Francis Coppola’s ‘Megalopolis’ Screened For First Time Today For Distributors At CityWalk IMAX

EXCLUSIVE: Some 20 years after it took root in the imagination of Francis Ford Coppola, Megalopolis screened this morning for the very first time. Held at the Universal CityWalk IMAX Theater, the epic film screened for buyers, and had every distributor in attendance. Also in tow were family friends and filmmakers, a list that included Anjelica Huston, Nicolas Cage, Andy Garcia, Spike Jonze, Al Pacino, Jon Favreau, Colleen Camp, Roger Corman, Darren Aronofsky, Cailee Spaeny and cast members Shia LaBeouf and Talia Shire.

I was there also, and what can I say about the movie when I promised Coppola I would be a fly on the wall and not write anything approximating a review? Coppola’s new film is crackling with ideas that fuse the past with the future, with an epic and highly visual fable that plays perfectly on an IMAX screen. He covers complex themes in a remarkably brief two hours and 13 minutes, not including credits. A accident causes the destruction of a New York City-like metropolis that is decaying anyway brings clashing visions of the future. On one side is an ambitious architectural idealist Cesar (Adam Driver). On the other is his sworn enemy, city Mayor Frank Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito). The debate becomes whether to embrace the future and build a utopia with renewable materials, or take a business-as-usual rebuild strategy, replete with concrete, corruption and power brokering at the expense of a restless underclass. In between their struggle is the mayor’s socialite daughter Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel), a restless young woman who grew up around power and tires of being a tabloid fixture looking for meaning in her life.

More from Deadline

It is not coincidental that the names — and haircuts — seem to come straight out of the Roman Empire. A filmmaker who as a child was stricken by polio, and watched the Jonas Salk vaccine eradicate that awful disease, Coppola delivers a big kiss to the possibilities of mankind’s ingenuity to adapt to and overcome most problems. He also injects a cautionary tale of what can happen when that rise-to-the-occasion human spirit is challenged by the greed, corruption and narcissism that helped topple the Roman Empire. The clash could not be more timely in an election year and a moment of heightened polarization, with misinformation meant to spread agendas, sway the public and influence policy. The film’s illustrious cast also includes Jon Voight, Laurence Fishburne, Aubrey Plaza, Shia LaBeouf, Chloe Fineman, Kathryn Hunter, Dustin Hoffman, D.B., Sweeney, Jason Schwartzman, Baily Ives, Grace Vanderwaal and James Remar. They are all remarkably good in bringing a complex tapestry to life.

Before the screening, Coppola delivered a mission statement of sorts which you can read if you expand the featured image above, or find it right here.

Dear Friends,

As heard from me before: “I believe in America.”

If I could leave you with one thought after you see my new film, it would be this: Our founders borrowed a Constitution, Roman Law, and Senate for their revolutionary government without a king, so American History could neither have taken place nor succeed as it did without classical learning to guide it.”

I visited Coppola on the Atlanta set of Megalopolis one night, and found a similar feeling that I felt yesterday, that one of the greatest living filmmakers was doing something risky and memorable. That night, as Coppola emerged from his Silverfish trailer, the crowd around him parted like he was General Patton, the subject of the script that won Coppola his first Oscar. There was magic in the chilly night air as he filmed scenes of anarchy, with Mike Figgis shooting a documentary about the making of Megalopolis, and a scruffy looking Jack Black sat just out of camera shot in shorts on a lawn chair. He was not in the film, he just showed up most nights to watch Coppola work. The crowd at CityWalk also massed in anticipation to see what had been percolating in the mind of a master for decades. Coppola had told me he didn’t expect everybody to get Megalopolis, at least not right away — read the Time Magazine review by the esteemed Frank Rich that so wounded Coppola that the director still talks about it, to see how many people didn’t get Apocalypse Now until watching over and over — some of his most memorable films are, like the wines he makes, acquired tastes. What filmmaker would put $120 million of his own money on the line when he already directed that classic, The Godfather films, and so many other classics? One who decided that since his business acumen left him in a position to make sure he was not looking up on his deathbed with regret that he didn’t follow his instincts and left the world with something that might challenge their views and provoke discussion and maybe even action as greed consumes the planet he is leaving. It is a feeling every grandparent tries to beat down wondering what a warming world will bring they it is their turn to have children.

Among the distributors I spotted were Tom Rothman, Ted Sarandos, Pam Abdy, Mary Parent, Matt Greenstein, David Greenbaum, Donna Langley, Courtenay Valenti, Daria Cercek and Marc Weinstock, and Michael Barker.

All were effusive as they crowded around Coppola following the touching finale. Well wishers included his son, Roman Coppola (the film’s second united director), and his sister Talia Shire, who embraced her brother as the credits rolled and said simply, “You did it.” She was not the only person who welled up.

Now it is up to Coppola’s longtime attorney Barry Hirsch (a producer on the film) to help Coppola find a distribution partner to bring the film to a wide theatrical audience. While Cannes and fall festivals like Venice, Telluride and Toronto are knocking, Coppola and Hirsch won’t make a final decision where to debut the film until that distribution partner is secured and a firm rollout plan is put in place.

In many ways, this replicates Apocalypse Now, which Coppola said has made a fortune over 50 years because of ownership that happened because no one believed in the film the way he did. Some were reminded of the media-fanned chaos of Apocalypse Now when press reports extrapolated a few layoffs to save money as a sign the film was out of control. Meanwhile, Coppola was on schedule and liking the shots he was getting. He financed the whole $120 million Megalopolis cost by securing a credit line when he sold part of his vineyard holdings. He is accustomed to betting on himself. Coppola brought Apocalypse Now to Cannes as a work in progress to prove what he’d done, and he did the same with Megalopolis yesterday. In 1979, his vision was validated when he shared the Palme d’Or, and Apocalypse Now went on to become a classic. His hope for Megalopolis is that its themes resonate long after it leaves theaters, and that audiences will watch it over and over, getting different things from it each time, as humanity grapples with an eroding planet.

He took the first step toward that goal today. If you look back at the prescience he has shown with his films, like the way his 1969 film The Rain People presaged the women’s liberation movement to tell the story of a pregnant woman who rejects marriage to take control of her destiny, or the onset of living in a surveillance world in The Conversation, Coppola has in the past keyed on themes that grow in importance.

He also prepared long and hard for this journey, writing and endlessly re-writing this script, shelving it after 9/11, and then putting together the financing. And losing 75 pounds and keeping off the weight to help his stamina. Coppola, who is 84, also said this will not be his last film, telling me, “One way I knew Megalopolis was finished is that I’ve begun work on a new film.  It won’t be cheap by any means, but I don’t know it can be called ‘an epic film.’

Soon we will see how Megalopolis scored with distributors. Stay tuned.

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.