Kim Masters Reveals How the Notorious Firing of Columbia CEO David Puttnam Launched Her Own Career
In 1986, Puttnam became studio chief after a glorious run with 'Chariots of Fire' and 'The Killing Fields.' Within a year, he learned of his dismissal in the press (after offending everyone). THR's Masters recounts her role in the drama.
There have been some cold-blooded Hollywood firings in my time covering this business, but few more memorable than the October 1987 ouster of David Puttnam, producer of such lauded films as Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields, as chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures.
Puttnam's short tenure ended in one of those defenestrations where the executive reads that he has gone out the window in the press well before his bosses have mentioned the fact. Though I had no idea this firing was in the works — as a fairly new reporter on the Hollywood beat, I knew little about the studios generally — this episode gave me my first major scoop. If you ever wondered whom to thank for launching my career covering the entertainment industry, the answer is David Puttnam, now Lord Puttnam of Queensgate, 75, and still deeply engaged in British affairs.
For all of you too young to remember, Puttnam was a surprise hire in summer 1986, the first non-American to run a U.S. film studio. His name was synonymous with quality: Chariots had won best picture at the 1982 Oscars; The Mission had won Cannes' Palme d'Or in 1986. Puttnam was to represent a revolution, the triumph of a "creative" over Hollywood suits. British cinema owner Romaine Hart expressed a hope to The Times in London that Puttnam and his wife, Patricia, would be "like the Kennedys going to the White House … bringing a clean sweep of taste and decency to Hollywood."
Certainly Puttnam was not the usual dish served at The Palm. In 1983, he had slammed the ending of blockbuster E.T. The Extra Terrestrial because he thought the alien should have stayed dead. When Warren Beatty won best director for Reds in the same year Chariots won best picture, he said that the Academy "was acknowledging the fact that [Beatty] could raise $50 million to make a movie."
When Puttnam was hired for the Columbia Pictures job in 1986, the bearded, charismatic filmmaker, then 45, actually wrote these words to the studio's owners at — wait for it — Coca-Cola: "The medium 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." Another Puttnam quote from that era: "I wouldn't have made Rambo and wouldn't make it today — even if someone wrote out a check for the total gross." In the movie business, we might call such a statement a "suicide note."
It went downhill from there. Puttnam wasn't interested in paying homage to such powers as uber-agent Michael Ovitz, then in his seat of power at CAA. Puttnam attacked costly agency packages of scripts, directors and stars; at a welcome lunch of industry players, he singled out Bill Murray as a "taker," who, unlike Robert Redford, never gave anything back. That didn't sit well with Ovitz, who was keen to launch a Ghostbusters sequel, or with Murray, who then declined to do it. (The film, which was destined to disappoint, was promptly made once Puttnam was gone.)
Puttnam also made it clear that he hated Ishtar, an upcoming film starring Beatty and Dustin Hoffman that had been greenlighted under a previous regime. He predicted it would flop — it did — but being right did not make him more popular. And he infuriated Bill Cosby (whose film Leonard Part 6 soon would tank) by showing little interest in putting him in movies. At the time, of course, Cosby not only was the giant star of his hit sitcom but also a spokesman for Coke. And Puttnam offended Ray Stark — an 800-pound gorilla of his day who had produced hits at Columbia including Funny Girl and The Way We Were — by declining to greenlight his movies. Stark left the lot and plotted vengeance, for which he possessed a very special talent.
All might have been forgiven had Puttnam not made so many unsuccessful movies. There were small ones like Me and Him, about a talking penis, and big ones like Terry Gilliam's way-overbudget The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
On Sept. 1, 1987, a year after he was hired, Puttnam read in the Los Angeles Times that Coke's entertainment business was being reorganized. No one had told him. Ironically, his new boss, assuming there was a way for Puttnam to survive, was the ultimate suit, a lawyer named Victor Kaufman who'd been running the studio's not-very-successful TriStar label. Puttnam was left to twist for days, wondering if he still had a job. Many filmmakers who appreciated Puttnam's respect for their craft prayed he would.
Before the studio reorganization was announced, my big idea had been to do a one-year anniversary piece on how Puttnam was faring in his job. I was at the Daily News then — the one in the San Fernando Valley. From the start, I decided to be bold: Once I called Disney to request an interview with then-CEO Michael Eisner. His PR man laughed so hard that he called back later to apologize (but still, no interview).
Puttnam (right) with 'Chariots of Fire' director Hugh Hudson at the 1982 Oscars.
I had never spoken to Puttnam, either. But when I started calling around for the anniversary article, I soon found he had so many venomous enemies that people who normally wouldn't have thought of answering my call picked up the phone to unload (off the record, of course). I still was unaware that a shake-up was brewing. But once the L.A. Times broke that story, it immediately was clear that an interview with Puttnam would be a big "get." He hadn't addressed the situation at all.
So I called Puttnam's office and left a long, detailed message listing the elements that my piece would cover. To my shock, as I sat at my desk in Van Nuys that afternoon, the phone rang, and with no introduction from an assistant, a man with a British accent said, "You leave one hell of a message." I prayed silently, "Please be David Puttnam."
It was. He invited me to come to the lot for an interview. Having expected to spend the day at the office, I was dressed down. I rushed home, changed and dashed to meet Puttnam in his office. It really wasn't a conclusive interview because he wasn't sure what his fate would be, but that hardly mattered. (In one passage, I wrote, "Puttnam said he has no plans to leave, although, he conceded, 'It's fair to say that I could be caught in the fallout.' ")
I had my exclusive — as long as no one beat us. Fortunately for me, Puttnam gave no other interviews that day. The next morning — remember, there was no internet then — my piece ran in the Daily News. It made a big noise. At an industry party that night, a reporter from The Hollywood Reporter — not remotely sober — staggered around, slurring, "This woman scooped the world!"
And with that, doors opened. I got the interview with Eisner. I sat down with Barry Diller, then running Fox. Bob Daly and Terry Semel invited me to lunch at Warner Bros. Puttnam put me on the map, and not long after, Premiere hired me away from the Daily News.
Puttnam excused himself with other reporters by claiming that I had "doorstopped" him for the interview. But he later said that he had spotted me as a rising talent. Though I doubt that, I do think in those more genteel days, I might have stood out for my willingness to leave such a pointed message.
The fallout that Puttnam foresaw was quick and ugly. He wrote a semi-obsequious letter to his bosses at Coke. The response was an unpleasant meeting with Kaufman, who made it clear he intended to run things his way. Puttnam's only option was to say he was resigning. Before long, Coke sold the studio.
Recently I asked Puttnam if he'd be willing to talk about that episode and his impact on my career. He responded promptly by email that he had "never been less than proud of having played a tiny role" in my early success. He continued: "Looking back, I was a good movie producer who made the mistake of being persuaded I could run a studio. I hated almost every day of it, and the idea of reliving that period of my life honestly fills me something close to horror! I really, really hope you'll understand. Ever yours, David."
This story first appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.