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A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope (2004)

Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and many others discuss the history, troubles, and legacy of American Zoetrope.

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Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and many others discuss the history, troubles, and legacy of American Zoetrope.

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14 September 2004 (USA)  »

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This documentary is featured on the 2-Disc edition DVD for THX 1138 (1971), released in 2004. See more »

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Neat little retrospective.
8 October 2004 | by (The San Francisco Bay Area) – See all my reviews

So that's how the pros did it!

This is a neat little documentary regarding a segment of the SF Bay Area film making history. Specifically it's an account of Zoetrope Studios formative days, and the two heavy hitters to come out of that experience; Coppola and Lucas, with regards to Lucas's first feature film "THX-1138."

During the 80's there was a lot of hype regarding the emergence of San Francisco becoming the new "Hollywood" for California. Much of that fed off of similar but underplayed hype in the 70's when the SF Bay Area was seen as an art house community with some, but not a great deal of, commercial value (other than the Mitchell Brothers' porn empire, a small number of imitators, and the occasional Hollywood crew passing by (not to mention the exteriors for "The Streets of San Francisco")). Coppola's success (and later Lucas) gave a lot of image to the Bay Area as a new film making haven, and several people gave it a go of making Mid-Northern California the new place for making films.

It never quite worked out. Simply put San Francisco, and the Bay Area en large, is just too expensive to shoot in for any length of time. It's a loss for the major studios to establish permanent residence. A number of production houses and stage facilities opened shop, anticipating the flood of cinematic business and art that was to come. All but the most hearty folded up, and those that survived, to this day, are geared towards Industrials (porn's still around, but since everybody and the grandmother has a cam-corder, SF and LA are no longer capitals for that particular segment of the industry).

In short, it never happened. Why? How is it the boys on the ground floor were able to hold their own while the rest of the industry (the industry that-was-to-be) wilted? The documentary tells all, and shows how even Zoetrope itself, with all of Coppola's pull and energy, wasn't always on terra firma, particularly with Lucas' first film.

Coppola had the financial resources to help create a pool of trusted film makers, that were out to create avant-garde cinema (read that as off beat films marketed to young folks, then the off shoot fringe of the hippy movement; those akin, but not directly involved with, said movement, but with similar political leanings). Aside from having a desire to create something Coppola also had the funds and connections to bring Zoetrope to life. If I read the documentary right there was a certain element of "salesmanship" on Coppla's part to get Warner Brothers to back Zoetrope. So even though there was a "change" in the industry, it was more of the same on a more pragmatic level.

Said documentary uses a standard mix of talking head and still photo archive format to tell the story of how Zoetrope's people met, formed a company, and went on to create film making history, with "THX-1138" as Zoetrope's premiere film. I don't recall there being any archive footage from other sources (though there may have been), and what there was was very sparse. It would've been interesting to see clips from the other projects that were shot during Zoetrope's formation. But that's not such big deal. The documentary does fine without them, and entertains by bringing the viewer into the early world of American Zoetrope. For myself it was somewhat nostalgic to see the photos of people dressed in 70's garb all over again, and specifically the young artistic film makers out to change the world.

A lot of us regular Joe-schmos, schmos who've been involved in the SF Bay Area film making community, remember those days, but weren't part of that particular drama, and always wondered how Coppola (and the rest of the Zoetrope folks) made their way in a very cut throat industry, and in a town that was the cinematic equivalent of the Wild West. "A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope" provides those answers and more. The moral of the story; stick with your friends, and see things through. Myself, I'm pretty jealous of that, because a lot of the younger generation see Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg and Sorcese as being the epitome of Hollywood, replete with all the glizt, glamour and intrigue of Babylon. This documentary will show how wrong those people were then, and are now.

If you're into film making and its history this documentary (provided on the bonus disk of the Special Edition of 'THX-1138') will prove interesting and valuable. Enjoy :-)


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