Making movies in England

Michael Wood

  • My indecision is final by Jake Eberts and Terry Ilott
    Faber, 678 pp, £17.50, June 1990, ISBN 0 571 14888 3

Now we must choose, a character in Beckett says, between ruin and collapse. Could we not, another character wonders, somehow combine them? Goldcrest Films, in the mid-Eighties, after days of great splendour, seems to have pulled off this melancholy mixture. The company that gave us Ghandi and The Killing Fields and collected 19 Oscars, then brought us Revolution and Absolute Beginners, exhausted its credit (in several senses) and was bought out. Something called Goldcrest still exists, but it is not, the authors of this absorbing book assure us, ‘the real Goldcrest’. The new (false) Goldcrest has produced All dogs go to heaven (a full-length cartoon) and Mike Hodges’s Black Rainbow, and makes money. The old (real) Goldcrest also made money, in the early days, but mainly it offered what it thought of as quality films, or, as the jargon of the trade would have it, ‘first-class product’.

Quality films, but not art films. The measure is Hollywood and sales, not Cannes and critical prestige. Quality is not synonymous with money, but it isn’t really separable from it either. The trick is to make money out of quality rather than out of trash, and an Oscar is how you know the trick has worked. Ghandi (eight Oscars) is in this sense the ideal Goldcrest film: classy, thoughtful, historical and English (even Ghandi was one of us). It had no ‘sex or gratuitous violence’, Jake Eberts says, and it appealed ‘to all age groups and audiences’. ‘In our view,’ Eberts continues, ‘it was like Gone with the Wind.’ Only English. Some may feel the massacre at Amritsar was gratuitous violence, but that was English too. The Mission (one Oscar), on the other hand, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but failed to pull in audiences. Failed to pull in large enough audiences, that is, in proportion to its cost and to Goldcrest’s needs at the time of its release. It was supposed to be quality and it turned into art.

My indecision is final helpfully lists what are called rentals as the most significant figure for a film – rentals being the money made after the cinema-owners have taken their cut. A Room with a View, for example, cost £2.3 million to make, and took about £7 million in US rentals. The Mission cost almost £17 million and brought in about £4.5 million in US rentals. Revolution cost around £19 million, and brought in around £600,000. This way of thinking is pretty alien to most movie-goers who cannot know how much they have to like a film (how many of them have to like a film) for the thing to break even. We are used to seeing critical success as different from box-office success, but business success is different again, since even good box-office results are not going to help if the costs of a film are very high. Then it has to be a blockbuster or nothing, and nothing is what it often is.

Those who are not all that interested in films as precariously balanced commodities, and those lowbrows who think All dogs go to heaven is in its way as respectable as Ghandi, may find this book a bit fussy in its tastes, and a bit pious in its use of words like ‘calibre’ and ‘flagship’. The same readers will fail to share to the full the tragic sense of ruin (and collapse) the book urges on us. But we would have to be truly hard-hearted not to feel the pathos in this story of dreams and wagers brought to spectacular heights then fizzling sadly away.

This book, an infinitely detailed history of the rise, glory, panic and fall of Goldcrest Films, is a collaborative work, unusually well spliced together. Each author has his score, his own voice, and the effect is of first-person and third-person narrators piling up a story, protagonist and observer pooling resources. Jake Eberts founded Goldcrest in 1977, left to join Embassy Pictures when Goldcrest expanded and moved in directions he didn’t like (and when, in the wake of Ghandi, Goldcrest couldn’t pay him the salary he could command from an American company), and returned to Goldcrest in 1985 to try (in vain) to stop its various runaway horses. Terry Ilott is a film journalist, former editor of Screen International, and remarkably well informed about film financing. Both men have done their homework and seem (to the outsider) scrupulously fair. It’s easy to imagine that the participants in these struggles, rife with possibilities for rancour and resentment, will see things differently. Ilott writes firmly and lucidly throughout, and Eberts seems to have picked up a taste for writing as the book goes on. Always informative, he begins to be funny, remarking of the Oscar ceremony, ‘If Ghandi himself had appeared swigging champagne from a bottle I would only have said how thrilled I was to meet him. That’s what I was saying to everybody else’; and about trust in Hollywood: ‘Trust is a word that sometimes gets mentioned, but only in script conferences, as a motivating factor between strictly fictional characters.’

The book betrays a certain nervousness about the kind of film Goldcrest made, hints at a pattern late perceived. Chariots of Fire, Ghandi, The Killing Fields, The Emerald Forest, The Mission, Revolution – these are boys’ films, serious boys’ films, stories of true adventure. It is perhaps too much to suggest, as Eberts and Ilott do, that the films reflect a corporate English fantasy, a dream of ageing English executives – sustained nobility of purpose, victory against harrowing odds – but there is an interesting meeting of minds between Goldcrest’s favourite producers and directors (David Puttnam, Richard Attenborough, Hugh Hudson, Roland Joffe, John Boorman) and its financial supporters. Shadowing the whole business, of course, is the dubious issue of the revival of the British film industry, for which Goldcrest had to bear all the hopes and finally, unfairly, carry the can. Terry Ilott’s conclusions are quite daunting. Goldcrest’s achievements did revive British films, discover new talent and show how much a small independent company could do in an age of conglomerate monsters. Its collapse scared money away from films to a drastic extent, and seems to have wiped out the very notion of the (large) British film: ‘To this day, it is almost impossible for a British producer to raise finance within Britain. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to raise finance from outside the entertainment industry itself.’ Does this matter, except to ardent nationalists? Ilott says it does, because films thrive on variety and difference, and because it’s good for film-makers to feel they have a home. We may want to say that Goldcrest wasn’t a home for many film-makers or a generator of all that much variety. We may even think that British films could be made with American money, if we see Britain as a source of vision, rather than of funds or themes. Still, it is distressing to see so much energy burn away to waste, and so much money frightened off. The realm of film finance, this weird zone where hard-headed folks put heavy money into fantasy, gets narrower every day, and so our films get narrower too, endless repeats of a handful of recipes. However, we do also need to remember, as Ilott says, that the late Eighties were a bad time generally for independent film companies: ‘By 1989 the independent sector lay in ruins and the studios announced the biggest takings in their history.’

My indecision is final is a perfect title, taking us straight into the language of Sam Goldwyn (‘Include me out’). It also conveys very neatly the flavour of much movie talk, at once emphatic and illusory. The book is (innocently) full of cherishable jargon: ‘bankable’, ‘output’, ‘want-to-see’, ‘risk: reward ratio’, ‘downside risk’. It’s good to know that people speak the way we want them to speak. But the title is not a diagnosis. Indecision played a part in Goldcrest’s troubles, but not the largest part. Wrong decisions, for example, were far more significant – but then what is a wrong decision for businessmen who are also supposed to be gamblers? Hindsight tells us plenty, but even hindsight has its moments of hesitation.

It was a mistake (wasn’t it?) for Goldcrest to put so much money into so few films; to let Revolution and Absolute Beginners go so extravagantly over budget that they had to be phenomenal successes; to permit so many films to go into production when they still had manifest problems with their scripts. It was probably a mistake to employ stars like Al Pacino (Revolution) and Robert de Niro (The Mission): they are not only expensive in themselves, they make everything else expensive, since nothing around them can be cheap. It was certainly a mistake for Goldcrest to get so deep into television, out of which it made only losses.

This much is not even hindsight: these mistakes were made with open eyes, they were conscious deviations from company policy, or they were company policy. They were risks. Ghandi, earlier in the company’s life, was never out of control as a production but did have far too much of the company’s money wrapped up in it, and like The Killing Fields, could at several moments have bankrupted the company, and severely damaged its backers. So the success story and the failure story are remarkably similar. But not identical: the gamble with Ghandi and The Killing Fields was based on faith in the films and their production teams: the gamble with Revolution and Absolute Beginners was the gesture of people who had gone too far to pull back.

There are two even more difficult questions. Should Goldcrest have shifted from film development to film production; and how much of what happened is a result of personalities clashing or failing to meet? The development/production question is crucial, the most dramatic and urgent issue raised by the book. Development is the creation of a film package – script, casting, director, budget – and in Hollywood about one development in twenty gets made into a movie. (‘A good independent development financier,’ Eberts says, ‘might expect to convert three to four in ten.’) Development costs money – it can go as high as £2 or £3 million – but not the sort of money that actual movie-making costs. Eberts’s initial intuition in founding Goldcrest was that film development was an attractive, unexplored territory for venture capital, offering just the right risk: reward ratio. Eberts’s Allied Filmmakers, a company he formed before returning to Goldcrest, and still runs, is a development outfit, based in a small room in Mayfair, with a staff of two. Such a concern puts very little into finished films and gets relatively little out, but Allied’s success rate is high – always remembering that ‘success’ in the movies is a more or less impenetrable category until we have seen the accounts.

Goldcrest in its early days was just such a development company: it had only a development role in Chariots of Fire, for example, although the film has always been identified as Goldcrest’s, but with Ghandi its investment became larger, and it soon moved into production, effectively became a studio – without the sort of resources a major studio has and needs. At this point everything grew, like Topsy: staff, overheads, offices, investments. The company virtually gave up development, and none of its later projects – The Mission, Revolution, A Room with a View, Absolute Beginners – was developed in house. The shift seemed inevitable and attractive to almost everyone – seemed inevitable even to Eberts, who didn’t like it much – and there is, I think, a fable about Thatcher’s England lurking in this process. Bigger (more up-to-date, more aggressive, more managerial) is not only better but the only way, and those who don’t share this view are mere stragglers and whiners, out of touch with the times. David Puttnam says of Eberts’s diffidence in this regard that he couldn’t ‘raise his game’, and the metaphor is telling. The game can be raised or it can be abandoned. It cannot be continued at the same or a lower pitch, however much the game itself might benefit. Ambition is what this fable is about; ambition and its ability to clear all other motives and considerations from the court.

Eberts is an enigmatic figure, as this book keeps telling us. He likes to make deals but not to run companies; could swing a £20 million sale of Ghandi to television over the telephone, without preparation and without losing his nerve; but doesn’t like confrontations and gets asthma when ugly scenes arise. His boss when Goldcrest expanded, and its chief driving force when he left, was James Lee, by all accounts an honest, energetic and intelligent man – it was ‘James’s guts’, Richard Attenborough says, ‘that got Ghandi completed’ – but manifestly Eberts’s opposite in all kinds of ways. He wanted Goldcrest to be an empire, and for all his acumen and business skills (both he and Eberts were graduates of the Harvard Business School), appears, at least as this book shows him, to have had two serious faults. He was so keen to get things done and so sure he knew what needed doing that he couldn’t take time to listen and learn; like many people when it comes to movies, he didn’t really believe in the difference between professionals and amateurs. And he was an optimist, constantly putting the best face on constantly worsening figures. The expensive flops were his projects and his burdens. He had a showdown with the Goldcrest board in 1985, and resigned.

In fact, I think the two difficult questions may be just one. The two chief personalities, Eberts and Lee, represent development and production respectively, modest investment versus the grand plan. It’s important to say that if the grand plan had worked, everyone would be singing a different song. But having said that, we must add that the grand plan looks pretty inflexible, and that on the terrain of the movies a small armoured vehicle is almost always going to be more useful than any but the most sophisticated and invulnerable tank.