David Puttnam, the British producer who rankled many people in the film establishment with his blunt criticism of the industry, has resigned after 15 months as chairman and chief executive officer of Columbia Pictures.
Puttnam announced his decision Wednesday night before 200 shocked Columbia employees who were attending a routine monthly seminar on the Burbank Studios lot.
Reached Thursday, Puttnam said he would stay on only until the Coca-Cola Co.'s previously announced merger of Tri-Star and Columbia studios is completed and a successor has been named.
There were conflicting reports Thursday as to whether Puttnam decided to resign on his own or was asked to by Victor Kaufman, who is moving up from Tri-Star chairman to head of Columbia Pictures Entertainment, the new umbrella company.
Puttnam said the decision was mutual and that he was departing under amicable circumstances. Kaufman did not return a Times reporter's calls.
The decision puts most of Puttnam's agenda for more social-minded films in limbo and leaves the fate of numerous Puttnam-recruited executives in doubt.
"It feels like I'm reliving history," said producer/director Stanley Kramer, who moved onto the Columbia lot to collaborate with Puttnam on a film about the Chernobyl disaster. "His ideas and what his so-called dream are pretty much what I have felt most of my life."
Kramer said he hasn't talked to Puttnam since the news of his resignation but Kramer was obviously concerned about his project. The idea was Puttnam's and nuclear disasters rarely inspire the typical studio executive.
"I would regard this as an extremely powerful loss for film makers," Kramer said. "David is more than a studio executive who understands film making. He understands ideas and concepts about the world."
Rumors were flying Thursday as to how Puttnam's tenure at Columbia came to such a quick end and who will succeed him.
The most popular theory regarding Puttnam's departure is that Coca-Cola--possibly prodded by powerful producer and major Coca-Cola shareholder Ray Stark--decided Puttnam's high visibility and messianic image were both a nuisance and a commercial liability. Stark, reportedly unhappy with Puttnam's agenda, could not be reached for comment.
The most frequently mentioned candidate to succeed Puttnam is former Columbia and Universal Pictures chairman Frank Price.
Price has been expected to form a new production company, with ties directly to Tri-Star ever since his departure in mid-contract from Universal in 1986 during the summer of the fiasco "Howard the Duck."
Price, who was not available Thursday, is regarded as a mainstream game player, with good relationships with major commercial producers. At Columbia, he was responsible for such hits as "Tootsie" and "Ghostbusters." At Universal, he developed "Out of Africa."
Considering Puttnam's brief reign, he made a major impact on film makers in Hollywood. People contacted Thursday spoke of him in funeral tones.
"He renewed my faith in making films for studios," said David Seltzer, the director of "Punchline," a Columbia picture set for release this Christmas. "He is the most supportive studio person I have ever worked with, an advocate instead of an adversary, which is the typical relationship. I feel dignified by having worked with him. Wherever he goes from here I'd like to follow him and keep working for him."
Jane Fonda, whose Fonda Films has as an ongoing relationship with Columbia, said she was sorry Puttnam is leaving but thinks his brief presence has been felt.
"(He) was an inspiring executive to work with and he barely got a chance to get started," Fonda said. "I think it was a good thing for our industry to have (a studio head) who was a great film maker with strong opinions . . . and a daring vision. Daring vision tends to shake us up, but maybe we benefit from being shaken up now and then."
Puttnam said he would be going back to England and will continue making the kinds of movies that interest him. They are not necessarily mainstream but they have established him as one of the most serious film makers of his generation. His initial appointment in June, 1986, was considered a bold stroke by Coca-Cola and many observers openly doubted how long he would last.
The good news to some Puttnam fans is that he'll continue to produce films, probably for Warner Bros., with whom he had a long-term contract before taking the Columbia job.
"He has put his signature on some of the most significant films of the '70s and '80s," said producer Robert Radnitz, who said he has never worked with Puttnam but shares his views on Hollywood. "It's unfortunate that our community will never see where he was trying to go."