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David Puttnam--a Wiser and, It All Seems, Sadder Man

February 11, 1988|JACK MATHEWS

Former Columbia Pictures Chairman David Puttnam carefully avoided picking a fight with his former bosses at the Coca-Cola Co. on Tuesday, when he made his first public appearance since announcing his resignation last September.

Puttnam made some thoughtful comments about the responsibility of film makers to use the power of the medium wisely, and he warned against the "tyranny of the box office." But he only hinted at the events that actually led to his departure from Columbia.

"I hope you'll forgive me; I'm going to read this afternoon," Puttnam said, after being presented with the Eastman Kodak Second Century Award at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "I've discovered that I get into a lot less trouble that way."

Film industry people in the audience laughed at the reference to Puttnam's open-mouth policy as a studio executive. Perhaps they should have cried.

"Indiscreet." "Unthinking." "Impetuous." "Self-aggrandizing."

Those are a few of the words that were used, with anonymity, by other studio executives to describe Puttnam's persona during his brief, controversial reign at Columbia. The 46-year-old British producer got on people's nerves in Hollywood, criticizing the junk quality of the industry's product and the agents, stars and studio hacks he believed were responsible for it.

It wasn't Puttnam's point of view that rankled people so much. It was the fact that he felt the need to express it.

"I agree with almost everything David has been saying," the head of the motion picture division of a major studio told me when the Coke hit the fan late last summer. "But I am not going to make speeches about it. He should have just kept his mouth shut and run the studio the way he wanted to."

In an interview that was included in the press kit for Tuesday's Eastman Kodak luncheon, Puttnam admitted having made one "serious technical error" when he arrived in Hollywood in late 1986. He said he brought with him a European appetite for the debate of issues and realized too late that American businessmen don't like to indulge their differences publicly.

"(In Europe), people debate issues, so if something is wrong or something isn't working, it gets debated and gets discussed," Puttnam said in the transcript. "People are really quite open and they allow themselves to be quoted and they take positions."

Puttnam said he had been encouraged to speak out on issues concerning the quality and costs of movies by actors, writers, directors and others who were fed up with the mediocrity of Hollywood and wanted change, but found none of those people willing to back him when he did speak up.

"What I didn't realize is that . . . given the nature of their working environment, they would feel themselves inhibited from becoming part of the debate or part of the risk-taking enterprise," Puttnam's statement continued. "So, when I found that happening, I took a chance and I attempted to stimulate that debate."

Those words may have the faint flavor of sour grapes to them, but Puttnam is mostly right in saying that he fought the battle alone. As a reporter attempting to understand how Puttnam fell so far out of favor with the Coke moguls in Atlanta, in trying to scrape up details of his rumored feuds with producer Ray Stark and comedian Bill Cosby, I can tell you that the little people of Hollywoodland responded to questions much the way sea anemones respond when stuck with sharp sticks.

Where did everybody go? Directors David Seltzer and Stanley Kramer spoke up in Puttnam's defense, but the phones went dead elsewhere.

In fact, Puttnam made two serious technical errors when he got here. He thought others would join him in a debate, and he apparently thought everyone was agreed on terminology. They weren't.

When Puttnam spoke of quality, he was referring to the inherent goodness of particular films. When other studio executives spoke of quality, they were referring to the commercial viability of particular films.

At a theater owners' convention last fall, I listened to a panel of major studio distribution chiefs agree that business is booming because there are more good movies in the marketplace. Of course, what they meant was that there are more movies out there that the broadest spectrum of moviegoers wants to see.

Good business is good whether the movies are good or not. "Three Men and a Baby" is good like Froot Loops is good. "The Serpent and the Rainbow" is good like Miller Lite is good. "The Running Man" is good like the Couch Potato is good.

They sell. Therefore, they are.

Hollywood is not Europe, and Puttnam should have known the difference. Film is predominantly a business here, not a creative art, and it is run by cautious businessmen who have nothing to gain by revealing themselves in public debate.

In most industries, leaders emerge occasionally to discuss the issues facing them. Such debate is healthy; it is wise; it is responsible. In Hollywood, where American tastes and attitudes are unavoidably shaped, speaking out may be regarded as foolhardy and self-destructive. It's a go-along-get-along town where waves--if they need be made--are made behind closed doors.

Ultimately, the saddest thing about Puttnam's failed attempt to smash open those doors is that he seems--on the evidence of Tuesday's cautious speech and his conciliatory press conference--to have learned his lesson.

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