Two years ago, Paramount President Frank Yablans was vacationing in a remote part of Corsica, but as usual he could not resist checking out the local moviehouse. He was pleased to see that Love Story was playing but appalled to learn that admission was a mere three francs. On the spot he forced the astonished house manager to up the price to four.
It is a good story, but any Yablans story can be topped by another one. For instance, on Christmas Day 1972, he tongue-lashed the owner of the Washington, D.C., theater where The Godfather was playing just after the poor man had been released from an intensive-care unit following a heart attack. His offense: undercharging the public by $2 a ticket.
Yablans seems a caricature of the autocratic studio boss. He became president of Paramount three years ago, after serving as vice president for sales. It was in that position that he perfected his techniques of distribution, mostly while marketing Love Story. When he became president, "The first thing I did was to merge publicity and sales. I must have fired a cast of hundreds in the process, but in the end we had a tight, clean operation in which all roads led directly into my office." If that corporate chart sounds like Napoleon's plan for the highways of France, Yablans would not deny it. "It's easy to be humble if you were born a prince. I came from a ghetto."
He is the son of a Brooklyn taxi driver. His first job, at the age of twelve, was plucking chickens in a meat market. He learned the movie business in the Warner, Disney and Filmways organizations. Those were the years when he memorized the physical contours of every U.S. theater of even minimal consequence. Thus certain houses were turned down on bids to show The Godfather because they were too narrow. "It is a three-hour show, and I did not want people getting claustrophobia," says the impresario.
Yablans enjoys his reputation for toughness but bridles at comparison with the semiliterate moguls of old. "My kicks come from power, but I'm a good person at heart. I read 40 scripts a week as well as several books. Do I have creative pretensions? Yes, indeed! So does my wife's butcher." But he adds to a reporter, "The last thing I want is some son-of-a-bitch like you wondering whether I care about costumes for a production. I do care. I do get involved. I'm a sensitive, well-read person."
He resents the common scenario that has him playing huckster to Bob Evans' creative film artist. Evans is catnip to the press, and lately Yablans' patience has worn to the breaking point. He has tried to control Evans' image by demanding that they be interviewed jointly on all stories about the making and packaging of Gatsby. "Bobby and I work very closely, I am very fond of Bob," he insists. "But I am also frank about this whole publicity thing. I don't like any confusion about who is running Paramount. The name is Yablans."