LONDON — A year after his departure from Columbia Pictures, David Puttnam is back in business as a producer with $50 million of backing from Warner Bros., the Fujisankei Communications Group of Japan and British investors--plus a screen role for President Reagan, if he wants it.
Announcing his plans here Wednesday, Puttnam said he was "significantly more mature and sensible" than the man who became Columbia's chairman two years ago and made waves with his outspoken attacks on Hollywood and the star system.
The British producer said he was no longer opposed to casting big names in his movies and hoped that Ronald Reagan will appear in one of his first productions--the story of Jim Brady, the White House press secretary wounded in John Hinkley's assassination attempt on the President.
"If the script is good, I can't imagine President Reagan won't want to be part of it" said Puttnam, who revealed he had discussed the movie with the President at a lunch with Brady last year. "He was very affable and nice and pointed out that by the time we came to make the movie, he'd be available."
Added Warner Bros. President Terry Semel, jokingly: "Since he was a Warner Bros. employee, the chances are we still have him under contract."
Puttnam said his first movie, for release in the fall of 1990, is likely to be "Memphis Belle"--a fictionalized account of an American B-17 bombing crew on its last mission to Germany in World War II. Written by Monte Merrick, it will be co-produced by Catherine Wyler, who headed Columbia's nonfiction film department during Puttnam's tenure at the studio.
At the press conference, a major media event in London, the producer was flanked by Semel and his other partners. They are the giant Japanese TV, radio and newspaper group Fujisankei (whose first venture into international film finance this is), British Satellite Broadcasting--which from next year will be beaming three new TV channels into the United Kingdom--and the investment bank County NatWest Ventures. Puttnam's association with Warners, which preceded his ill-fated Columbia venture, goes back to such films as "Chariots of Fire," "The Killing Fields," "Local Hero" and "The Mission.
Their $50 million in revolving funds will give Puttnam, who won a best picture Oscar for "Chariots of Fire," the opportunity to go back to what he does best--producing movies. He will make three movies in the first two years of the four-year deal, through his company Enigma Productions based at Shepperton Studios outside London.
Although he will have a British base and employ British technicians, he is aiming at the international market. "They are not intended to be British films per se," he said. "I'd expect there to be a range of directors and writers from other countries involved." Directors already slated to work with Puttnam include the Czechoslovakian Jiri Menzel ("Closely Observed Trains") and the Hungarian Istzan Szabo ("Mephisto").
Puttnam, who in his year at Columbia brought average budgets down from $14.4 million to $10.7 million, said he still intends to make "keenly priced" movies, with an absolute ceiling of $20 million. But he admitted that his one-man crusade against star casting--which brought him into conflict with some of Hollywood's top agents, producers and actors--was over.
(Despite the generally low budgets, Columbia earlier this year said it expected to lose money on between 10 and 15 Puttnam-era films. Several of the movies--including "The Beast" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen"--have yet to be released. "The Beast" is scheduled for release Friday.)
Looking older, wiser and grayer than before he left Britain, Puttnam said: "One of the things I learned at Columbia is to resist ideologies. I'm trying to take a non-ideological position and ask the best people for the best films in the most sensible way possible. We will look at unknowns as well as looking for knowns.
"I think I learned a lot of valuable lessons in Hollywood and had some of my beliefs reinforced," he said. Asked to specify the most valuable lesson Hollywood had taught him, he replied: "Not to be too frank at press conferences."
"What David said today is a sign of experience and maturity," added Semel, who has been associated with Puttnam since the early 1970s. The Warners executive said the producer was still a controversial figure in some Hollywood circles. "Some people think he did great service to the cause; others think just the opposite" he said. "I don't know that it will ever change."
One question raised at the press conference was how soon Puttnam's movies would be shown on the satellite TV networks owned by British Satellite Broadcasting. One British newspaper suggested they would be shown only shortly after the video release, thus bringing the satellite service into competition with the lucrative home video market.
"We want to bring our films to the public in an orderly fashion so we don't destroy existing windows in order to accommodate new windows," Semel said.