Why Rocky's still a winner
When a friend of mine and I were talking about classic 70's movies, Rocky inevitably came up, and my friend said, "It gets better and better every year."
Having seen Rocky when I was a little kid when my dad took me to see it in the theaters, I can remember what a phenomenon it was, and how it uplifted people who were rooting for this scrappy underdog from Philly.
It was also life imitating art, because with the success of Rocky, including a Best Picture win, Sylvester Stallone went from struggling and broke to the hottest actor in Hollywood overnight.
Rocky was based on a real guy, boxer Chuck Wepner, who indeed went the distance with Ali, and actually knocked him down at one point during the fight.
As Sylvester Stallone recalled to William Baer in the book Classic American Films: Conversations with the Screenwriters, when Wepner knocked Ali down, "it was like a bolt of lightning from some Greek god in the sky, and, almost instantly, Wepner became the crowd favorite. At some point I realize that the whole thing's a metaphor. Actually, Rocky was never really about boxing. It was about personal triumph."
Stallone was stone broke before Rocky. He had $160 in the bank, he had to sell his dog because he couldn't afford to feed and take care of him, he had a $40 car that blew up and he had to take the bus to work, and as Stallone told Baer, "It was so hot in the place we were living that my wife would get nose bleeds when she tried to cook." Still, "at that point in my life, I still felt that the sky was the limit."
Just like Star Wars was considered a risky film because sci-fi wasn't big box office at the time, and boxing pictures were also notorious money losers as well. As former United Artists head of production Mike Medavoy recalled in his memoir, "Though it was a boxing picture and the hero lost the fight, the story had an authenticity that made it stand out."
Rocky was given a tight budget of $1.25 million, and it was made in twenty-five days, going slightly overbudget at $1.3 million. Bill Conti also got paid $18,000 for his incredible score that included the hit theme "Gonna Fly Now," which was a #1 hit. As Medavoy remembers, at the first two sneak previews of Rocky at MGM and at the Baronet Theater in New York, audiences went nuts, and "From the moment the screening let out, Stallone was a star. Not since Giant splashed James Dean on the scene had a new star sparked such excitement."
Rocky was a little movie that could, making $115 million on a $1.3 million budget. Stallone's first share of the film came in at $4 million, and the tagline for Rocky wonderfully summed up the story, and Stallone's big breakthrough into Hollywood: "His Whole Life Was a Million- to-One Shot."