Artists from the Renaissance onward have always sought the support, financial and otherwise, of a “Medici,” a well-heeled patron of culture willing to bankroll creative efforts. And there have been a substantial number of such individuals in the history of film production.
Most stories of these arrangements are remembered more for the dramas that ensued when money and moxie collided. Joseph P. Kennedy brusquely shut down production on Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly and fired the director on the complaints of the film’s star (and Kennedy’s girlfriend) Gloria Swanson, leaving the film to be hastily completed and long unreleased in America. Automotive mogul and Morgan Creek co-founder James G. Robinson was so displeased with Paul Schrader’s chosen edit of his prequel to The Exorcist he scrapped almost all his footage and started making the movie all over again with director Renny Harlin. And even though internet scion Megan Ellison earned a sterling artist-friendly reputation with several auteur filmmakers as Wong Kar-wai and Boots Riley, too many of the resulting films underperformed in their theatrical release, forcing her Annapurna company to severely scale back their production slate to a select few.
For nearly 50 years, Edward R. Pressman was the radiant successful counterpoint to those stories. Between his own reserves and strong relationships with other investors, studios, and talent, Pressman’s name was attached to box office smashes, influential debuts, cult favorites, and even a few interesting flops. When Pressman passed away this past January, Alessandro Camon, his former Head of Production at Pressman Film Corporation, eulogized him for Deadline by stating. “During our time together at Pressman Films, we made dozens of films all over the spectrum of genre, budget, quality and success… Ed’s brain had no hard boundaries between art and commerce, highbrow and lowbrow, serious drama and pure fun. He had time for dreams tiny and huge, for the veteran and the neophyte, the luminary and the lunatic… he knew there was a place for all.”
Perhaps a crucial key to Ed Pressman’s mindset is that his pre-cinema fortune had not been found in oil or finance or technology, but in toys, where a child’s imagination can carry a beloved plaything far beyond its included accessories. Ed’s son Sam said to The Hollywood Reporter, “He grew up in this magical childhood dream surrounded by toys… I see pictures of [him] as a child with his sister Ann and his brother Jimmy dressed like Arabian royalty in marketing materials that his mother Lynn put together. It looks like some absolute fantasy — a living dream.” His father Jack founded Pressman Toy Company in 1922, and secured one of their first successful products after discovering a German strategy game, “Stern-Halma,” and through some dubious ethnic rebranding, sold it to the world as “Chinese checkers” in 1928. The family company followed up with other innovations, including the first licensed Disney toys, and the “Doctor Bag,” invented by Jack’s wife Lynn to help children familiarize themselves with medical devices to reduce their fright at visiting physicians. Lynn later became the company president when Jack died in 1959, one of the few female CEOs of that era. Today, though the family sold the company in 2014, the Pressman brand still exists while other previously well-known rivals as Ideal and Remco have been since folded into huger conglomerates, and most family homes likely still have Rummikub or MasterMind or Tri-Ominos at the ready for Game Night.
Pressman described his entry into filmmaking to Matthew Ross of IndieWire in 2003, saying “I studied philosophy at the London School of Economics. Before then, I had always loved film, but it had seemed totally remote as a career. In England, I met a young American filmmaker named Paul Williams. He was a very confident, outgoing director who had made a short film at Harvard. After a few days of talking incessantly about movies, we decided to form a partnership. We made a short together, and after that experience, everything else, compared to filmmaking, seemed so limited. At the time we started, film seemed to be a way of changing the world.”
The Pressman-Williams relationship bore blossoms that exceeded the duo’s already ambitious dreams. While Williams himself only directed three films during their union, none of which were significant box-office hits, their office became a hangout for several budding filmmakers, and a lucky few saw their projects produced by the company. A recent AFI graduate named Terrence Malick pitched his lovers-on-the-run drama Badlands, and Pressman assembled half the money. Meanwhile, Brian De Palma, coming off a frustrating experience of corporate interference on his first studio film, Get to Know Your Rabbit, met Pressman through actress Jennifer Salt, and told him of a pair of scripts he’d written that were tied up in unpromising studio options; Pressman liberated the scripts – Sisters and Phantom of the Paradise – and set about producing them with private financing.
As Quentin Tarantino presented in his book Cinema Speculation, there were two distinct groups of rising filmmakers that came out of the end of the ‘60s and the dawn of New Hollywood: The Post-Sixties Anti-Establishment Auteurs, and The Movie Brats. He writes, “When the Anti-Establishment Auteurs did genre films, they engaged in genre deconstruction. The Movie Brats embraced genre films for their own ends.” Tarantino groups Williams (not the diminuitive songwriter) in the Anti-Establishment Auteurs group, along with Arthur Penn, who had been Terrence Malick’s mentor, while classifying De Palma as one of the Movie Brats. In effect, Pressman served as a bridge between these two different-minded collectives, supporting both of their artistic ideas and bringing them to the screen.
After Paul Williams, perhaps the most bountiful relationship Pressman nurtured was with Oliver Stone. Their paths connected initially when Pressman optioned the rights to adapt Robert E. Howard’s character Conan the Barbarian into a film series, and Stone submitted a script that was well-liked but thought too expensive to film at the time. When the project went forward with John Milius, enough of Stone’s material remained to insure him screen credit. When Stone agreed to write and direct The Hand, for the newly-formed Orion Pictures, he asked Pressman to be his producer. That film was not a hit, but the experience established a relationship that led to three more Stone-directed films – Talk Radio, Wall Street, and its sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – plus the duo shared producer credit on the Barbet Schroeder true crime drama Reversal of Fortune, Hiroaki Yoshida’s mystery Iron Maze, and Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller Blue Steel. Reflecting on their collaborations to IndieWire in 2003, he remarked, “My work with Oliver Stone was very rewarding… the relationship when we did The Hand was a lot different than the relationship during Talk Radio. By the end, he was a producer as much as I was.” It was also during the filming of The Hand that Pressman met then-actress Annie McEnroe, who became his wife for over 40 years.
Directors from all over the world, from all kinds of backgrounds, found opportunities with Pressman. Besides Kathryn Bigelow, other women directed-projects he produced were Joan Tewkesbury’s Old Boyfriends, several by Mary Harron, including her newest release Daliland with Ben Kingsley, and She Will by first-timer Charlotte Colbert. More first-time directing efforts under his eye were Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley, David Byrne’s True Stories, Alan Rickman’s The Winter Guest, Mark Frost’s Storyville, and Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking. Artists from overseas he got behind were Bo Widerberg (Victoria), Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot), Paolo & Vittorio Taviani (Good Morning Babylon), Zhang Yimou (Happy Times), Hans Petter Moland (The Beautiful Country), and Werner Herzog (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans).
However, the influence of the family toy company and the notion of expansive child-like play was also often considered in projects that he shepherded, taking the universes of graphic novels and video games and writing them large. The underground comic book series The Crow was transformed on Pressman’s watch into a game-changing franchise, yielding several sequels, a TV series, and an upcoming reboot. The elite fighting force of Colonel Guile, Chun-Li, and the rest of the Street Fighter crew were made flesh in a memorable film adaptation that featured Raul Julia in his final performance as the megalomaniacal General Bison. Besides Conan, he had the power to make Dolph Lundgren a real He-Man and raise Masters of the Universe to life. And during the making of Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise and Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil, whole sequences were filmed at the Pressman Toys manufacturing plant! Once he himself jumped metaphorically into the toy box: the Sam Raimi and Coen brothers collaboration Crimewave may have been a very fraught experience, but it offered a rare and very funny acting appearance by Pressman as a cunning businessman. (Typecasting?) Alessandro Camon observed for Deadline, “On any given day he might be talking to Terrence Malick about an under-appreciated literary masterpiece, then move seamlessly into a conversation about toys and action figures.”
While Pressman left us on January 17, 2023, his company will live on. Sam Pressman promised to The Hollywood Reporter, “[We have] a score of projects lined up to move into production… I will, with the support of the amazing team we have at Pressman Film, [honor] my father’s indomitable spirit and love of film. We will realize the slate of projects he developed… we’re going to keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible with the art and science of the motion picture. I promise we’ll stay true to the communal cinema experience… He always said, ‘Every film is a miracle.’”