Film Finances: Making Hollywood Happen

Charles Drazin, Queen Mary – University of London

4 July 2017


As I begin to write this blog on the world’s first completion guarantor Film Finances, I can’t help wondering what the company’s founder Bobby Garrett would have made of today’s online world. During World War II, he had been deputy head of the Air Section at Bletchley Park. When the war was over, he returned to the publicity-hungry movie industry, but ran his little-known corner of that industry with all the tact, discretion and knack for eluding attention that characterised his previous career in secret intelligence.

I was recently amused to find in the company’s archive a letter from the early 1970s that explained to a new business partner: “Our UK and European operation as far as we are concerned has been restricted within a very confined area; bankers, distributors, etc, are aware of our function within the Industry. Therefore, we have found that there has been no need for any publicity.” It was perhaps some left-over from Garrett’s day that helped to explain why, when I was first invited to explore Film Finances’ archive in 2009, I had not heard of the company and had no idea what a completion guarantor did. The fact that the IAMHIST conference will be hosting a panel on Film Finances offers some index of the increased awareness eight years on of this company’s crucial importance to post-war film history.

Founded in London in 1950, Film Finances pioneered a system of guaranteeing budget overcosts, as well as the certainty of completion and delivery by a specified date, which facilitated the financing of independent production. By “independent production” I mean a film that is not funded directly by a major studio but requires its producer to raise its budget from separate, independent financiers. In order to obtain a guarantee that Film Finances would meet any extra costs, a producer had to provide not only a plan of production but also regular reports on progress. Once the film had been completed and delivered to its distributor, Film Finances would then archive the paperwork relating to the project.

Over the nearly seventy years of its existence, Film Finances was an important catalyst in the spread of independent film-making from Britain and Europe to Canada, Australia and Hollywood. The result today is a vast collection of papers –  including correspondence, scripts, budgets, schedules, call sheets and progress reports –  that detail the behind-the-scenes production of thousands of feature films, including some of the most celebrated ever made –  The African Queen (1951), Dr No (1962), Cabaret (1972), Terminator (1984), Pulp Fiction (1994) and so on all the way to La La Land (2016). It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of an archive that encompasses so many industries and so many significant films.

In 2012 Film Finances agreed to grant scholars access to the papers relating to the first thirty years of its history. A special issue of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television in 2014 offered a taste to the academic community of the archive’s treasures. Since then the company has continued to facilitate research, most recently welcoming researchers from the BFI/AHRC project, “Transformation and Tradition in Sixties British Cinema”. In the long term, Film Finances plans to work with institutions that can help to develop the research potential of the archive, whether through digital access, cataloguing the collection or arranging exhibitions.

When Bobby Garrett retired in 1982, the British film industry was in the doldrums. In a difficult climate, publicity became important even to Film Finances, as Garrett’s successor, the much more gregarious Richard Soames, sought to explain the value of what the company did to new markets that had not previously been aware of its function. The biggest of those new markets was Hollywood, where the advent of video distribution was fuelling the growth of independently financed films.

My paper at the IAMHIST conference will tell the story of how Film Finances came to Hollywood. Drawing on original documents in the Film Finances Archive, it will focus on Francis Ford Coppola’s Outsiders (1983), which Film Finances took the risk of guaranteeing even though the director’s previous two films, Apocalypse Now (1979) and One From the Heart (1982), had incurred massive overcosts. The production turned out to be the perfect calling card, as Film Finances took out a full-page advert in Variety to congratulate Coppola on finishing the film “on schedule and on budget”.

Opening an office on Sunset Boulevard only weeks later, Film Finances was keen during its early years in Hollywood to explain what it could offer to an industry that was still unfamiliar with how the completion guarantee worked. In an article that appeared in the Hollywood Reporter in 1985 Soames discussed the difference that Film Finances might have made if only it had been around to provide a completion guarantee for Heaven’s Gate (1980).

Budgeted at $11.5m, the film notoriously ended up costing over $40m and nearly ruined United Artists.  “The big advantage that the production would have had if we’d been there would have been to have an objective party who was involved in the creative aspects and who could point out where the film was really going.” In another interview with a trade journal called The Business of Film, Soames pointed out that over more than three decades “practically every set of circumstances in the making of a film has come past our door”. There were few other companies that could match the experience it had accumulated in solving the problems of production. “The very fact that there are problems with pictures is the reason that we’re in business.”

When a special issue of the Hollywood Reporter celebrated Film Finances’ fiftieth anniversary in 2000, the company had guaranteed approximately 3,000 films. Although the Hollywood office was now the headquarters of the company, the last page of the issue offered a nod to its British origins.

“Excellent Batsman for 50 years,” declared the advertisement from Merchant Ivory Productions. “May you continue for the next 50.”  It will be some time until scholars can hope to have access to the papers relating to films that Film Finances guaranteed after its arrival in Hollywood in 1982, but meanwhile the first thirty years of Film Finances’ history, relating chiefly to the British film industry, are likely to keep researchers busy for quite some time.


Charles Drazin is Senior Lecturer in Film at Queen Mary, University of London, and the author of Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s (1998), In Search of ‘The Third Man’ (1999) and Korda: Britain’s Only Movie Mogul (2002). Charles will be presenting a paper, ‘Film Finances goes to Hollywood’, at this year’s IAMHIST Conference.

http://filmstudies.sllf.qmul.ac.uk/filmstudies/people/drazin.html

 

Utilitarian Filmmaking

Deane Williams, Monash University

20 June 2017


In recent years, outside Australia, there has been significant research undertaken into utilitarian filmmaking, particularly in the US, and across many territories in Europe. This research provides a highly informative, revisionist complement to the thoroughgoing study of the production, distribution, exhibition and viewing practices that have long been associated with feature-film drama, television, ‘art cinema’, and documentary filmmaking around the world. These latter domains have always been the mainstay of film history, film theory and media studies worldwide, including in Australia (which has been an extremely influential contributor to these disciplines on a global basis over the past four decades). But now European and American research into utilitarian cinema has begun to provide a provocative and informative complement to the disciplinary orthodoxies. For example, the recent books Films That Work (Hediger & Vonderau, 2009 – Europe-focused) and Useful Cinema (Acland and Wasson, 2011 – America-focused) have canvassed the scope and cardinal themes of utilitarian and non-theatrical cinema in a range of different national cultures and economies where it has only recently become evident that utilitarian cinema provided employment for thousands of people, fostered the long term publication of several trade journals and generated an international circuit of trade shows, festivals and industrial and governmental conferences between 1950 and 1980.

Also, highly influential archives have been made available to scholars under Creative Commons licences. The global ‘gold standard’ is the Prelinger Archives that is now administered by the Library of Congress in the US; Archive.org is also a vital contributor in this field. Even so, Australian specificities concerning utilitarian cinema have received almost no attention, at home or abroad. Archives of utilitarian cinema in Australia are nowhere near as consolidated as they are in the US and Europe, even though there are some small but notable exemplars such as portions of the Mu-meson Archive, and the Teasdale Collection of films detailing farm work and rural culture, which Ross Gibson has been investigating for some time (see Gibson, 2015): http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/john-teasdale-chronicle-of-a-country-life/.

Clearly an investigation of utilitarian cinema in Australia can inform an important and innovative recasting of audiovisual media histories as well as industrial practices in communications both at home and abroad. A team consisting of Ross Gibson (University of Canberra), Mick Broderick (Murdoch University), John Hughes (University of Canberra), Joe Masco (University of Chicago), PhD candidates Grace Russell (Monash University), Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd and Stella Barber (Murdoch University) and myself received Australian Research Council funding to pursue what we understand to be urgent and important research for at least three compelling reasons. Firstly, an understanding of the ‘peculiarities’ of the Australian utilitarian filmmaking ‘scene’ adds nuance to the global account and brings Australian- focused scholars into fruitful dialogue with their international counterparts in a rapidly-expanding field of scholarship. Secondly, we are generating and disseminating vital new knowledge about market-focused and audience-focused interpretations of Australian media and communications, particularly because of the way utilitarian filmmakers developed systems of exhibition and distribution in this country that were different (and sometimes even oppositional) to the US-dominated cartels that organised the entertainment sector here. Thirdly, from industrial-relations and labour-history viewpoints, a history of Australian utilitarian filmmaking deepens our understanding of how the utilitarian sector maintained a critical mass of well-trained technical and creative staff who formed the basis, despite long ‘fallow periods’ prior to the ‘renaissance’ that occurred during the1970s in the entertainment, of the theatrical and television-focused sectors of Australian film production. Indeed, for all their avoidance of explicitly aesthetic approaches to the medium, utilitarian filmmakers in Australia would appear to have supplied a consistent ‘through-line’ of factual, pragmatic and documentary ideologies and aesthetic and technical capabilities that have nourished and guided the more well-known, entertainment-focused sectors of cinematic production in the nation. This is a revelatory new line of investigation and explanation.

Definitions

By utilitarian we mean pragmatic, purposeful films that were made and distributed outside the well-studied systems of entertainment, ‘theatrical’ exhibition and visual arts installation; films that were produced, distributed and exhibited to a wide range of (as-yet under investigated) audiences in mostly ‘non-theatrical’ and ‘mundane’ contexts and spaces.

Dressing a Chicken (Victorian Department of Agriculture, Australia 1960)

These were films produced in significant numbers worldwide (including in Australia) for the functional purposes of instruction, surveillance, quantification or recordkeeping rather than principally for reasons of commercial entertainment, creative non-fiction narrative, or clearly-contextualised artistic and aesthetic appreciation. The project is, at the same time, seeks:

  1. To survey the full extent of holdings of utilitarian cinema dispersed across private, public and government-administered collections in Australia;
  2. to assay the themes and patterns of historical information that are contained within this reservoir of cultural, pedagogical, sociological and industrial evidence; NOTE: as part of this assay, the team is conducting, recording and making available a range of oral history interviews with practitioners, users and consumers’ of utilitarian history 1945 – 1980;
  3. to work with partners (such as the National Film & Sound Archive, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, the National Archives of Australia and the online departments of State Libraries) to ensure not only that there are secure repositories for the discovered material but also that there is continuing policy-development as well as curatorial commitment devoted to accessing and interpreting the national heritage of utilitarian cinema in Australia;
  4. to consolidate and communicate to scholars and the interested general public the findings about Australian utilitarian cinema so that this new knowledge can be productively compared and integrated with extant knowledge of Australian media as well as with the global understanding that has begun to be accrued worldwide within the new sub-discipline of utilitarian film and media studies.
  5. to engage the participant public in a process of continuing, long-term data-collection, assets-collection and oral history via the project’s online repository and via the crowd-sourcing and citizen-curatorship enterprises that are now being enacted by the partner institutions.

Deane Williams is a film historian specialising in documentary film history and Australian documentary from Monash University, Melbourne. He is the author of 7 monographs and edited collections and of articles published in Screening the Past, Continuum, Media International Australia,  Framework and Critical Arts. He is also Editor of Studies in Documentary Film (ISSN 1750-3280 (Print), 1750-3299 Online), the only international, refereed, scholarly journal dedicated to the history and criticism of documentary. In 2015 he commenced work with Ross Gibson, Mick Broderick, John Hughes, Joe Masco on the four-year Australian Research Council Discovery Grant supported project, Utilitarian Filmmaking in Australia 1945-80. ($AUD 363,359).

http://profiles.arts.monash.edu.au/deane-williams/

  • Archives