As I begin to write this blog on the world’s first completion guarantor Film Finances, I can’t help wondering what the company’s founder Bobby Garrett would have made of today’s online world. During World War II, he had been deputy head of the Air Section at Bletchley Park. When the war was over, he returned to the publicity-hungry movie industry, but ran his little-known corner of that industry with all the tact, discretion and knack for eluding attention that characterised his previous career in secret intelligence.
I was recently amused to find in the company’s archive a letter from the early 1970s that explained to a new business partner: “Our UK and European operation as far as we are concerned has been restricted within a very confined area; bankers, distributors, etc, are aware of our function within the Industry. Therefore, we have found that there has been no need for any publicity.” It was perhaps some left-over from Garrett’s day that helped to explain why, when I was first invited to explore Film Finances’ archive in 2009, I had not heard of the company and had no idea what a completion guarantor did. The fact that the IAMHIST conference will be hosting a panel on Film Finances offers some index of the increased awareness eight years on of this company’s crucial importance to post-war film history.
Founded in London in 1950, Film Finances pioneered a system of guaranteeing budget overcosts, as well as the certainty of completion and delivery by a specified date, which facilitated the financing of independent production. By “independent production” I mean a film that is not funded directly by a major studio but requires its producer to raise its budget from separate, independent financiers. In order to obtain a guarantee that Film Finances would meet any extra costs, a producer had to provide not only a plan of production but also regular reports on progress. Once the film had been completed and delivered to its distributor, Film Finances would then archive the paperwork relating to the project.
Over the nearly seventy years of its existence, Film Finances was an important catalyst in the spread of independent film-making from Britain and Europe to Canada, Australia and Hollywood. The result today is a vast collection of papers – including correspondence, scripts, budgets, schedules, call sheets and progress reports – that detail the behind-the-scenes production of thousands of feature films, including some of the most celebrated ever made – The African Queen (1951), Dr No (1962), Cabaret (1972), Terminator (1984), Pulp Fiction (1994) and so on all the way to La La Land (2016). It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of an archive that encompasses so many industries and so many significant films.
In 2012 Film Finances agreed to grant scholars access to the papers relating to the first thirty years of its history. A special issue of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television in 2014 offered a taste to the academic community of the archive’s treasures. Since then the company has continued to facilitate research, most recently welcoming researchers from the BFI/AHRC project, “Transformation and Tradition in Sixties British Cinema”. In the long term, Film Finances plans to work with institutions that can help to develop the research potential of the archive, whether through digital access, cataloguing the collection or arranging exhibitions.
When Bobby Garrett retired in 1982, the British film industry was in the doldrums. In a difficult climate, publicity became important even to Film Finances, as Garrett’s successor, the much more gregarious Richard Soames, sought to explain the value of what the company did to new markets that had not previously been aware of its function. The biggest of those new markets was Hollywood, where the advent of video distribution was fuelling the growth of independently financed films.
My paper at the IAMHIST conference will tell the story of how Film Finances came to Hollywood. Drawing on original documents in the Film Finances Archive, it will focus on Francis Ford Coppola’s Outsiders (1983), which Film Finances took the risk of guaranteeing even though the director’s previous two films, Apocalypse Now (1979) and One From the Heart (1982), had incurred massive overcosts. The production turned out to be the perfect calling card, as Film Finances took out a full-page advert in Variety to congratulate Coppola on finishing the film “on schedule and on budget”.
Opening an office on Sunset Boulevard only weeks later, Film Finances was keen during its early years in Hollywood to explain what it could offer to an industry that was still unfamiliar with how the completion guarantee worked. In an article that appeared in the Hollywood Reporter in 1985 Soames discussed the difference that Film Finances might have made if only it had been around to provide a completion guarantee for Heaven’s Gate (1980).
Budgeted at $11.5m, the film notoriously ended up costing over $40m and nearly ruined United Artists. “The big advantage that the production would have had if we’d been there would have been to have an objective party who was involved in the creative aspects and who could point out where the film was really going.” In another interview with a trade journal called The Business of Film, Soames pointed out that over more than three decades “practically every set of circumstances in the making of a film has come past our door”. There were few other companies that could match the experience it had accumulated in solving the problems of production. “The very fact that there are problems with pictures is the reason that we’re in business.”
When a special issue of the Hollywood Reporter celebrated Film Finances’ fiftieth anniversary in 2000, the company had guaranteed approximately 3,000 films. Although the Hollywood office was now the headquarters of the company, the last page of the issue offered a nod to its British origins.
“Excellent Batsman for 50 years,” declared the advertisement from Merchant Ivory Productions. “May you continue for the next 50.” It will be some time until scholars can hope to have access to the papers relating to films that Film Finances guaranteed after its arrival in Hollywood in 1982, but meanwhile the first thirty years of Film Finances’ history, relating chiefly to the British film industry, are likely to keep researchers busy for quite some time.
Charles Drazin is Senior Lecturer in Film at Queen Mary, University of London, and the author of Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s (1998), In Search of ‘The Third Man’ (1999) and Korda: Britain’s Only Movie Mogul (2002). Charles will be presenting a paper, ‘Film Finances goes to Hollywood’, at this year’s IAMHIST Conference.