David Puttnam

More About Movies and Money

VTR Date: December 3, 1998

Guest: Puttnam, David


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David Puttnam
Title: More About “Movies and Money”
Recorded: 12/3/98
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And this is the second of two programs with England’s master film maker Lord David Puttnam, who has brought us such memorable films as “Chariots of Fire”, “The Killing Fields”, “The Mission”, “Midnight Express” and who a dozen years ago — wisely or not — also took on the mantel of Hollywood Chieftain, becoming Chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures.

David Puttnam did not remain a movie mogul for long, to be sure. Still his wonderfully readable new Alfred A. Knopf book, “Movies And Money” is much more benignly non-judgmental in its discussion of Tinseltown, it seems to me, then it might well be … even though he does conclude that “it is frankly dangerous to allow Hollywood’s extraordinary dominance in the field of filmed entertainment to go on intensifying. To do so presents the very real prospect of a fundamental dislocation between the world of the imagination, created by the moving image, and everyday lives of people around the globe”.

Well, I want to ask Lord Puttnam just what this means and why he writes that “some try to persuade us that films and television are a business just like any other. They are not. Films and television shape attitudes, create conventions of style and behavior, reinforce or undermine the wider values of society.

He says, “Movies are more than fun, and more than big business. They are power.” And, David, we talked about that to a certain extent in the last program we did together, but I want to pick up with this question of the difference or the split or the chasm between what you consider the attitudes of the studios and the attitudes of the audience. You seem to feel that there is a much more willing, accepting audience than the studio Chieftains think.

PUTTNAM: I think the one thing any artist, or in my case … one has to believe in is that the audience out there doesn’t know what it wants. And that all the audience is actually asking us to do is amaze them, surprise them, delight them, amaze them, inform them, maybe inspire them. And I think that a respect for the audience is one of the things that actually has driven the American film industry to its preeminence. I think the American film industry has more respect for its audience than its European counterpart. Certainly during the Golden, what I would term “the Golden Years” of Hollywood. I think that respect has evaporated. I don’t think there is a great deal of respect. Every now and again the audience surprises the film makers by responding in large numbers to a film that people maybe didn’t think was going to be successful. Or sometimes in the alternative, not responding to a film that we did hope would find an audience. But I continue to believe that the audience out there wants more and better films, not more and larger films.

HEFFNER: If you were somehow or other to divine that the audience in terms of King Numbers did not, by majority rule, want what you think they would want if they were offered … steak instead of hamburger …

PUTTNAM: …MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: Would you necessarily nevertheless want the Chieftains and yourself to continue to give them what they perhaps want less because you think it important, it is socially cohesive, it supports the values that you maintain.

PUTTNAM: I think we live in a difficult world. If anything, the 21st century is likely to be just as difficult, maybe more difficult for individuals. I think to deal with a difficult world you need all kinds of weaponry and armaments … emotional, intellectual and physical. One of the things that can provide you with the ability to navigate your way through a difficult world are the impressions you’ve received, particularly as a young person. Who your heroes are, what your values are, what you cling to, what you believe in, what you’re prepared to sacrifice for. And interesting word, “sacrifice”, it doesn’t get used very much any more. And cinema can go a long way to create those pre-conditions. It’s very interesting that in the First World War, Second World War, in almost any period of conflict, governments very, very quickly realize what an important propaganda tool the cinema is. To actually frame minds to accept pain, to accept loss, to accept sacrifice. I don’t think that the non-conflict, I mean non-physical conflict role of the 21st century is any less dangerous and I don’t think that the people, the citizens entering the 21st century are any less in the need of a frame work for their lives than they are during, during periods of conflict. Now that sounds like … you know, people you meet, they say, well really what you’re talking about is propaganda. And the answer really is “Yes”. It’s propaganda, the same way that going to school is propaganda. When you go to school you are propagandized into the notion that you require more knowledge and you are confronted by someone who’s called a teacher, who offers you that. Where cinema’s important is that it offers the opportunity to create a coherent and cohesive society within a framework which is in every other respect, entertaining. And you see, well … sometimes these conversations run into the ground … I won’t accept there is anything other than a challenge and a very exciting, creative challenge in making films thorough entertaining, but packed with meaning and packed with value. And it comes back again to one or two of my own films, only because I use them as reference. “The Killing Fields”, no one ever accused “The Killing Fields” of being a dull film or an unimportant film, or a not anything other than a very engaging film. But the punch it packed was that at the end of that picture, you really had had a serious lesson in meaning and the value of friendship.

HEFFNER: But David you pick out, and I pick out a number of brilliant, wonderful films that are engaging, as you say, thoroughly and whose values we can all embrace with pride. But that wouldn’t be said of the educational establishment anywhere, that each experience that a young person growing up has with the educational experience is always at one and the same time valuable and engaging, entertaining, if you will. Why don’t you … and I don’t find it in this book … well, at the very end of your book I kind of find in your talking about education that you might be willing to say that this instrument … film, television, audio visual materials, equipment is an educational … together they compose the greatest educational device every created.

PUTTNAM: The greatest educational opportunity.

HEFFNER: And they cannot be operated on a for-profit basis.

PUTTNAM: Well, I’m not entirely convinced that that’s true. I mean, it’s quite interesting that Edison who I … in researching the book and writing book … developed a very profound dislike for … to his credit, says himself, that he always saw the educational potential of film as the more interesting end of the business. He never actually saw the entertainment potential as that interesting, but he did see the educational potential as interesting. And it’s quite interesting that ninety, a hundred years later, I think that some of what he spotted has potential. What we haven’t done, we’ve never really combined the overwhelming need for education. And I’ll come back to that in a second because I think a new paradigm is being established, which is a very useful one. With the very best talents that are available in entertainment and these two … the two have never really come together. Education, for example … the education department at the BBC has tended, tended to be peopled by people who’ve failed in entertainment, or failed in sport, or failed in current affairs, and they ended up in the education department. In a well-run world, the very, very best people from those other areas, not the ones who haven’t been successful, should people the education department. One of the reasons the BBC has not been nearly as successful as it might have been, as an educative corporation.

Now why do I say things are changing? They’re changing because there’s an absolute realization in Western Europe, an absolute realization in this country that the only way to survive in the 21st century is for our nations to be very, very smart. We’re not going to go back to the metal bashing business, the widget business, there will not be wealth to be created … the kind of wealth that we require to keep a Social Security system going by low paid, as it were, dumb jobs. There’s any number of areas of the world that will more than … that can take care of that, as it were, area of the global economy. But we’ve got to be as smart and we’re not going to be smart unless we’re well educated. So the educational imperative has ceased to be a warm aspiration. I mean it’s beginning to turn into an absolute economic necessity. Every corporation in the United States knows that its future depends on how really smart the people are that it recruits for the future. So I think what you’ve got is a coming together of something which society’s known for thousands of years, which is it’s a good idea to be educated. It’s a good idea to be broadly cultured. But now what you’ve got is a brand new and I think very firm economic imperative for certain nations.

HEFFNER: Given what you know of the world, given your experiences in Hollywood, given your knowledge of the communications media … in this country and your country, around the world … do you think this can be accomplished on the level that you want it accomplished on within the context of a for profit system?

PUTTNAM: Dick, I’m still clinging to the basic notion it can. I read a piece in the Financial Times just yesterday on the plane flying into New York that talked about the games industry, the computer games industry. Was a very interesting kind of … a number of people who had been very successful in it, reflecting on it. And saying the time had come for software developers and the games creators to move on to a different value system for themselves. That “shoot’em up” games were fine and they’ve done tremendously well, but actually what they’ve done is they’ve created an audience out there that had a terrific capacity, as it were, to function and operate. But now there was an opportunity to move on, and as it were … do the Fred Zimmerman, Willy Wyler computer games instead of just the “shoot’em up” computer games. I think all that’s interesting. There was that lovely line, and it was a wonderful line of Woodrow Wilson’s, when he saw “Birth of a Nation” and referred to it as “history written in lightening”. That’s what movies have always had the capacity to be, and I think that successive idealists and I think Wilson was something of a idealist, have believed in the power of the medium, the potential of the medium, because they believe in the power and the potential of the citizenry. Again, I come back to a thing we discussed the last program … is this nation’s so packed with potential. I can’t and neither can you … you can’t go to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and read and not feel (a) awed and inspired, but more than that what you read is right. He’s right. It’s sensible, that is a coherent and sustainable nation. What is currently being directed isn’t. And I don’t accept the fact that that much has changed in the last one hundred and fifty years, that we’re actually altered as human beings.

HEFFNER: David, suppose every word you say now is correct, I wonder why you don’t embrace an approach to this that is less likely to be undermined by the question of what profit it me?

PUTTNAM: Because I have developed a lack of faith in the ability of, not so much not for profit, because we don’t have the type of not for profit organizations in Europe that you have here. I haven’t developed any faith in the ability of government to successfully deliver the type of thing I’m talking about. I think government tries, I think can have the aspiration, but the delivery, it seems to me … successful delivery tends to devolve down to the public, down to the private sector. And what I’m trying to do is engage the energies and interest and commitment in the private sector in delivering things to the common end. And the end is a really successful and sustainable society. And I mean successful and sustainable.

HEFFNER: Yes, but if you talked about the interactive video games and we both know that there’s more money … has been more money just thus far in a very new industry than there has been in feature films.


HEFFNER: And I think very few people are dealing with that. Why do you assume that you can get them to go the Fred Zimmerman route rather than more and more “Mortal Kombat” … “Mortal Kombat 52 and 53″ …

PUTTNAM: I’ll tell you …

HEFFNER: Harder and harder …

PUTTNAM: Well, one … the crassest, but maybe the most potent reason is because the creators, the best of the creators of those video games …


PUTTNAM: … would like to be know outside of their own very small circulation trade magazines. They actually quite like to be, and I’m sure this is true, known as people who are significant in their own rights and have something to contribute to society. We have an amazing advantage, of course, in the UK because we’ve got Knighthoods and Honors and we’ve got ways of actually spurring people on. In the U.S. unfortunately for the most part, you’ve only got political success or money. And it, I think it’s a fault-line in the system, if I might say so. But I do think that sheer hubris, if you like, will encourage the very best of those people to want to do something more sustainable, more interesting just in order to make them more significant players in society.

HEFFNER: In the meantime, I want as much as you do to see the future as you see it. And I’m unwilling to read history, the history of my country at any rate, and read into something that isn’t there. If I have to make a bet it’s going to be that the experience you had in Hollywood is the experience that one will have when the media are dominated by the quest for dollars, not for Knighthoods.

PUTTNAM: What I tried to do in the book, and in fact the reason for writing the book is because I became embroiled in the intense acrimony that surrounded the GAT negotiations in ‘93. And it was just the question of intense acrimony, it was the extraordinary depth of ignorance was brought by parties on both sides … Western Europeans, French, and, but I have to say particularly from the Americans, the lack of understanding of the other side’s position. The intent by the MPA to reduce the entire thing to a dollars and cents equation and to somehow … as though free trade alone, untrammeled would see us all through to Nirvana. And equally, the sense on the other side, that France has a profoundly unsuccessful film industry, whose film makers are seriously beginning to chomp at the bit because they are in the business of ideas and influence and they’ve been trapped by language into not really having their ideas and their influence being be as successful as it might be, or as, as persuasive and pervasive as it might be. But it was this depth of ignorance, this depth of intolerance, this depth of “I’m right, by definition, and you must be wrong” that actually completely bedeviled the entire negotiation and nearly disabled the whole GAT.

HEFFNER: It’s coming up again.

PUTTNAM: Exactly, they’re now really meeting, or re-discussing and a new round of negotiations will start in 1999. What I tried to do was make sure that at least this time around that Mr. Valenti on the one hand, and his European counterparts on the other had absolutely no excuse for not having a full understanding of the depth of feelings and the importance of the issues that they were negotiating. This is not about whether or not you sell one form of widget to another country with or without a levy attached to it. This is about the way people think, act, believe. This is about their values. And the point I tried to make in the book, and it’s a very important one is … the crime I would accuse the United States of in this respect is clumsiness. Not, not … they’re not bad, they’re just unutterably clumsy at times. Clumsy in not understanding that the social impact of certain movies in Cairo or Delhi or Bangelor or small cities in China can be devastating. I mean not every country has reached the point of being able to absorb the, as it were, the weight, the depth of imagery that … But now let me say something very important. If this were only about movies, only about movies and television I … I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t have written a book, but I certainly wouldn’t be as concerned as I am. But we’re dealing here in four things. We’re dealing in images, i.e. movies and television. We’re dealing in information, which is beginning to be single sourced, and my real worry is we’re beginning possibly to deal in education and educational software. Now I am concerned greatly that vulnerable societies around the world, particularly Islamic countries, once they find themselves in a situation, where the absorption rate of movies, information and education is completely, as I’ve said in the book, completely disconnected from their day to day experience, we’re then beginning to create some form of human time bomb, the type of … the nature of which we don’t fully understand.

HEFFNER: David, doggone it, you’re so correct. But I still think you miss one point and that is that these aren’t dummies you’re dealing with …

PUTTNAM: I know that.

HEFFNER: You know that better than anyone …

PUTTNAM: I know that better than anyone.

HEFFNER: They’re not dummies. Then what is standing in the way of the realization that you set forth now?

PUTTNAM: A profound, and this is true of both sides … a profound insensitivity to the implications of what’s being sold. Profound insensitivity to the nature … to the underlying nature of the debate. It’s why I find the Wall Street Journal very difficult to read. And indeed, in Britain even The Economist because they work on the assumption that everything to do with money, trade and goods on some lunatic trickle down theory is going to provide for a successful long-term civilization.

HEFFNER: But you see that “lunatic trickle down” theory and the sacredness of the marketplace, those are the values … unhappily …

PUTTNAM: They are not values?

HEFFNER: What are they?

PUTTNAM: They are absolutely not values, they’re attitudes. They may be … you could even dignify them and call them philosophies. They’re anything but values.

HEFFNER: Well, come on, David, they’re values, they’re yours and they’re not mine … but they’re values.

PUTTNAM: Well they no …

HEFFNER: David … you’re contrary … you’re the anti-Christ …

PUTTNAM: They’re a distortion of the notion of the word value.

HEFFNER: You don’t believe there can be bad values then?

PUTTNAM; No, I think it’s a … I think there are other words you could use …


PUTTNAM: … for bad values. But the word “value”, I think is a valuable word. And it should be and it’s worth clinging to and try to fight off the invaders.

HEFFNER: Well, we’re not doing a very good job of fighting off the invaders.

PUTTNAM: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: If I understand “Movies And Money” … at the end there is a large concern … not the concern that has run all through the book abut what we must do, what we should do … but there seems to be a concern that England is losing the battle in terms of educational … valuable, to go back to what you want to call it … technology. It’s losing it. Why is it losing it?

PUTTNAM: Because what is so extraordinarily admirable about the way in which this country’s organized is there is a very … an underlying, but profound identity of interest between the way in which Washington operates and the way in which large businesses operate. And they do have an agenda, and there is a coherence and I happen to find it a sometimes, a rather chilling agenda, but there is a coherence. And there is a kind of single-minded direction that always is applied to all of this. No such similar coherence exists in Europe. You’ve got a French cultural position, which we could go into a great length, which has both enormous strengths and enormous weaknesses. You’ve got a British position, which hasn’t quite decided what it is. We know in the UK that we could, and I’ve used this in the book, we have the capacity to be the world’s educators.


PUTTNAM: We’re wonderful film makers …

HEFFNER: You said you could be the Hollywood of education.

PUTTNAM: We could … I mean the BBC alone is the most extraordinary, extraordinary organization and yet what have we got here in the UK? A serious question mark over whether or not the license fees are regressive tax. We’re seriously thinking about dismantling the most signally valuable corporate asset as a nation that we possess. And that’s … and so we are confused. And we’re not, we’re not putting our best foot forward. I do believe that the Blair government is at least addressing these issues, and is beginning to kind of attempt to put together an agenda. But the agenda gets knocked sideways by all kinds of things, and believe me when push came to shove in an argument with Bill Clinton, Tony Blair is not going to go to the wall for the sake of Britons potential as a world educator. At the end of the day it’s not regarded as a big enough issue to fall out with the United States over. And so the European position is incoherent and divided. And what I’m saying is, what is impressive here, it is the single-mindedness and the fact … why am I depressed? Why do I get worried? Because I suspect that the juggernaught of the American dominated information and education and entertainment monolith will roll straight through Europe and eventually … and Europe will cope … let me be clear Europe will cope, it’s a mature enough society to cope. But that juggernaught will hit places like the Middle East, China, parts of Asia, where the damage … the collateral damage that could be done is vast. And that is when I come back to that business of insensitivity. I don’t get any sense that either within the State Department or within the MPA there’s a full understanding of the cultural implications of what’s being done.

HEFFNER: Well you go back then to your notion that these are not … we won’t use the word “wise” … these are people who don’t understand. You won’t accept the notion they do understand, but it doesn’t pay off tonight, today, tomorrow in the bottom line, and it doesn’t pay off in votes. Because it doesn’t pay off in votes because the campaign contributions won’t be there unless the government does follow the will, the needs, the perceived immediate needs of industry.

PUTTNAM: So what you’re saying in essence is that the short to medium term needs of the United States … if they are found to be at variance with a coherent and sustainable global society will prevail anyway.

HEFFNER: Is that … does that come as a surprise to you?

PUTTNAM: It comes intellectually as a shock, yeah.

HEFFNER: Well, that takes us back ten years to that dinner table. There’s nothing different about that point then the point about what chance would you have in Hollywood as a CEO to bring the values, the real, the wonderful values you embrace. So there.

PUTTNAM: Well, again, we go back a bit further to that period, immediate post-war period, Dean Atchison’s period, where I believed the United States was motivated by things significantly more long term and significantly more coherent. The Marshall Plan had a trade component to it; had a political component to it. But my God it bailed Europe out.

HEFFNER: It had George Marshall, it had Harry Truman …

PUTTNAM: But that’s my point.

HEFFNER: … it had the heritage of FDR …

PUTTNAM; Okay, well then we’re … well, then we’re saying the same thing … I’ve always liked the fact that FDR creeps into the address of this program. I like this very much. I’m not yet prepared to accept that the spirit of FDR and the spirit of George Marshall is dead in this country. I’m not prepared to accept it. I may have to come to that conclusion before I die. But because I was born into a world where that was the America that I believed in, I’m going to cling on to that belief as long as I possibly can. And you haven’t yet, haven’t yet dished it.

HEFFNER: Good, I’m delighted because remember FDR was my President. I’m that much older than you are.

PUTTNAM: He was everyone’s President.

HEFFNER: Well, I meant in terms of time. And David, I must say as we come to the end of this second program that I enormously admire your point of view and I loved the book “Movies And Money”. I still think you’re too kind to this industry in which you’ve participated. Thank you very much for joining me again The Open Mind.

PUTTNAM: Well, bless you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.