers. Hitchock was anxious to move on to Universal where he had a good deal.
"Warners had bought the play, Dial M for Murder. Hitchcock made no bones of the fact that it wasn't one of his terrific movies. It was stagy and not cinematic. It was a one-set play. And because it was shot 3-D, you couldn't pan without strobe problems with the 3-D cameras.
"I'm against remaking masterpieces but I thought this was a good opportunity. So we tried with one writer and it didn't work. Kopelson came in. We found another writer, Pat Kelly, who became the writer of the final script. He came up with an interesting gimmick: The person who's supposed to commit the murder, is not a down and out acquaintance as in the original movie, but is the wife's lover.
"Kopelson's original idea when he came on to the project was to do a big action piece like The Fugitive [a terrific 1993 action film directed by Andy Davis]. Pat Kelly tried a couple of versions of that and it was just terrible.
"Warner Brothers doesn't make movies unless it has a star. We couldn't find anybody for our film. Arnold tried to cut me out of the packaging. I was happy to let him package it. That was something he should be able to do well. In fact, he didn't do it well. In fact, he didn't do it at all.
"On this movie, I was aced out by Arnold. I was kept on the sidelines. I wasn't on the set. He said, don't worry. You'll get your credit. You'll get your money. But let Arnold take care of this. And the picture was pretty good and did fairly well.
"The only thing that pissed me off was that Arnold Kopelson moved in on my project and never once in the history of this picture ever asked me to lunch or dinner or to have a drink with me, much less send me a gift Mercedes. 'Here, this is a present from me to you. Thank you for not minding that I barged in on your picture. The guy has no class. I'm sure he's done this before. He has a famous saying around town. 'Movie projects are like subway cars. There's always another one coming down the track.' That says a lot about his attitude to individual movies. He's a salesman and he just wants the action. The condition of the subway car doesn't interest him much.
"My bete noire [dark knight] Arnold Kopelson did this movie Outbreak . I know because I was developing another picture at Warner Brothers at that time with the same executive who was in charge of Outbreak. They had a two-guy writing team [Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool] do the basic script. And they brought on board Dustin Hoffman who said that he'd like Elaine May to rewrite the movie for a million dollars. They refused. But they said ok to Carrie Fisher for $750,000.
"She rewrote the script. The studio was not happy. They went off to Hawaii to make the movie. They brought back the original writers. Then the director, Wolfgang Petersen, thinks of himself as a writer. So he rewrote the script. And in the mornings, before shooting, they'd all get together and have a paste-up. And each person had been rewriting the night before... And they'd take a third of a page of this script and a line from that script and they'd put it together like a jigsaw puzzle. As a young man, I went through that on the 1963 movie Cleopatra, that my father directed. There the scenes were written the night before. And what was going on was an absolute template on how not to make a movie.
"And this confusion is mirrored in the studio's willingness to give producers credits to anyone. Instead of giving someone a half a million dollars, they give a credit. And writers feel defensive because their work is changed. Star actors will sign on to a project and say, 'Oh, my character would never say these lines.' And these practically illiterate actors will become the writers. And the producers who've spent years developing the dialogue, that all gets chucked out the window. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.
"There were different sets of writers working on The Fugitive while it was shooting in Chicago. One person said to me that Andy Davis is the luckiest director in history that it all worked out. That picture should've been a total mess yet it came together. A producer today can only be a referee and try to stop people from killing each other.
"Today's big producers are mini studio heads mainly interested in the deal. When there were fights on Outbreak, Kopelson was nowhere to be found. The last thing a producer wants to do is to say to Dustin Hoffman, 'You're wrong.' Because maybe next year he needs Dustin Hoffman for a movie. A producer doesn't want to be here when there's trouble. I just want to be here when the TV cameras are here and I can show them that I am in charge.
"This line producer who just did Don't Say a Word, which Arnold Kopelson produced, said to me, 'What kind of producer are you? Are you like Kopelson? Do you only show up when the star is there? Or are you going to be there everyday.' His point is that Kopelson ain't there except when he can show off to the big star. Such producers like to ingratiate themselves with the power, which is the movie stars. At all cost, they must stay in good with the movie stars, because those are the people who will get movies made."
[Arnold Kopelson did not answer my interview request.]
Director David Fincher said in an interview: "Michael De Luca [former President and Chief Operating Officer of New Line Productions] went to the mat for Se7en. When we needed 18 more days to reshoot on Se7en and Phyllis Carlyle [producer of Se7en] was saying, "We need to fire this guy. He's a music video guy. He doesn't know what he's doing. We need to redo the ending. The head can't be in the box." When all that shit was going on, Mike De Luca was watching my back."
Producer-manager Phyllis Carlyle: "That is not true. I did not try to fire David Fincher. I think almost all of us thought that the head in the box was too much. Arnold Kopelson wanted to change the ending. He walked around saying, 'I'm not making a f---ing picture with a woman's head in a box.'
"Brad [Pitt] did change the ending. The shooting draft had Morgan [Freeman] pulling the trigger. And Brad argued strenuously with David that his character should do it.
"When a movie does what Se7en did, you keep quiet. Everyone was right and we did it perfectly.
"I had so many arguments over the years with people on how to do Se7en. Paramount had this list of changes. I said, 'Why don't you do those things with the ten movies you've already got?' I went outside of the system completely to revive this project. New Line eventually financed the film. They called Arnold Kopelson in to help produce. Arnold is a complex guy. One part of him is a big teddy bear that will take care of the world. And then there's this other side of that is ego and has a hard time sharing any credit."
Producer Fred Kuehnert told me 2/27/02: "I entered the film business from a background in venture capital and real estate. In the mid seventies, the US tax code made it attractive to invest in film. I became the point person for my company. We packaged several films for the tax shelter market. During this time, I met Ed Cohen at a New York screening room. Because I was from Texas, he naturally assumed that I would be a good hit to raise money for his Buddy Holly film. A former agent, it would be the first film he'd produced.
"Ed worked with Arnold Kopelson at the time. And when Ed sealed his deal with me, it was at Arnold Kopelson's wedding, an elegant extravagent affair. You don't throw parties like that in Texas. Arnold was at a law firm at the time. I'd just helped finance a picture through Arnold, Out of Season , starring Cliff Robertson, Vanessa Redgrave and Susan St. George.
"I've tried to act The Player role but it just doesn't work for me. My attorney Norman Rudman always tells me that I'm too nice and that is not a compliment in this town. This is not a business where the top producers like to help people. It's cut-throat. For example, I always return calls, even when I probably shouldn't. But if you were to take a successful producer like Arnold Kopelson, if you are not on his list, it is unlikely that you will ever get through to him.
"Arnold Kopelson read the father-son script I wrote, called me and said, 'You should stop all this other shit you're doing and concentrate on this project. Because if it works, it is going to establish you.' That's easy for him to say. He probably makes a $2 million a year salary while I have to pay the rent each month."