Coppola’s “Godfather” Fortune in Napa, California

August 29, 2012

My just ended summer vacation was highlighted by an unforgettable trip to the wine country of the Napa Valley, California. It is “unforgettable” not because of what Napa is most famous for, but because of an unexpected stop at an early film treasure house “disguised” as a winery. Actually, the place is not prominently marked along the St. Helena Highway (also known as Highway 29). It is more or less a detour, or a sudden stop that led me and my friends to this magnificent estate hidden behind an unimpressed drive path.

The Inglenook Estate in Napa Valley, California, acquired by Coppola in 1975, but the trademark “Inglenook,” referring to both the Estate and its vineyards and wine, was not acquired until 2011.

It is called the Inglenook Estate, owned now entirely by Francis Ford Coppola, the legendary Godfather and Apocalypse Now creator. The estate was first acquired in 1880 by a Finnish sea captain named Gustave Niebaum, who began to produce the Inglenook wine at the stone Chateau. I guess some old wine enthusiasts may still have had a fond memory of the wine, as it contributed to the growing fame of the Napa Valley, or the “New World” according to the vocabulary spoken by wine insiders.

The front pool and fountain as well as the magnificent Napa Valley as seen from the Inglenook Estate, reminding one of the The Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

It is quite amazing that Coppola was able to purchase most of the Inglenook properties in 1975 by using the money he earned from the making of Godfather I & II. The original Godfather (1970), according to Wikipedia, only cost 6.5 million to make, but its box office exceeded 268 million worldwide. No wonder Coppola could afford such a marvelous estate back then. There was a twist to this acquisition, though. Coppola was only able to own part of the properties at that time, and apparently had no right to continue producing the Inglenook wine despite this acquisition.

Coppola must be very proud of his college achievement, as this UCLA “Samuel Goldwyn Creative Writing Award” certificate is on display at the Napa Inglenook Estate film exhibition.

It is no longer the case now. In 1995, the Coppola family reunited the estate with the acquisition of the Chateau and the remaining vineyards; and in 2011, the family purchased the Inglenook trademark, which I guess will represent the high-end Coppola wine to be produced in the very near future, with the Coppola-named wine (widely available in California, with unsophisticated taste and finish) as the low-end product.

The hand-cranked Mutoscope, a pre-cinema innovation that produced motion pictures. Looking through the viewing glass while cranking the handle, one sees an almost naked dancing girl.

What makes the Inglenook Estate stand out in Napa’s more-than-300 wineries is certainly its special relation with cinema. After owning its entirety, Coppola quickly turned the place into a private museum dedicated to his personal life as a filmmaker as well as to early cinema. While the first-floor exhibition is interesting if you are into Coppola’s personal life, the second floor is a treasure room for early cinema. On display is a variety of pre-cinema viewing devices, some quite exotic and weird-looking. Also on display is a full range of early film projectors, and any one of them makes a wonderful choice for a film museum and curator. It is simply an awe-inspiring scene.

Fine wines, stars, films, and luxurious mansions, are these all naturally connected? The Coppola-owned Inglenook Estate says “Yes.”


The “Dream Worlds” Exhibition at USC

August 2, 2012

The USC School of Cinematic Arts, in collaboration with DreamWorks Animation SKG, is now hosting an exhibition titled “DreamWorlds: Behind the Scenes, Production Art from DreamWorks Animation,” and the exhibition will be on display from July 30 through September 7, 2012.

The gigantic Panda statue in front of the entry way of the Steven Spielberg building at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

I am glad that the exhibition, which draws from DreamWorks’ twenty-four animated feature films, especially highlights the visual development of Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Panda II, the two animated features with strong Chinese cultural flavors. Both films were released in China and did exceptionally well in the emerging market, and also caused quite a heated debate in the creative community of China. I remember attending a symposium in Shanghai right after the first one came out, during which a professor raised a poignant and quotable question: “China has panda, and China has Kung Fu, but why can’t China make Kung Fu Panda?”

The original art work of the Panda character in “Kung Fu Panda” and “Kung Fu Panda II”.

Yes, why China can’t produce Kung Fu Panda? There isn’t an easy answer to that question. In recent years, the Chinese government has invested handsomely in the “entertainment” industry, and quite a number of the so-called “creative clusters” have been planned and built across the nation. Home-made animations are also receiving favorable treatment, including a government-imposed ban that locks out all foreign cartoons from airing on Chinese TV between 5 and 9pm. But have these efforts succeeded in spurring the domestic cartoon industry? Hardly so. The state-owned Shanghai Animation Studio, once the crown jewel of Chinese animation, remains to be the least desirable place for any inspired Chinese animators.

Visualizing the ideas and story: the unlikely hero buried in a noodle shop.

Although one could come up with a long list of reasons as to why the Chinese animation industry fails to take off like Chinese economy, ultimately, it boils down to one simple answer: imagination and creativity come neither from top-down planning nor from a tightly controlled and carefully censored cultural environment. The government/Party-dominated “China model” might be able to produce an “economic miracle,” but it will cause more harm than good to Chinese culture and arts. Imagination knows no boundary, but there are simply too many boundaries and taboos in contemporary Chinese society.

Maquette of Lord Shen in “Kung Fu Panda II:” art, design, and inspiration.

Yes, the Giant Panda is a mammal unique to China, and Kung Fu is a Chinese cultural invention, but when it comes to imagination and creativity in arts, Hollywood’s panda won. Although I am not a fan of big studios, I like the following quote from Jeffrey Katzenberg, studio head of DreamWorks Animation: “Every single thing you see on-screen came out of somebody’s creativity. It doesn’t exist. Nature didn’t deliver it to us. Everything had to be dreamed.”