American Graffiti is one of the best coming-of-age films. However, if not for The Godfather, it may never have made it to theaters. Filmmakers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola have long been collaborators and close friends. The pair met back in 1968 on the set of the Coppola-directed Finian’s Rainbow. Lucas won a filmmaking scholarship to be on the set, and the pair became fast pals. The pair collaborated in Coppola’s subsequent film, The Rain People. This road movie, written and directed by Coppola, coincided with Lucas making a documentary about the production.
Of course, Coppola would score a massive hit with The Godfather in 1972. The film won Best Picture at the 1973 Academy Awards and grossed over 250 million dollars. This led to Coppola joining as the producer for George Lucas’s 1973 directorial effort, American Graffiti, and rescuing it from potential ruin.
How Coppola Rescued American Graffiti from a TV Movie Fate
American Graffiti was a personal film for Lucas, reflecting his teen years growing up in the early 60s in Modesto, California. The film, starring Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss, follows a night of a group of teens cruising the streets in 1962. Despite its personal, or perhaps because of it, studio executives didn’t understand the film. Universal executives urged Lucas to rename the film as “Another Slow Night in Modesto.” However, the future director of Star Wars stood firm on his choice of American Graffiti, a much more fitting and captivating title. The studio was even considering re-editing the film and selling it as a TV movie.
“When the movie was finished, Universal was very worried about it,” Coppola reflected. “In every regard, you know, what they were going to do with it, there was talk of putting it on television, and they just didn’t know what to do.” This caused Coppola, fresh off the clout from The Godfather, to call in a favor. He urged Universal Studios to give the film a chance theatrically, unaltered from Lucas’s vision.
Of course, the rest is history. Lucas, along with his fellow screenwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, achieved remarkable success with American Graffiti. The film, made on a budget of just under $800,000, not only became a beloved classic but also proved to be highly profitable, grossing over $140 million. The film’s iconic soundtrack also sold over three million copies. The film also helped establish Ron Howard as an adult actor and served as something of a prototype for Happy Days.
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