A film script for the City

PROFILE : Barry Spikings One of Hollywood's leading Brits wants our money men to go to the movies. Ian Griffiths reports
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AS John Wayne strode across the silver screen in John Ford's epic western Stagecoach, sitting enthralled in the audience in a tiny cinema in Boston, Lincolnshire, was Barry Spikings. Forty years later Spikings was watching Wayne again. This time Wayne was striding across the stage towards him, his hand outstretched ready to congratulate Spikings for the Oscar he had just collected for producing The Deer Hunter, the best movie of 1978.

It was a proud and poignant moment for Spikings. Winning an Oscar and shaking the hand of his childhood hero before a TV audience of half a billion seemed such a long way from his formative years on a farm in Lincolnshire. But perhaps not.

Spikings was introduced to the cinema at the age of one by his father Maurice who took Barry to see a movie three times a week. Maurice was a farms' manager in Fishtoft, near Boston, a place which oozes with American connections. It was home to Samuel Adams who sailed on the Mayflower and whose family produced the sixth American President, John Quincy Adams.

"Between the magic of the movies and the almost mythical connections of my home to America, I suppose I was almost destined to become part of the film industry," Spikings says.

Today Spikings is one of the most influential Brits in Hollywood. He knows the stars but a lunch in Los Angeles with Spikings is more likely to be interrupted by the money men and studio executives than by a glittering celebrity. He is at the heart of an industry which is as much about deal- making as about film- making. Indeed Hollywood is driven by the motto: "There is no such thing as a bad film, just a bad deal". Yet Spikings remains an affable and amusing ambassador for the business.

Now he is on a mission to persuade the British investment community that films are worthy outlets for funds which are happily diverted to emerging markets and new technologies but never into something as established as the movie business.

It is not an easy assignment. The City is extremely wary of the film industry, having had its fingers burnt by Goldcrest in the 1980s. Investors need to be gently nudged back towards the movies, not violently pushed.

Spikings has been working closely with the Corporation of London which is keen to ensure that the City is aware of the opportunities which exist in film investment. It has been a fruitful partnership; understanding of the dynamics of the film industry has improved.

"Barry is a great enthusiast and a tower of strength," says one City figure who has worked closely with Spikings on the film initiative. "He is an absolutely essential link with Los Angeles."

Although Spikings now prefers to operate as an independent producer he has been associated with some of the biggest names in the film industry.

His vocation started as a vacation. A summer job on a local newspaper gave him a taste for the media which ultimately took him to London to work for International Publishing Corporation (IPC), where he was asked to explore diversification opportunities.

Already his experience of making documentaries for television had renewed his appetite for moving, talking pictures which was reinforced when his task at IPC brought him into contact with some powerful Hollywood studio chiefs.

The studios were still staggering from the body blow of television; they were all in financial difficulties. So when Twentieth Century Fox came to London to talk to Spikings about where the company was going he was presented with a great opportunity to make the deal.

"Twentieth Century Fox was strapped for cash but had a library of movies and terrific underlying real estate," Spikings recalls. "But I think I was too young and inexperienced to sell the concept and IPC did not go forward."

Today the Fox real estate is known as Century City and is one of California's most successful property developments. The film company and its library is one of the engines of Rupert Murdoch's empire.

However, the study Spikings made during his negotiations with Fox convinced him of its future. He went into business with Stanley Baker, the actor/producer, and his partner Michael Deeley. In 1972 Spikings and Deeley bought British Lion, the last independent British film company.

"British Lion has a great library, including the timeless Ealing Comedies, but its cash was being drained by growing losses from its studios at Shepperton," Spikings says.

As chairman of Shepperton, Spikings negotiated mould-breaking deals with the unions which reduced manning and opened them up to outside production companies.

The turnaround at Shepperton, which took it back to profitability, was noticed by Bernard Delfont who was then running EMI's entertainment division. He wanted to buy British Lion. The challenge was too big and the offer too good to refuse and in 1975 British Lion was acquired by EMI.

Five years later Spikings succeeded Delfont as chairman and chief executive of EMI Films and Theatre Corporation. Spikingsbecame chairman of a second British studio, Elstree, which was developed and modernised to become home for George Lucas' successful Star Wars series.

When Thorn acquired EMI it was time for Spikings to move to Hollywood permanently. He and his wife Dorothy set up house in Malibu Colony. Yet despite obvious trappings of success Spikings has never let it go to his head. His modesty and good nature remain so appealing to other Hollywood moguls because of their rarity.

"Barry combines intelligence and enthusiasm in equal measures," says one senior Hollywood executive.

The respect has been earned through the string of successes with which Spikings has been associated. In 1986 he became a founder and president of Nelson Holdings. It purchased the Embassy Films library from Coca Cola but, more importantly, secured the North American home video rights and all international rights to the output from the newly-formed Castle Rock Entertainment. The Castle Rock deal yielded some great successes, such as When Harry met Sally, Misery and City Slickers.

Spikings is ideally placed to play the role of interlocutor between the studios and the City. "Filmed entertainment is in the process of overtaking aerospace as America's leading export industry," he says. "I think the challenge which faces the UK is whether we want to participate as partners in this growth or be relegated to the position of buyers in a sellers' market.

"From my personal knowledge it should be possible to build partnerships which allow UK investors to participate in the same broad portfolio approach adopted over the years by the studios."

Spikings is a regular visitor to London and his message is attracting an increasing number of followers. He may not have the big deal yet but it cannot be far away.