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David Puttnam: The Studio Head Who Hated Hollywood

Photo Credit: Tristan Fewings / Getty Images for Film Distributors' Association
Photo Credit: Tristan Fewings / Getty Images for Film Distributors' Association

While Hollywood has produced several movies about an underdog fighting the system, it rarely entertains maverick talent in its own house. Various creative types have tried and failed to go against the grain of commercial consideration to realize a singular artistic vision, among them David Puttnam, who somehow became chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures.

Who is David Puttnam?

Portrait of David Puttnam
David Puttnam, 1974. (Photo Credit: Michael Putland / Getty Images)

David Puttnam is both a filmmaker and somewhat of a troublemaker. The 45-year-old from Southgate, in northern London, was described by The New York Times in 1987 as “enough of a realist to want to make entertaining movies, and enough of an idealist to want his films to have social value.”

It was this latter aspect of his vision that bothered Hollywood bigwigs. They must have been reassured, however, by his 1981 film Chariots of Fire. He’d produced the sports drama, which cleaned up at the box office and won four Oscars. However, when Colin Welland took to the stage that night and declared that “the British are coming,” he inadvertently foreshadowed what was to come.

The Brit had gotten his start in film production in the 1960s, obtaining work with Sanford Lieberson’s production company. Over the 1970s, he aided in the release of several documentary films, and in ’76 scored a box office hit with Bugsy Malone, on which he served as executive producer.

Becoming the chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures

Still from 'Chariots of Fire'
Chariots of Fire, 1981. (Photo Credit: CaptainOT / MovieStillsDB)

David Puttnam wasn’t a fan of the mega-budget studio system, and his ideas about some of the biggest box office hits of all time were controversial, to say the least. As The Hollywood Reporter wrote in 2016, “He had slammed the ending of blockbuster E.T. The Extra Terrestrial because he thought the alien should have stayed dead.”

So how did the man who would’ve killed off Elliott Taylor’s best friend come to hold his position among the glitz and glamor? It happened due to a combination of strange circumstances. For starters, Columbia Pictures wasn’t in the best of shape. A scandal had rocked the studio in the late 1970s when former head David Begelman was exposed as an embezzler.

Columbia Pictures hadn’t recovered from the impact. When owner Coca-Cola was looking for a new chief, the company consulted with President of Entertainment Fay Vincent over who to pick. He made the offbeat suggestion of Puttnam, seeing the situation as “a noble experiment.” At the time, he was heading his own television production company, Engima TV.

David Puttnam wasn’t a fan of how things were run in Hollywood

David Puttnam speaking at a podium
David Puttnam, 2015. (Photo Credit: Ian Gavan / Getty Images for Film Distributors’ Association)

David Puttnam slammed the excessive boys’ club culture, not holding back from expressing his views to major players. “What surprised and dismayed him most about Hollywood was the amateurishness,” wrote The New York Times. “As the producer of two dozen movies, he had been the complete professional.”

In one extraordinary communication to Coca-Cola, relayed by The Hollywood Reporter, he shared, “The medium is too powerful […] to be left solely to the tyranny of the box office” – a shocking statement for Hollywood executives to hear. When he added that content shouldn’t be “reduced to the sum of the lowest common denominator of public taste,” it only rubbed salt in the wound.

Criticizing big stars and their films

Portrait of David Puttnam
David Puttnam, 2011. (Photo Credit: Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images)

David Puttnam also managed to add a dash of vinegar for good measure by criticizing big stars and their huge salaries. Columbia Pictures would have been only too happy to make Ghostbusters II, but the studio’s CEO was lukewarm about the idea. Leading man Bill Murray, who ironically had only made the first film so he could shoot his passion project The Razor’s Edge (1984), didn’t respond well to being branded a “taker” by Puttnam. The sequel was eventually made following his departure.

Now-disgraced comedian Bill Cosby worked on the disastrous high-concept comedy Leonard Part 6 (1987) under Puttnam. The dispute between them was given extra tension by the fact Cosby was a spokesman for Coca-Cola.

Not even unconventional Hollywood films such as Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) impressed the new boss, and Beatty and Dustin Hoffman’s legendary Ishtar (1987) only underlined for him the need to shake up the system.

What was David Puttnam’s idea of a good movie?

Still from 'The Last Emperor'
The Last Emperor, 1987. (Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures / MovieStillsDB)

David Puttnam’s idea of a worthy project baffled the higher-ups. Variety describes a screening like no other in history, writing, “It was several minutes into the movie before the Columbia executive realized that the dialogue was almost exclusively in a Gypsy tongue, which few outsiders can understand, and that the filmmaker didn’t want subtitles to mar the artistic thrust of his epic.”

During his time at the studio, Puttnam brought audiences critically acclaimed triumphs like The Last Emperor (1987) and Hope & Glory (1987). He also turned out duds, such as 1988’s Vibes (starring Cyndi Lauper and Jeff Goldblum) and the ultra-notorious “talking penis” movie, Me and Him (1988).

There was also the uncategorizable The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), a costly but well-regarded bomb directed by Terry Gilliam.

David Puttnam’s troubled tenure comes to an end

David Puttnam sitting and holding up his hands
David Puttnam, 1983. (Photo Credit: Independent News and Media / Getty Images)

David Puttnam’s troubled tenure came to a close after 13 months – even the number of months was unfortunate. Perhaps the writing had been on the wall for some time, although it was the game of corporate musical chairs that got him, rather than an indignant executive. As The New York Times states, “He was simply the accidental fall guy in a stock deal. He was unseated because Coca-Cola wanted to maximize its assets and folded Columbia into Tri-Star.”

When his exit was announced, “secretaries and carpenters kicked the walls or cried.” On the flip side, “Actors, agents and producers opened the champagne.” Puttnam himself isn’t keen to talk about the experience. He carried on working in film production, education and the media following his departure, and he became Lord Puttnam in 1997.

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In a message to The Hollywood Reporter, he offered a brief insight, saying, “Looking back, I was a good movie producer who made the mistake of being persuaded I could run a studio. I hated almost every day of it.” It was a mutually acrimonious relationship, though people on either side of the fence have admiration for the British pro who tried to take Hollywood to task.