EMI Films was a British film studio and distributor. A subsidiary of the EMI conglomerate, the corporate name was not used throughout the entire period of EMI's involvement in the film industry, from 1969 to 1986, but the company's brief connection with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Anglo-EMI, the division under Nat Cohen, and the later company as part of the Thorn EMI conglomerate (following the merger with Thorn) are outlined here.
The company was formed after the takeover of Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) in 1969 by EMI, following the acquisition of Warner Bros.' shares in ABPC the previous year. At the time ABPC owned 270 ABC Cinemas, a half share in the ITV contractor Thames Television, Elstree Studios at Shenley Road, and had recently bought Anglo-Amalgamated, a film studio in which Nat Cohen had been a partner.
EMI moved into film production with the foundation of a new company, EMI-Elstree. Bernard Delfont appointed writer-director Bryan Forbes as the head of production at Elstree in April 1969 for three years at £40,000 a year, plus a percentage of the profits. As part of the general shake up of EMI, Nat Cohen was appointed to the Board.
EMI announced they would make 28 films for $36 million – 13 of these would be from Cohen's unit for £7 million, the rest from Forbes'. Bernard Delfont called it "probably the most ambitious program ever undertaken by a British film company."
Forbes announced his intention to make a variety of films at Elstree, steering away from what he called the "pornography of violence." He claimed EMI would make 14 films in 18 months with such stars as Peter Sellers and Roger Moore at a cost of £5–10 million pounds in total. His aim was to keep budgets down and create a varied slate which would increase the chances of appealing to audiences and making a sufficient return to continue productions.
Forbes soon announced his slate of projects, including:
"This is the first serious effort to revitalize the British film industry in 20 years," said Forbes. He added, "We intend to give youth a chance and not merely pay lip service to it. This is our first program and it won't be our last."
However, the first few films of Forbes' regime actually performed poorly commercially: Eyewitness, Hoffmann, And Soon the Darkness and The Man Who Haunted Himself (starring Moore). The Breaking of Bumbo (1970), and Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (1971) flopped and A Fine and Private Place was abandoned. Forbes clashed with Bernard Delfont and their American backers, in this case Columbia, over the artistic and commercial value of director Joseph Losey's film The Go-Between (1970). Forbes was also criticised within EMI for directing his own film, The Raging Moon (US: Long Ago, Tomorrow, 1971). The Railway Children and Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971) were Forbes' only hits.
The company was affected with labour problems. Forbes felt as though he did not have the support of the EMI board, arguing that he never had the funds to market his films, in contrast with those available to Anglo-EMI, which was headed by Nat Cohen.
Forbes resigned in March 1971, after committing himself to a no-redundancy policy. He had made eleven films in total for an estimated cost of £4 million. Although Forbes' regime was seen at the time to have been a commercial failure, he later claimed that by 1993 his £4 million program of films had eventually brought EMI a profit of £16 million.
Among the films Forbes wished to make but was unable to during his time at Elstree were adaptations of The Living Room, the play by Graham Greene to be directed by Michael Powell; Feathers of Death from the Simon Raven novel to be directed by Richard Attenborough; a musical about the Bernado Boys; and The Loud, Loud Silence a post-apocalyptic story from Richard Condon. He turned down Ned Kelly (1970) because its projected budget was too high.
In April 1970, EMI struck up a co-production agreement with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Hollywood studio announced they would sell their Borehamwood facility and move their equipment to EMI's Elstree studio. MGM and EMI would then distribute and produce films in co-operation through a joint venture to be called MGM-EMI. and MGM began to finance some of EMI's productions. EMI's studio complex was renamed EMI-MGM Elstree Studios while a film distribution company MGM-EMI Distributors Ltd. was formed as part of the co-production agreement. This company, headed by Mike Havas would handle domestic distribution of MGM and EMI-produced films in the United Kingdom.
It was originally announced that MGM-EMI would make six to eight films a year, but they ended up producing far fewer. Forbes was given the title of managing director of MGM-EMI to add to his existing title of head of production. In July 1970 MGM-EMI announced they would make four co-productions: The Go-Between, Get Carter, The Boyfriend and The Last Run directed by John Boorman. Of these only the last was not made.
MGM pulled out of the amalgamation in 1973, and became a member of CIC, which took over international distribution of MGM produced films. At this point the distribution company became EMI Film Distributors Ltd., and EMI-MGM Elstree Studios reverted to EMI-Elstree Studios.
EMI's other filmmaking division, Anglo-EMI Film Distributors Ltd, which had come out of Anglo-Amalgamated, was run autonomously by Nat Cohen. This wing of the company had released films such as Percy (1971). They also financed and distributed a series of films made by Hammer Film Productions, which partly came about through Bernard Delfont's friendship with James Carreras.
Nat Cohen took over Forbes' responsibilities as head of production after his resignation in 1971. Cohen backed productions intended for international success, and EMI had a more obviously commercial outlook.
In October 1971, EMI's chairman John Read admitted the film division had performed disappointingly. "Profits were negligible last year and we felt it was desirable to make one or two provisions to write off some of the costs." However films like On the Buses and Up Pompeii performed well in relation to their budgets. "The experts say you're doing well if you make money out of one in three films," said Read. "We see filmmaking as a significant profit earner in the future."
Cohen was responsible for overseeing about 70% of the films produced in the UK during 1973, following a significant decline in domestic projects overall. In particular, long-term duopoly rival Rank had by now greatly reduced its own investment in British film production to a token presence. Cohen was not unaware of the problems inherent in his dominant position. Meanwhile, dependent on support from the most profitable parts of EMI, the company's financial position meant that they had to avoid backing any risky productions.
The greatest success of Cohen's regime was Murder on the Orient Express (1974), which Cohen later claimed was the first British movie fully financed by a British company to reach the top of the American box office charts.
Cohen resigned as chairman on 31 December 1977.
In May 1976, the company purchased British Lion Films and the two men who ran British Lion, Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings, became joint managing directors of EMI Distributors, with Nat Cohen remaining as chairman and chief executive. They also joined the EMI board, headed by Bernard Delfont.
Deeley and Spiking's method was to only make a film if at least half the budget was put up by an American studio, reducing their financial risk although making the studio's product less obviously British. They focused on movies with international appeal – i.e. action films – and big stars.
The initial Deeley-Spikings slate included three films shot in the US, with $18 million in all" The Deer Hunter, Convoy (1978) and The Driver (1978). They also did three shot in the UK, Death on the Nile (1978), Warlords of Atlantis (1978) and Sweeney 2 (1978). Films announced by not made include The Last Gun and Chinese Bandit.
EMI also signed an agreement to invest $5 million in Columbia films. They picked Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deep and The Greatest.
In July 1976 EMI bought Roger Gimbel's production company, Tomorrow Enterrrises, and formed EMI Television, headed by Gimbel. They made a large number of American TV movies like Deadman's Curve and The Amazing Howard Hughes.
EMI backed out of funding Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) at the last moment, after Bernard Delfont read the script and objected to its treatment of religion.
In April 1978 EMI announced they would make films with the newly formed Orion Pictures, including Cutter and Bone, Arabian Adventure and Chinese Bandit.
Michael Deeley left EMI in 1979 but Barry Spikings remained in charge of film production.
Spikings announced a slate of films under his auspices: The Jazz Singer with Neil Diamond, Franco Zeffereli's biopic of Maria Callas, The Elephant Man, Discoland, The Awakening, The Knight directed by Ridley Scott, and Honky Tonk Freeway.
Delfont created a new company, Associated Film Distribution, to distribute films of EMI and ITC Entertainment, then controlled by Lew Grade, his brother. This move proved to be financially unsuccessful as EMI suffered a number of box office failures, in particular Can't Stop the Music (1980), Honky Tonk Freeway (1981), and Raise the Titanic (1980).
In March 1980 EMI were only making one film in Britain The Mirror Crack'd. Lord Delfont announced that the company had purchased two British scripts, The Defense by John Mortimer and Off the Record by Frederick Forsyth. He admitted that sixty percent of the company's film budget would be spent in America the following year but "100% of the profits would come to this country... We have got to make films we believe are international, to get the money to bring exports back to this country."
In February 1981, Barry Spikings announced a slate of films worth £70 million, including Honky Tonk Freeway, Memoirs of a Survivor, Comrades and The Knight (a Walter Hill film). The latter was not made.
In March 1981 Spikings admitted AFC has not "gotten off to a flying start" and would be wound up, with Universal taking over distribution of EMI Films. He argued that "production and distribution are not linked" and pointed to the five Oscars that EMI films had earned.
In January 1983 Barry Spikings left the company and Verity Lambert was appointed head of production. Gary Dartnall became executive chairman. Lambert's first slate was Slayground, Comfort and Joy, Illegal Aliens (which became Morons from Outer Space) and Dreamchild. Lambert said they aimed to make five films a year ranging from five to ten million dollars.
In December 1984, Thorn EMI offered investors the chance to invest in several films by issuing £36 million worth of shares. The films were A Passage to India (1984), Morons from Outer Space, Dreamchild, Wild Geese II and The Holcroft Covenant (all 1985).
In March 1985 Thorn EMI announced they would set up a production fund worth $175 million to make twenty films. Financier John Reis said the fund would be used as loans for filmmakers or to invest in films budgeted around $13-14 million. Reis said that the films would be made for international audiences, their typical audience member being a 42-year-old factory worker from Cincinnati.
Lambert resigned in July 1985. After this TESE wound down its in-house production arm and relied on films from independent outfits. The last films made under her watch were Clockwise and Link.
Lambert later recalled the after she was hired, "the person who hired me left, and the person who came in didn't want to produce films and didn't want me. While I managed to make some films I was proud of... Dreamchild, and Clockwise... it was terribly tough and not a very happy experience. But I was determined to see out my three-year contract. By the end I'd had enough of corporate life and wanted to see what I could do as an independent."
Thorn EMI later sold its film production and distribution arm (Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment), home video (Thorn EMI Video), and cinema (ABC Cinemas) operations to businessman Alan Bond in April 1986. Bond, in turn, sold it to The Cannon Group a week later. A year after the purchase, a cash-strapped Cannon sold the film library to Weintraub Entertainment Group.
The library ended up in the hands of several companies over the years and is now owned by StudioCanal, a sister company to Universal Music Group who acquired EMI in 2012 and parent company Canal+ Group's acquisition of European cinema operator UGC who acquired the library's then-owner, the United Kingdom-based Lumiere Pictures and Television in 1996, via Cannon Films. EMI Films also owned Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England; in turn, Cannon ended up purchasing the studio as well, but later sold it to Brent Walker Group plc in 1988, who in turn ended up selling half of the EMI Elstree Studios site to Tesco for a supermarket, before Hertsmere Council eventually acquired what was left of the Elstree Studios, and, as of 2018, still operates it as a film and television studios centre.
EMI financed films under a variety of corporate names and with a series of production partners. Below are the main ones: