Former United Artists chief Andy Albeck, who died last week at the age of 89, oversaw two movies that would loom large in film history – one among the most critically-acclaimed movies of the decade, the other a box office disaster that forever changed the way movies were made.
Albeck brought an international background to United Artists – born in Russia and schooled in Japan, he began his movie career as a sales representative for Columbia Pictures in Indonesia. By 1978, Albeck had worked at United Artists for 30 years. He was promoted to CEO in 1978 after three top-level executives left to form Orion Pictures. Albeck was chosen by UA parent company TransAmerica largely (and, it would turn out, ironically) because of his ability to control costs.
But in the wake of their top creative executives leaving, the studio felt they needed to make a statement.
Director Michael Cimino was at this time the hottest new director in Hollywood, coming off the critically-lauded The Deer Hunter, which would win five Academy Awards. United Artists approached, offering to make any picture he wanted.
What he wanted was a story about the American West – not the mythic old West of cowboy pictures, but something closer to reality, in this case a story centered on a dispute between landowners and European immigrants in Wyoming in the 1890s. Cimino budgeted the film at $7 million, average for the time. Albeck greenlit the film at $12 million.
Cimino’s perfectionist tendencies and slavish attention to period detail quickly pushed the production behind schedule. At the end of a couple weeks of shooting, he had only three minutes of usuable footage at a cost of $1 million dollars per minute. As delays continued, the studio clashed with its star director, the budget ballooned by 500%, and the press got wind of a spectacular disaster in the making. When all was said and done, the film was turned in 200 days late – it was only supposed to be a two-month shoot – at a staggering cost of $44 million, making it at the time the most expensive movie ever made.
When finally released in 1980, the movie was not just panned by critics, but gleefully excoriated. The film made only $1.3 million at the box office before UA yanked it from theatres. Their gamble on Cimino brought down the studio and United Artists was sold to MGM the following year.
Star directors like Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese and even Steven Spielberg had all recently turned in expensive flops – but the colossal failure of Heaven’s Gate was a watershed moment. No longer would studios give carte blanche to visionary directors, and many see the film and its failure as bringing to an end Hollywood’s second golden age.
"Heaven's Gate undercut all of us," Martin Scorsese told Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. "I knew at the time it was the end of something, that something had died."
Of course, Andy Albeck was only one of many responsible for the debacle, and in some sense perhaps a large-scale Hollywood disaster was inevitable given the excesses studios allowed star directors at the time. To Albeck's credit, he was one of the few inside United Artists to champion Martin Scorsese’s edgy, violent, black-and-white boxing bio-pic Raging Bull, a film which performed poorly at the box office but many now rank among the finest American cinematic achievements. Under Albeck's watch, the studio also produced two fine films by Woody Allen, continued the James Bond franchise and made lucractive sequels to Rocky. But ultimately, the Heaven’s Gate fiasco that ended his career also came to define it.
Andy Albeck retired from the film industry in 1981 and opened a 200-acre Christmas tree farm in Lafayette, New Jersey. He died of heart failure on September 29th in Manhattan.