Four Weddings and a happy ending?
Michael Kuhn has a dream: to make PolyGram Europe's only film studio. M ike Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral brought box-office success, but what's next?
Thursday 26 January 1995
Executive vice-president, member of the board and president of PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Kuhn - a British former entertainment lawyer described by one observer as "quiet and not naturally gregarious" - has probably earned the right to call himself aBig Cheese in the film business. After all, Four Weddings (for the benefit of readers newly arrived from Mars) has grossed over $250m worldwide to date, excluding video, and last Saturday won Hugh Grant a Golden Globe for Best Comedy Actor, an early Oscar indicator.
The Great White Hope of British cinema, then? Well, not really: for a start, PolyGram is Dutch-owned: its parent company is the electronics giant Philips. And its activities are by no means confined to the UK. Since the film division was set up by Kuhn in 1991, it has acquired an international portfolio of independent production houses: Working Title in Britain, and others in the US, France, Holland and Hong Kong.
It has backed over 35 movies, including Backbeat, last year's film about the "fifth Beatle", and set up distribution networks in key countries. And it is, as Boyd Farrow, the editor of Screen International, points out, "extremely acquisitive." Only a fortnight ago PolyGram paid $156m to buy ITC Entertainment and its large film and television library, thus securing the rights to small-screen classics like The Saint, The Prisoner and Thunderbirds. The master-plan, according to Kuhn, is to turn the company into nothing less than "the only European-based studio".
By all accounts, the Big Cheese keeps a low profile; his operation works along similar lines to PolyGram's music division, each production company under his aegis functioning as a separate label with its own autonomy. Unsurprisingly, producers like it: "They're not at all hands-on," says Paul Trijbits, who made Young Americans for PolyGram through Working Title. "But they gave us a lot of support."
There was a spot of haggling over the budget of Four Weddings, recalls Kenworthy, who, like all producers, ended up with less than he'd hoped. "But afterwards," he says, "they were the perfect studio to work for. When we tested and tweaked the film with preview audiences, they were terrific. And in America they spent an absolute fortune on making it a hit. You hear such horror stories about films made for and released by major studios, which only give them one week's window of attention. But P olyGram put a tremendous amount behind us. They needed a hit - they were hurting for a hit - and we were happy to supply it."
The flip-side of the PolyGram story is that Four Weddings is still the brightest feather in the company's hat. After its sudden success, Peter Bart of Variety described "the folks at Polygram" as having "the slightly glazed look of a Vegas tourist who put a few dollars in the slot machines and suddenly sees coins spewing out".
Critics point out that the company has produced its share of duds: "This year is their crunch year," says one industry analyst. "In 1994 PolyGram also had a massive bomb, The Hudsucker Proxy, which cost $40m and made peanuts. Four Weddings came along at the right time to save the company's public face. Everyone thinks they're massively successful, but they've only had one big hit out of God knows how many films. So the jury is still out really as to whether PolyGram is a success."
And Hudsucker wasn't the only dud: witness, last year, Tango, Kalifornia and Romeo Is Bleeding. And its distribution slate is uneven too: on the plus side (to take the past couple of months in the UK), Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Shallow Grave; on the minus side, Killing Zoe and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. "PolyGram had an acquisition scout at a very secret screening of Shallow Grave in Paris, just before Cannes, and snapped it up before rival buyers could muscle in," says the analyst.
"They bought the British rights to Reservoir Dogs when Palace went under and have made over £5.5m so far on that. On the other hand they're unlucky in that the film hasn't yet been able to get a video rating. And they did a video deal with Columbia a while back, so Columbia will get all the video revenue from Four Weddings. It's very easy for them to look brilliant and very easy to look stupid. But then that's true of everyone in the film industry."
In 1995 PolyGram is fielding a very mixed batch of movies. On the British front, there is Carrington, a period drama starring Emma Thompson; Halcyon Days, a road movie set in France in 1938 with Gabrielle Anwar and Stephen Dorff; i.d., a drama about undercover cops who infiltrate a gang of football hooligans, from the Parallax stable (the company that produces Ken Loach's films); and Loch Ness, another comedy from Working Title with Ted Danson. In Hollywood the company has first-look deals with Tim Robbins and Jodie Foster, two of Hollywood's most interesting actor-producer-directors; Nell, in which Foster plays a "wild child", opens in Britain on 10 March. It's difficult to see another Four Weddings in there - a micro-budget movie that soars into the stratosphere. But then it is in the nature of these beasts that they tend to creep up on you unawares.
Polygram's most expensive project looks like being Paris Match, a romantic comedy directed by Lawrence Kasdan and starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline, with a budget estimated - like that of The Hudsucker Proxy - at $40m. And the big question is: if Paris Match follows Hudsucker down the tubes, what then? The history of cinema is littered with the corpses of companies that reached too far, too fast for the brass ring: Cannon, Palace and, most especially, Goldcrest, the company that made Chariots of Fire an d was widely seen as Britain's great hope just 10 years ago.
"I think PolyGram ought to be putting money into a slate of fairly low-budget movies," Kenworthy says. "You can go down fairly quickly producing a $40m movie for the Coen Brothers. And we all have the echo constantly ringing in our ears of the Goldcrest experience. But Goldcrest spent too much money on two or three big movies. And they had no big distribution apparatus."
That, he points out, is the secret of the Hollywood machine: the major studios' production arms are there to provide a constant stream of movies for the distribution divisions, where the real money is made. Very unusually, PolyGram has its own distribution network and, even more to the point, its coffers are very, very deep. "They've got the record division behind them, which is phenomenally lucrative," Farrow says.
The other negative role-model for PolyGram is the array of European companies - Penta America, CIBY 2000, Canal Plus - who have gone to Hollywood to try and play with the big boys: "They all got stripped at the airport and sent back home," Trijbits says."That hasn't happened to PolyGram so far. It's not completely concentrated on the US, but nor is it just French-based like Canal Plus. It has vast pan-European support."
Everyone, however sceptical, sees PolyGram right now as the British film industry's best shot; everyone hopes and believes that the Great White Hope won't turn into a great white elephant - another one-hit-wonder. As Kenworthy says, "If Four Weddings hadn't come along, who knows what would have happened to their commitment to becoming a major force in movies? Now they're behaving as if they're here to stay. And it's in all our interests for them to succeed."
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