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From Oscars to Oblivion : MY INDECISION IS FINAL; The Rise and Fall of Goldcrest Films By Jake Eberts and Terry Ilott (Atlantic Monthly Press: $29.95; 678 pp.)

October 28, 1990|Peter Biskind | Biskind is an executive editor of Premier Magazine. and

Remember Goldcrest? Remember the flash of British film in the early '80s that gave us David Puttnam, Richard Attenborough, Roland Joffe and Hugh Hudson? Remember "Local Hero," "Chariots of Fire," "Gandhi" and "The Killing Fields"? These were all Goldcrest films and Goldcrest film makers, and at its height, the company's product racked up an unprecedented 19 Oscars, including Best Picture two years in a row--"Chariots of Fire" in 1981 and "Gandhi" in 1982.

Then, suddenly, the man who founded and was most closely identified with the company abruptly left, his successors dropped two bombs--"Revolution" and "Absolute Beginners"--and it was all over--history, as they say.

"My Indecision Is Final" is an attempt to excavate that history: It is the story of a company that rode the crest of a wave of hits to become the great white hope of the British film industry, and then crashed and burned.

The Goldcrest story is not an unfamiliar one--too many independents in the last decade have suffered a similar trajectory. What is unusual about this book is the writers' extraordinary access to the records and recollections of the principals and the stunning attention to detail which informs their presentation. This, in an industry that throws a cloak of secrecy over all but the most trivial details of celebrity and production gossip. In fact, this 678-page book, whose 61 chapters, preface, postscript and two appendices are studded with spreadsheets, charts, graphs and undigested chunks of minutes from board meetings, is not for the casual reader; rather, it is more of a how-to or how-not-to book for aspiring producers and venture capitalists.

That being said, "My Indecision Is Final" is by no means uninteresting. A virtual primer to the movie business, it is told in tandem by two writers: company founder and production head Jake Eberts writing in the first person, and journalist Terry Ilott writing in the third, picking up and filling in when Eberts' career took him away from Goldcrest and providing a perspective that complements Eberts' personal account.

When the story begins, Eberts is a mildly unsuccessful financier who drifts more or less by accident into raising development money for movies at a point when the British film industry is pretty much moribund. Eberts was to benefit from his own enormous energy, his uncommonly good common sense and his considerable skill in negotiation.

After some initial modest successes, he stumbled onto David Puttnam and, knowing a good thing when he saw it, brought him into the fold. Then he met Richard Attenborough, and was sufficiently charmed by his enthusiasm and impressed by the "Gandhi" script to throw his weight behind the film at a time when it mattered. When "Gandhi" became a huge hit and succes d'estime , Goldcrest prospered and gradually became a company that not only developed, but produced.

It prided itself on making films that mattered with a small group of experienced film makers in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect, a far cry from the ethos of the ego and the deal that reigned across the ocean. But while Goldcrest was a "directors' company," Eberts also applied shrewd business criteria to the scripts he developed, and protected Goldcrest from too much financial exposure to any individual project.

As the company became more successful, it also became more attractive to others, including one James Lee, who moved over from Pearson Longman, one of Goldcrest's main investors. Eberts, increasingly unhappy with the company he founded, was being strenuously courted by Jerry Perenchio at Embassy, and when Lee wouldn't meet Eberts' salary requirements, Eberts left for Embassy.

Lee, by all accounts a smart and energetic executive, had a lot of ambition but very little experience running a film company. He and the people he hired committed Goldcrest to three expensive and commercially problematic movies--"Revolution," "Absolute Beginners" and "The Mission." Two bombed while "The Mission" did disappointing business.

Hobbled by escalating overhead and a money-losing television division, Goldcrest was on the ropes. Eberts returned in an effort to save the company, but it was too late. Near bankruptcy, Goldcrest finally was sold in 1987.

The second half of the book is more interesting, because-- pace Horatio Alger--however edifying the story of Eberts cobbling together Goldcrest, disaster always is more compelling than success.

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