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Jack Mathews : To Columbia's New Chief Charioteer, From A Fan

August 29, 1986|JACK MATHEWS

An open letter to David Puttnam, the British film producer who officially begins his new job next week as chairman and chief executive officer of Columbia Pictures:

Dear Mr. Puttnam,

Welcome to L.A. You've been here before, so we can skip the basic survival tips--don't eat the food at the commissary (it could be poison), don't talk in front of servants (they may write for the National Enquirer)--and go right on to the things that will be expected of you as the new head of an old studio.

As you probably know, your decision to take this job came as one of the biggest shocks in Hollywood since Elizabeth Taylor married Eddie Fisher. Let's face it, you're the new odd couple. A quality moviemaker and a major movie studio? What could you possibly have in common?

You may as well know it: The buzz around town was that you took the job for the money, for the $3 million or whatever it is you are said to be getting over the next three years. They say that despite the box-office and critical successes of "Chariots of Fire" and "The Killing Fields," very little of those profits trickled up to you.

Whatever your reasons, those of us who enjoy films more than filmed deals welcomed the news. The way things have been going out here, we thought Peter Ueberroth would get the job and make Columbia the first studio to turn a profit by selling corporate sponsorships to love scenes.

At the very least, we figured the Coke folks would put either a TV or ad man in charge, someone with the proven ability to organize and reduce complex populations of people into simple slices of demographic pies.

But no, they go out and hire a genuine film maker, one with taste and dignity, and get us all excited, like maybe . . . maybe a major studio will again think of movies as a way to both entertain and, to use an archaic word, enlighten.

Many people do have unrealistic expectations for what you will be able to do at Columbia. Major studios today are in the baby-a-month business. Their distribution divisions need at least one new movie a month to keep their exhibition customers in line. Even if you could find and develop them, 15 "David Puttnam movies" in one year would take the fizz right out of Coca-Cola's next annual meeting.

What people may forget is that every movie you have made in the last 10 years, including the Oscar-winning "Chariots of Fire," needed patient, special handling to catch on in the American market. Columbia won't be able to tap the "Top Gun" audience with films like "Midnight Express" and "Local Hero."

The terms of your deal were not announced, so we don't know how much freedom you were guaranteed. My guess is that the leash is short. Coca-Cola is one of the most convenient boycott targets on Earth. It's hard to imagine Columbia making a movie that would mobilize any sizable body to action against its products. (We know that Columbia denied any Coca-Cola pressure in dropping Jean-Luc Godard's irreverent birth of Christ fable, "Hail Mary," but we still wonder.)

Realistically, the most we can expect from you is a higher ratio of honorable attempts at intelligent film making than is the current major studio norm. The pressure on studio heads--especially in their rookie seasons--to hit some quick box-office home runs must be enormous. So we'll understand if you take a few big swings, exploit a rock star or two, give Richard Pryor another shot or agree to let Bill Murray remake "The Lost Weekend" in order to get "Ghostbusters II" in production.

But if you're going to commit to 15 to 20 movies a year, it does not seem outrageous to expect five or six of them to be projects born of passion rather than of research. On that score, you would seem to have an advantage over your peers, most of whom think of passion as something that leaves bruises on people's necks.

Another thing that is encouraging about your presence here is your age. At 45, you're young enough to know that the real golden era of Hollywood, when the medium came closest to its potential, was the '60s, not the '30s. And you're old enough to know a movie from a long TV show.

There are some easy traps for studio heads to fall into here, and frankly, I was surprised to see you disappear into one so soon after taking this job. When you announced a few weeks ago that Columbia had signed Bill Cosby to produce and star in a comedy based on an idea by Cosby, for Christmas '87 release, you said it signifies "exactly what Columbia will be all about, entertainment with a heart and a mind."

When all you have is a star and an idea, you don't have entertainment with a heart or a mind or anything. You have a deal . Every major studio in town was willing to write a blank check for a Cosby feature. For some reason, Cosby liked Columbia's blank check best.

Nothing wrong in that. Congratulations. Cosby was a major catch, and if it turns out to be a good filmed deal, it will be money in the bank. But if that signifies a new direction in Hollywood, it sure looks familiar.

I hope you don't spend a lot of time trying to justify strictly commercial decisions with cliches. In the long haul, your tenure at Columbia will be measured by the mix that you create, by the number and quality of those films that will be attempted because they really do have a heart and a mind.

In the meantime, here is the best piece of advice you may ever get: Stay off the Ventura Freeway after 3 p.m.

Yours truly,

A hopeful movie fan

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