Will the penny drop? 

17 June 2024 tbs.pm/81376

MICHAEL OWEN ponders a ‘pay as you view’ plan to rescue films



Liverpool Daily Post masthead

From the Liverpool Daily Post for 31 October 1977

A MIDNIGHT telephone call from Los Angeles to a callbox on the slopes of the Aviemore Ski Centre in Scotland was the bizarre first point of a train of events that now has the British film industry confronted with the possibility of cable television being promoted as its sole saviour.

The call was to young producer David Puttnam shooting night scenes at Aviemore last winter for his film The Duellists. It was the offer of an important job in America.

The caller was Hollywood producer Peter Guber asking Puttnam to run a film company in Los Angeles. The offer was all but unref usable and his last words were: “Whatever you do, don’t say No.”

If he had tried to operate from this country on the level he now works on from Los Angeles he would have faced tax demands of 83 per cent on earnings of more than £21,000 a year [£118,000 in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed] and seen foreign earnings reduced by 75 per cent by the tax authorities.

The Los Angeles base has, in the event, turned out to be little more than an address. Although he has moved his family there he has spent barely two months of this year in California; the rest spent commuting across the Atlantic to Europe, including regular visits to London where he is a member of Sir Harold Wilson’s interim action committee considering the future of British films.

He has already tabled his provocative plans to the Wilson team and they include a Government-run network of cable television with an exclusive right to screen films on TV, a pay-as-you-watch deal for viewing at home, the restriction of BBC-TV to news and current affairs and a virtual end to the social patterns of cinema-going as known today.

It was on the location of his new film, Midnight Express, on Malta that he made them public for the first time.

David Puttnam, now 36, emerged from the advertising world to make films like Stardust, That’ll Be The Day, Mahler, Bugsy Malone and The Duellists, to be seen here in January. He is a slight, youthful figure, full of nervous energy. Against the background of the Maltese fortress port of Valetta, which has seen some British heroics of a different nature, he spelled out his bold vision of the future.

“The problem is to know where to start. In its present position it is just not possible to be optimistic about films in Britain. It is my belief that at some point shortly the industry will hit such an abysmal low, absolutely rock bottom, and then something dramatic will happen.

“Firstly, the industry has to be fundamentally restructured and made economically viable. In my view this can only be done by some form of national link-up to cable television. I believe this most strongly.

“Britain has one of the biggest film-watching audiences in the world. I’m not talking about cinema admissions, forget them. Millions of people are seeing films every night and seeing them for free. On TV.

“I want an end to the nonsense of the BBC-TV licence fee. The public is getting its entertainment practically for no charge and the people who provide the entertainment are getting no money back for it. Not just films, but if you watch Morecambe and Wise or Match of the Day I think you should be paying money, some of which goes back to the entertainer — be they comedians or footballers.

Three film stills

David Puttnam has made Bugsy Malone, Stardust and The Duellists and is planning to start filming Agatha, with Vanessa Redgrave, top, Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie. He deplores the sticking-plaster mentality to the British film industry’s problems. He wants major surgery.

“The key factor is the GPO. This country could be linked up to cable TV more easily than any other in the world. The GPO has the network to do it. It would be easier than conversion to North Sea gas.

“Establish this and you have a system where you dial whatever entertainment you wish to see and pay a few pence for the programme. The income this would create would be enormous. Overnight it would make the whole entertainment industry cost-effective.

“It would certainly change the social pattern of cinema-going but that is already happening and we must come to terms with it. If cable TV was introduced nationally, I think there would be room for about 400 cinemas instead of 1400 and they would be prime sites and West End quality houses.

“The BBC would be limited in over-the-air broadcasting to news, current affairs and public interest programmes. No drama, no films. ITV could continue to exist on its own revenue.

“When I outlined this to the Wilson committee it was met with the most unbelievable silence, the longest silence I have ever known.”

Puttnam’s voice will be heard with increasing significance in the industry. His apparent defection to America, a two-year contract he started earlier this year, has in fact turned out to be a 16,000,000 dollar (£9,000,000 [£51m]) investment in British films.

In his first year he is making three British films. The first, Midnight Express, is approaching conclusion on Malta; he is about to start a new film, Agatha, with Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie and Vanessa Redgrave to be made in Britain; and will follow it with a £5,600,000 [£31.5m] large-scale film version of the Tristan and Isolde legend called Tristram.

“I have not earned big money. The Duellists was my first film as independent producer. The producer’s fees I got on the others were small change — £6,000 [£34,000] for Bugsy which took two years’ work, £8,000 [£45,000] for That’ll Be The Day, £12,000 [£68,000] for Stardust and for Mahler I didn’t get a penny.

“But I’m English and I want to make English films. You can only work in your own culture, the culture you know best. When I have done two years for Guber — and that will enable me to pay off my overdraft — I will return to London.

“The only hope is that the Government gets it right. There has always been a sticking plaster mentality. The patient is a terminal case but they are afraid to take out the knife or can’t stand the sight of blood and they stick on another Elastoplast. Not this time, I hope.”


You Say

1 response to this article

Neil Crosswaite 22 June 2024 at 2:17 pm

Sheer lunacy. Reducing the BBC to a news/current affairs service would have spelled the end for the corporation.

ITV might have taken some of the Beeb’s big hitters such as Dr Who and Are You Being served but the rest would be done for.

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Liverpool, Sunday 7 July 2024