AFM Flashback: ‘Gangs of New York’ Staked a Claim on Foreign Territories

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By Joshephira Honey

Thanks to enthusiastic buyers at the 2000 American Film Market, Martin Scorsese was finally able to begin filming Gangs of New York, a project that had been germinating for nearly 30 years. Based on Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, the film, with its detailed re-creations of 19th century Manhattan, follows an Irish immigrant, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who confronts his father’s murderer, the ruthless gang leader Bill the Butcher, portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis.

With a screenplay by Time magazine film critic Jay Cocks — which would eventually be reworked by Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan — the project was originally announced in 1977, but at the time Scorsese instead opted to direct 1980’s Raging Bull. Over the years, as budget estimates rose from $30 million to around $100 million, the project drifted from Universal to Disney. Unable to secure a green light, Scorsese also offered it to Warners, and other studios, which all turned it down. Finally, Miramax Films’ Harvey Weinstein stepped forward in 1999.

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But Weinstein needed a financial partner, so he sold foreign rights to the film for $65 million to Graham King, chairman of overseas distribution company Initial Entertainment Group. Sales were brisk: For example, the Japan rights went for $18 million, while the price tag in Italy was $7 million, and IEG was reportedly in the black even before the movie was released. As King told the Los Angeles Times when 20 minutes of the film was previewed at the Cannes Film Festival, “For me to bring [these distributors] a Leonardo DiCaprio picture is huge, because Leo only goes through studios. For us, we wanted to be in the big boys’ game, and this was a way to start.” He added, “It was like a circus. … The Koreans, the Swedish, the Malaysians are coming over to me, ‘Do you really have Leo’?”

Gangs would mark the first of six films that DiCaprio would make with Scorsese, culminating in the current Killers of the Flower Moon. Having shot on elaborate sets built at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, the film finally opened after a yearlong delay in late December 2002, grossing $77.8 million domestically and $193.7 million worldwide.


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