Hollywood needs a moral mission

And Sir David Puttnam thinks the big studios may at last be realising it, John Carlin reports from Boston
Click to follow
The Independent Online
You would never have guessed that the man pacing the stage was in his mid-fifties. Tall, fit and tanned in a smoothly tailored dark-blue suit, he looked impossibly young, a classic image of American success.

"Hollywood is about business, not fine art," he declared, addressing the audience in a perfect imitation of Richard Gere playing a courtroom lawyer. "Films are a high-risk business in a very competitive environment."

He sat down and another man took the stage. This one did look his age, about the same as the first man's..Teddy-bearish, slightly rumpled, bearded, with flowing grey hair and a hint of a stoop, he did not stride and gesticulate. He stood before a lectern like a professor, or an Anglican preacher.

"Through fantasy, films speak a deep truth," he said. "Cinema can describe the world as it might be, go to the very heart of the matter and appeal to what is best in people. Films can encourage a more cohesive society."

The first speaker was Peter Guber, a power in Hollywood. The former chairman of Sony Pictures, he counts among his credits such films as Rain Man, Batman Returns and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Combined, his films have made $36bn (pounds 22.5bn) and scored 50 Oscar nominations.

The second speaker was Sir David Puttnam, the celebrated British film producer who endured a brief, unhappy stint as chairman and chief executive of Columbia Pictures after making his name with Chariots of Fire, The Mission and The Killing Fields.

The event was a debate attended by 700 students last week at Boston University. The style was Oxford Union, the issue at stake: "Do social values figure on Hollywood's balance sheet?"

Mr Guber claimed that they did, Sir David that they patently did not. More than a debate, it was a clash of cultures, of different languages; one the language of numbers, the other the language of words.

"The average film costs $45m to produce," Mr Guber said. "Films are a worldwide industry, America's second largest export. It's OK to be interested in profit. This is show-business, not show-show."

"The medium," Sir David argued, "is too powerful and too important an influence on the way we live, the way we see ourselves, to be left solely to the tyranny of the box-office or reduced to the sum of the lowest common denominator of public taste."

To which Mr Guber replied: "If you want religion, go to church."

Sir David's argument was that cinema is the church, that "to an almost alarming degree" films shape people's thinking and define social health.

The chasm in opinions was illustrated with even more force in the contributions of the foot-soldiers that each of the illustrious film-makers had on hand to support their arguments. William Roth, a young film producer in a suit and tie, stood up and began: "As we know, Hollywood's only goal is to make money." It seemed at first that he was joking, or postulating the philistine premise with deviously ironic intent. But he was not.

"The audiences define and control the product," he said. The "product" was neutral, utterly bereft of moral content, responsible only to market forces, like a Teflon pan. Not art for art's sake, but art for money's sake.

Tom Danon, a long-haired young film-maker who could have passed for Sir David's son, described Hollywood by contrast as "a very small group of people inhabiting a gentrified, homogenised cultural ghetto with a tremendous effect on world society".

Films, he said, "should do what great literature and art do: elevate us and remind us that we are not alone".

Mr Danon received the biggest roar of the night, consolidating, when the time came for the students to vote, what turned out to be a crushing victory for the Puttnam camp.

Afterwards, over cakes and lemonade, Sir David mused with satisfaction on the evening's proceedings. A representative group of American students, a species conventionally held these days to be fixated on Mammon, had shown that their souls still hungered for idealism, moral clarity and high art.

But was it fairy-tales to imagine that the spirit of young idealists such as these might shake the battlements of Hollywood, provoke a reappraisal of the free-market dogma that underlay every word the mighty Mr Guber had uttered in the debate? Sir David was excited at the question. "There is a shift under way. Two years ago was the apotheosis of the free market, I believe. This year in Davos [at the World Economic Forum] the talk from the big corporations was about partnership: the penny has dropped that growth without social cohesion is a zero-sum game.

"You see it in George Soros, who has warned of the danger of abandoning society entirely to the mercies of market forces. And you see it in the cinema, in the fact that a guy like Guber is taking part at all in a debate like this. Last week they had a similar debate in Los Angeles. The issue at last is on the agenda."

And the effect, if nothing else, will be educational. "It is ludicrous to say in 1997 that films don't have an impact. But Hollywood's failure to grasp the power the movies have on culture and thought, not only in America but worldwide, is not deliberate. It is ignorant and uncaring."