When Alan Ladd Jr. was president of 20th Century Fox Pictures in the 1970s, he greenlit “Star Wars” and “Alien.”
That alone ensures him a place in Hollywood history. But his career also includes a third sci-fi classic — “Blade Runner” — as well as “The Omen,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Braveheart,” “Chariots of Fire,” and other cinema biggies through 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone.”
The executive is now the subject of a documentary, “It’s Always About the Story: Conversations With Alan Ladd Jr.,” which screens Aug. 13 at the Marina del Rey Festival before it continues on the festival circuit. The doc is one of four films (so far) in the Film History Preservation Project. It’s the brainchild of director-producer Stanley Isaacs, who is planning more such docs, to bring wider recognition to Hollywood’s unsung heroes: film producers.
Film buffs know stars and directors, but rarely know producers or executives like Ladd, aka Laddie. He grew up in the industry — as the son of movie star Alan Ladd — and started his career as an agent, before becoming a producer for a few years, and joining Fox in 1973, first as creative affairs VP. He moved up to president in August 1976.
The doc rattles off titles made during his Fox tenure, including “All That Jazz,” Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie,” “Breaking Away,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and a slew of women-centric tales: “Julia,” “Norma Rae,” “The Turning Point,” and “An Unmarried Woman.” Michael Gruskoff, who produced several films for Fox during Ladd’s regime, observes that many of the key executives then were women, including Lucy Fisher and Paula Weinstein.
Despite these successes as an exec and his lengthy career as a producer, Laddie is known primarily for one decision made when he was an executive: He was “the person who gambled on Lucas’ dream,” as Variety stated on June 1, 1977, a week after the film opened. In the mid-1970s, science-fiction and fantasy seemed like tired genres, thanks to a glut of cheapo outer-space movies in the 1950s and ’60s. In the documentary, Ladd says simply that he trusted “George’s vision” for “Star Wars.” He was told that the visual-effects element would be important, but shrugs, “I didn’t understand it, but George did.”
The original plan was to open the film with about a dozen playdates, but word of mouth was so good that the film debuted on 34 screens on May 25, 1977. By July 27, it had grown to a then-impressive 843 screens.
It paid off for everyone. In June 1979, according to the Variety Archives: “Ladd, 41, made showbiz history this year, becoming perhaps the highest paid exec in Hollywood ever, when he earned $1,944,385 in 1978, most of which was an incentive plan bonus on top of his $278,120 annual salary.” In modern dollars, the payday converts to an annual salary of $1.05 million, and a bonus of $7.4 million. That’s peanuts compared to some of today’s executives, but it was big stuff back then.
Ladd left the exec suites after just a few years, for a longer career as a producer. He joined with Jay Kanter and Gareth Wigan in 1979 to create the Ladd Co., the production company behind “Blade Runner,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Body Heat,” “The Right Stuff,” the first two “Police Academy” movies, and the American release of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” (in a severely edited version).
In the documentary, Ladd doesn’t expound much about his reputation for fostering new talent; as an example, he says simply that he OK’d the casting of the little-known Michael Keaton as star of the 1982 “Night Shift” because he trusted director Ron Howard.
Brooks says in the doc, “Laddie is the center of movie knowledge.” That alone makes him a perfect subject for the Film History Preservation series.
Producer-director Isaacs says film fans might know that Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese have produced films, but often can’t name anyone else. “They don’t realize that with some of their favorite movies, the producer has championed that project for years. There are so many producers who have great stories to tell that need to be preserved.”
The preservation project began when Isaacs interviewed Al Ruddy (“The Godfather,” “Million Dollar Baby”). Since the Ladd film, two other documentaries are in the can: Mace Neufeld (“The Hunt for Red October,” Denzel Washington’s “The Equalizer”) and Mark Canton (“300,” “Cake”).
When audiences have seen the Ruddy or Ladd films, Isaacs says a common reaction is “Why didn’t they teach us this in film school?” He adds that many film-school grads or industry workers “know the movies, but they don’t know the people. So many of these people have great stories to tell, and they all need to be preserved.”