Cannes: John Travolta's 'Gotti' to Debut After Seven-Year Odyssey to the Screen

Courtesy of Brian Douglas
John Travolta (right) and Chris Kerson in 'Gotti'

The mob drama will have an unorthodox private screening seven years after the project was first announced.

Gotti, John Travolta’s new film about the notorious boss of the Gambino crime family, is not part of the official lineup at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But on Tuesday, May 15, while Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story is screening at the Lumiere and just before David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake makes its debut in competition, Gotti will have its own world premiere as what the fest has described as “a private presentation” at the Salle Bunuel inside the Palais des Festivals. A star-studded blowout at the Hotel du Cap, a celebration of Travolta’s career as much as of the movie, is expected to follow.

The fact that Gotti will be making a sort of backdoor entrance at the festival is less surprising, though, than the fact that the film exists at all. Since it was first announced in 2011, the project has gone through a quartet of directors; its IMDb page lists 44 producers, executive producers and co-producers; and just this past December, its future appeared in doubt when distributor Lionsgate Premiere pulled it from the release schedule just 10 days before the movie was set to hit theaters.

But Keya Morgan, an executive producer on the film who played a role in buying rights back from Lionsgate, promises that the wait will be worth it. "It’s a masterpiece. It’s one of the best mob movies I’ve seen in years,” he tells THR.

The saga began more than seven years ago when John Gotti Jr., turning down a reported offer from Sylvester Stallone, struck a deal with Marc Fiore for a movie about his father. Fiore had only one film credit to his name, a direct-to-video pic called One, Two, Many, starring John Melendez, better known to Howard Stern fans as "Stuttering John.” But he also had a partner, flush with cash, in Fay Devlin, a construction business magnate.

Lacking Hollywood connections, Fiore turned for help to Marty Ingels, the late comedian and husband of actress Shirley Jones, who managed to secure Fiore and Gotti a meeting with Travolta, who signed on. 

Travolta became one of the few constants on the project as the inexperienced producers struggled to put the rest of the elements together. Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) was first set to direct, but departed over what were variously described as scheduling problems and creative differences. Barry Levinson then boarded, bringing his Bugsy screenwriter James Toback to do rewrites. Captain America: The First Avenger’s Joe Johnston followed, with, finally, Entourage’s Kevin Connolly stepping in to helm the project.

Visiting Cannes in 2011, Fiore announced Al Pacino would join the cast as Gambino crime family underboss Neil Dellacroce — that role ultimately went to Stacy Keach. And he insisted Lindsay Lohan would play John Gotti Jr.’s wife, Kim — Megan Leonard plays that part in the finished film. And then there was a dust-up with Joe Pesci, who filed a $3 million suit against Fiori Films, claiming his role and salary had been cut after he put on 30 pounds to get into character. (The case was ultimately settled, though the part went to character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince.)

Two years later, in 2013, the project returned to the Cannes market, with a new director in Johnston, Radar Pictures’ Ted Field among the list of producers and Relativity Media holding U.S. distribution rights. "We’re all looking forward to starting production,” Travolta said of the project, then set to begin filming in New York that September.

Instead, the film finally began shooting in 2016 in Cincinnati, with Connolly directing; producers Randall Emmett and George Furla’s Emmet/Furla/Oasis Films partnering with Fiore Films and Highland Film Group; Michael Froch handling much of the on-set producing; and Lionsgate Premiere set to distribute.

But then, with the film in the can, it appeared to hit an eleventh-hour hitch when Lionsgate dropped it. The producers quickly explained, however, that the decision had been theirs. Insisting that they wanted a bigger release than Lionsgate was planning, the producers, with the help of Sunrider Productions’ Edward Walson, bought the film back from Lionsgate and set a June 15 U.S. release with indie distributor Vertical Entertainment.

Since then, Walson; music supervisor Richard Glasser; and Dennis Rice, who’s overseeing marketing and distribution, have overhauled the Lionsgate cut, trimming about 10 minutes and adding a score by Pitbull, who’s also written an original song.

While Gotti’s Cannes debut is being billed as a private affair, Travolta has assumed a number of official Cannes duties, taking part in a May 16 master class and introducing a 40th anniversary screening of Grease.

Says Rice: "This is really all about the movie’s U.S. opening. We’re hoping to use Cannes as our launching pad." 

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 8 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival. Click here to download.