Calculated risks: film finances and British independents in the 1970s




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Taylor & Francis



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This article examines three British films made at Shepperton Studios in the first half of the 1970s. It draws upon the reports filed by Film Finances’ assessor John Croydon to the Chairman Robert Garrett, and correspondence between Film Finances and the films’ producers, as well as scripts, schedules, daily progress reports and budgetary information. Two of the films, The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) and ‘Don’t Look Now’ (Nicolas Roeg, 1973), were backed by the struggling independent British Lion. The third, Lisztomania (Ken Russell, 1975), was the second in a planned three-picture deal with Goodtimes Enterprises’ subsidiary Visual Programme Systems (VPS), and was supported by the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC); but the deal collapsed in spectacular fashion, almost bankrupting its producers in the process. The focus of attention here will be on production histories, rather than the films themselves. I hope to be able to assess, thereby, what additional value the Film Finances Archive can provide in understanding the relations between capital and creativity in the British film industry in this period.

One of the well-established tenets of the ‘new’ film history is that film culture cannot be explained in any straightforward way as a reflection of its time without taking into account the context of its industrial determinants and its authorial collaborations.11. See J. Chapman, H. M. Glancy, and S. Harper (eds), The New Film History (Basingstoke, 2007).

This raison d’être for researching production histories remains persuasive, insofar as it may be possible to demonstrate how commercial, creative and censorial battles leave their marks on a film, or how studio regimes are organised in order to produce certain kinds of product. But the success of production history research is necessarily limited by two factors. Firstly, and most obviously, it depends (like all history) on the available primary sources (audio-visual material, interview testimony and archival documents). But secondly, and more profoundly, its methodological success depends upon the relative stability of the industrial apparatus and the cultural field. That is not to say that this approach is untenable in periods of rapid social and cultural transformation—witness the strength of Sue Harper’s work on Gainsborough in the mid-1940s, or Charles Barr’s seminal study of Ealing Studios.22. See S. Harper, Picturing the Past: the rise and fall of the British costume film (London, 1994), and C. Barr, Ealing Studios (London, 1977).

Far less does it challenge the orthodoxy of the Marxian principle that the economic base determines the cultural superstructure. Rather, it is to observe that in some historical periods that causal chain is weakened by a dissociation between capital and creativity in the cultural field, such that its lines of operation are indirect, and its influence opaque. These were the conditions experienced in the UK in the early 1970s, when a number of industrial and cultural factors conspired, with remarkably unpredictable results in the film culture.

In British Film Culture in the 1970s: The boundaries of pleasure, Sue Harper and I argued that the curtailment of the British film industry’s financial dependency upon Hollywood (which had reached its apotheosis in the late 1960s) created a kind of cultural vacuum in the first half of the 1970s.33. S. Harper and J. Smith, British Film Culture in the 1970s: The boundaries of pleasure (Edinburgh, 2011). View all notes Whilst economic constraints, typified by the number of one-picture deals, made it difficult to sustain creative momentum and continuity of personnel across projects, the reduction in studio space and cheaper, portable equipment afforded directors more flexibility to shoot on location. And although in practice this freedom was often restricted by tight budgets, and the creative relationships between key personnel were put under new pressure, these changes had consequences for the type of films directors were able to make, and there was a radical shake-up in the range of directorial autonomy. This resulted in a fragmented film culture characterised by extremes: on the one hand, a cinema of clumsiness and expediency, and on the other hand, one of sublime innovation. Above all, we suggested, this was a cinema of contingency; but contingent upon what?

The role of chance in creative practice (be it accident or serendipity) would make for a compelling cultural history. But whatever its appeals may be, they defy empirical enquiry. Risk, however, is another matter. As suggested, the British film industry of the early 1970s was a precarious market in which the lines of communication between capital and artistic production were often remote and sometimes stretched to the limit, creating conditions of unpredictability and risk. For sure, film-making always involves risk. But in this period, arguably, the stakes were higher. This not only exposed (sometimes novice) financiers to greater risk on their investments; it also spawned a number of filmic ‘rogue-traders’ who seemed to thrive on the adrenalin of risk itself: from Roman Polanski and Sam Peckinpah, to Michael Winner and Ken Russell. The role that Film Finances played in this period, therefore, was particularly acute. As underwriters of risk, they handled some of their most testing cases at this time, presiding over the financial collapse of an old order (symbolised by British Lion), and the ambitious rise of a new (exemplified by Goodtimes Enterprises). Their carefully calculated risk assessments, as evidenced in their production files, provide an invaluable new source, which may enable the sometimes inchoate relations between capital and creativity to be calibrated with more clarity.


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Film Finances


Smith, J. (2014) Calculated risks: film finances and British independents in the 1970s. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 34 (1), pp. 85-102


Research Institute

Cinema and Television History Institute (CATHI)