Your job is to amaze me

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  • Published 20110301
  • ISBN: 9781921656996
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

I’M ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTED to have been invited out of retirement to have the privilege of addressing you. I only draw attention to my ‘retirement’ because I sense that much of the value of what I have to say stems from the fact that, to all intents and purposes, I’m now something of an ‘outsider’; although I still watch a hell of a lot of films (maybe more than ever); remain deeply committed to the television industry, in part because of my role as Deputy Chairman of Britain’s Channel 4, and, as I hope I’ll establish, have lost none of my passion for cinema. Nonetheless, I’m not here to seek your sympathy, nor am I expecting to win any popularity contest. Far from it. I’ve too much respect for the cinema and television industries, and too much respect for you, to do anything other than offer my version of a way forward for the film and television students at this university, and the industry they’ve committed themselves to as it moves towards a fully digital era.

By way of a further ‘health warning’, I’m not only here as a former movie producer, but also as someone who started their professional life in advertising; and then spent much of the rest of it marketing the hell out of the films and television programmes I’d produced – in that sense at least I’m something of an unrepentant commercial animal.

Lastly, I’m also here as a quasi-politician. Long before I was appointed to the British House of Lords I’d been deeply involved in the formulation of public policy, particularly as it concerns cinema; and indeed the broad communications industry of which that forms a relatively small, if important part. For well over thirty years I’ve been a witness to, and sometimes even a practitioner of the type of complex ‘trade-offs’ that public policy involves. I emphasise ‘trade-offs’ because these tend to lie at the heart of democratic politics. Those ‘trade-offs’ affect everything, whether that be the politics of climate change – one of my major pre-occupations these days – or the ever-more complex policies surrounding film, television and the creative industries more generally.

A dozen years ago, I wrote a book, published in this country under the title The Undeclared War which, among other things, sought to explore how, and almost more importantly why, the extraordinary cultural and industrial influence European, and indeed Australian cinema possessed in its early days was somehow lost.

As an aside, during my research for that book, I was delighted to learn that the first ‘feature film’ made anywhere in the world – The Story of the Kelly Gang – at over an hour in length – was made by the Tait Brothers, in Melbourne, in 1906. To everyone except the Tait Brothers amazement it proved enormously popular with Australian audiences, and spurred a remarkable upturn in the local production industry. However the impact of WW I, and the later transition to sound turned out to be tremendously significant – both these events in their different ways allowed the American industry to consolidate its dominance right across the English speaking world. A dominance that’s never really been seriously challenged.

But something of a deeper cultural significance was also lost, and for reasons that are, perhaps, rather more difficult to identify – a sense of confidence; of energy; most seriously of all, we non-Americans allowed our unique sense of connection with our own audience to become undermined by several decades of ‘Hollywood’ movies that were simply better than anything we could summon up the will to produce.

In order to simply sustain themselves, the film and television industries in this country, as in my own, became increasingly reliant on the public purse. To the extent that, according to Screen Australia figures, the total amount of subsidy from federal and state agencies amounted to just under $300 million in the financial year 2007-08 – the most recent year for which figures were available.

But with the privileges of public support come a whole slew of cultural responsibilities. First and foremost, a responsibility to those whose hard-earned tax money effectively underwrites our endeavours.

And it is here that I’d argue that filmmakers in Australia – specifically filmmakers, as opposed to those who distribute and exhibit films – have a very special responsibility. After all, it is the filmmakers, or future filmmakers, who are in receipt of the vast majority of that subsidy, and therefore, as I see it, it is they who should shoulder most of the burden for ensuring that they deliver a tangible public benefit. And by ‘public benefit’ I do not only, or even principally mean an ‘economic return’ to the public purse – although that should of course form an important part of the equation.

The world’s filmmaking community, at least outside of Hollywood, tends to wear the badge of culture on its sleeve and for the most part with justifiable pride. We tend to use it a means of differentiating ourselves from much, or even most of the cinema created by the ‘Hollywood system’. But is it really enough, simply to wear the badge, or even the T-shirt? Can we be certain that our cinema, in its many and diverse forms, remains all that distinctive? Particularly when compared with a fair amount of the more recent, so-called ‘independent’ output, from the U.S. Perhaps this is reflected in the very low share of the Australian box-office claimed by locally produced films – for example, just 5 per cent in 2009, which compares with a figure of almost 17 per cent in Britain. I’m going to return to this issue a little later because the somewhat depressing performance of Australian films has come at a time when, in my view, there have never been more fantastic opportunities out there for independent filmmakers and distributors.


MOVING IMAGES ARE now more readily available than at any time since the day on which the Lumière Brothers first successfully projected a few short films in Paris, 115 years ago.

In the face of the onslaught of reality television shows, the reduction in production budgets caused by the fragmentation of television into literally hundreds of channels, and the ease with which short-form videos can be streamed on YouTube; cinema has retained the capacity to offer something different – stories which, long after the lights have come up, genuinely endure in the minds of the audience. And it that weren’t enough, the on-screen production values have moved cinema into a different league from anything made for television, let alone for the internet.

Digital technologies, including broadband, are already transforming the way in which audiences consume moving images of every kind.

You as filmmakers have the most extraordinary opportunity to play a pioneering role in what is nothing less than a ‘digital revolution’.

But above and beyond anything else, what’s driving all of this are a growing number of quite fundamental changes in the behaviour of people; as audiences, consumers, and citizens. For example, they want to use digital technologies to access content faster, more conveniently, at home and on the move – in ways that were all-but-unimaginable even a decade ago.

Needless to say, this poses some extremely tricky challenges for anyone involved in creating, distributing or exhibiting films and television programmes. Change, when it occurs at this scale and speed, can be tremendously challenging. Certainly when I first became involved in the industry at the end of the 1960s, many parts of the film industry were ill-equipped intellectually, emotionally or organisationally to ‘turn on a sixpence’, and grab the opportunities made available by even the very earliest forms of technological innovation. But it’s become all too obvious that the underlying business model for our industries needs to undergo some pretty radical changes if we’re to take advantage of the opportunities, presented by digital technology, to maintain – and even strengthen our industry.

If, for example, the industry is really serious about wanting effective enforcement of its intellectual property, then it has to provide an equally effective means of delivering that content to digital customers. And it’s here that, in my judgment at least, we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.

The economics of the film and television industries, the numbers alone, do not even begin to describe the broader impact of the medium. In large part, this is because ‘moving images’ retain a remarkable ability to speak to people of every age, from every background and in ways with which almost every other form of popular culture struggles to compete. Indeed, in this respect, I’d maintain that the principal arguments I set out in The Undeclared War are, if anything, more relevant today than when the book originally appeared in the late 1990s.

I claimed then that film was, and remains, a unique medium for conveying ideas; for helping us to shape our sense of exactly who we are, and what our relationship to society might be. Many people, including some filmmakers, continue to hide behind the notion that cinema is essentially an ‘entertainment medium’ – with an ever-diminishing number of rather old-fashioned intellectual pretensions.

My experience of working in schools in Britain severely challenges that assumption. Among other things, we are trying to stimulate the use of cinema as an important teaching and learning tool. In doing that we tend to focus on those areas in which cinema can help bring a controversial subject to life, whether that be in relation to science or literature, or simply the challenges inherent in being a seriously engaged citizen.

Take, for example, the debate that continues to rumble around the subject of ‘creationism’. If you want to have a really thoughtful discussion with a group of fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen-year-olds about creationism, just show them Inherit the Wind and, as the lights come up, simply stand back and ask them who they think wins the argument – and how they now feel about the issues that film explores. I’ve found no finer or rewarding way of informing and stimulating that particularly difficult discussion, and I could make exactly the same case for any number of other films, on any number of other subjects.

In my experience there has always been a societal role for cinema to play. For example, the overwhelming domestic issue of the 1950s and 1960s in the USA, was race. Although prior to the mid-1950s, it would be fair to say that cinema had, if anything, been part of the problem – by giving the impression that the problem didn’t really exist. But, from the late 1950s onwards, American writers and directors started addressing the issue head on, supplying much of the momentum that allowed the integrationist movement to achieve, and eventually dominate, the moral and political high-ground.


YET THERE ARE many who believe the sense or ‘moral purpose’ that lies at the core of the films I’m describing vanished along with the era of black-and-white cinematography. Personally I’ve never wavered in my belief that there’s a more than interesting correlation between the nature of the stories young people are offered, and the view they come to form of themselves. This is most particularly true of the movies. Why should this be?

I think it’s got everything to do with the ability of moving images to find their way into our subconscious and, having taken root there, subtly shape the way we see ourselves in the context of the world about us.

Once that’s occurred, what gets reflected back can be the very best, or some of the very worst aspects of our personality – sometimes even a little of each. Throughout my thirty years as an active producer I was always aware that filmmakers can take advantage of this phenomenon in one of two ways; they can seek to reflect back the dreams, and whatever else it is that allows us to celebrate and believe in our potential as human beings – or they can reflect the negative, even violent survival instinct that lurks somewhere within pretty well all of us.

I’ve always thought of the former as an act of enormous cultural generosity; whereas the latter is in every respect a form of exploitation. In mitigation, film and television are probably not the best mediums for exchanging very complex ideas. But they are unbelievably successful at creating lasting images and emotions. And as the history of film and television drama has proved time and time again, the stories that really last are those with which the audience can most closely identify.

Within the world of cinema, even if increasingly rarely, it is still possible to find these ‘moral’ voices; which is why, at its very best, cinema remains capable of that most valuable of all cultural gifts, ‘thought leadership’. For me the most exciting work, and some of the most remarkable films, are emerging from countries that we’ve never previously associated with great cinema. I can’t recall a time at which there has been such an abundance of work of real quality, concerning places we’ve never seen, or in some cases even heard of – and importantly these films, as often as not, are being directed by women.

I’m finding this ‘feminisation’ of cinema, along with the thematic ‘globalisation’ of storytelling, the most exciting thing that’s happened in years – and of far more long-term cultural significance than the mere fact of the shift to digital.

I recently saw a film from Lebanon, entitled Caramel – a quite extraordinary movie set at a beauty parlour; and in watching it I learned more about the life of women living in contemporary Beirut than I could ever have believed possible. Coming off the back of the success of Hurt Locker, in which Kathryn Bigelow took on a genre, the war film, which had historically been the exclusive the preserve of men, I’m convinced that the long-overdue emergence of women directors into mainstream cinema is an aspect of twenty-first century cinema that is here to stay.

Cinema offers a uniquely visceral window into the lives of others. A few weeks after discovering Caramel, I watched an amazing film about a small group of women who had been released from prison in Iran where they had been serving sentences for so-called social ‘crimes’; it showed the way in which they were trying to get their lives together, and the utter impossibility of the situation they found themselves in. Through this most fantastic medium we can illuminate other societies and their problems, and that matters, because unless we come to understand the way the rest of the world sees itself, their opportunities, their challenges – there is no possibility of us making any kind of success of our complex – so-called ‘globalised world’.


AS A PRODUCER, my job was to ensure that the stories I felt worth telling were made in a way that became relevant to the generation I was trying to address. For example; in every sense The Killing Fieldstook on a tough subject but nobody’s ever accused it of being either boring or irrelevant. Similarly Chariots of Fire, Local Hero and Midnight Express. All set out to be serious pieces of work. But at the same time I’d certainly defend them as ‘entertainment’. The Mission would be another. At no point did I, or any of the people involved in making these movies cease to strain every creative fibre to make them as compellingly attractive as possible.

That’s the fundamental job of the filmmaker. In fact rule one, on page one of the filmmakers manual, ought to read – ‘thou may not bore thy audience’!

The underlying challenge facing those making films and television programmes in a digital age remains the same as it was when I was producing my very best work – to make your material relevant to that audience to which you most want to sell your dream.

What has changed is that now, with the rise of social and digital media, there are so many more opportunities to connect with your audience, and for that audience in turn to help you with the job of spreading the word – whether by pressing the ‘Like’ button on a Facebook page; re-tweeting a link to the film or programme, or commenting on clips found on YouTube. In every respect this really is a fantastic time to reach out to every kind of audience, and every kind of interest group – and in ways that weren’t remotely possible just a few years ago.

And far from the studios dominating the social media space, it’s increasingly the audiences and the users who decide what to approve of, recommended and share.

This is bottom-up criticism, not top-down. And the real power this offers to those working in the independent sector in film and television has barely begun to be appreciated and understood – and because it’s bottom-up you are, potentially, far better equipped than the Hollywood studios to work with and make use of these social media. Deep pockets alone will not give the big studios anything like the same competitive advantage in generating ‘buzz’ about a film, or reaching a very specific target audience. This is one of the great opportunities the digital age is offering everyone of you here today.

Meanwhile, I look around at most other forms of popular culture; and the unique capacity of cinema and television to deliver the type of ‘moral vision’ I was describing earlier; to speak with that degree of compassion, to allow real space for ‘poets and dreamers’ to become artists of influence – this becomes all the more striking.

Yet having said that, for me, much contemporary cinema remains far too timid about using its ability to influence young people’s lives, and the way they see and respond to the world. Cinema has historically played a role in enabling people to re-imagine the world at times of crisis – Italian neo-realism after WWII, much of the work of the nouvelle vague in the 1960s; films like Rome Open City, Battle of Algiers and Le Weekend.


SURELY WE ARE now missing an enormous opportunity. There’s an audience out there that’s really quite grown up – and which would quite like to be dignified as ‘thoughtful grown ups’! In it’s avoidance of this opportunity, much of American cinema has the most wonderful excuse – it’s a purely commercial

business. The industry as they see it is a very simple process – they pay you well – and then, along with the rest of them you take your chances at the box office.

That’s simply not the case in countries such as Australia where a significant underwriting comes from the state. Surely that being the case ‘social equity’ demands that filmmaker plays a serious, maybe a pivotal role in helping people – their audience – to navigate their way through that increasingly complex and difficult world I referred to earlier.

I’m not naive enough to believe that, on their own, cinema and television can cut through, let alone solve significant social or cultural problems, but through ‘illuminating’ the sometimes very different lives and experiences of others – most particularly the young and the vulnerable – they can help create a context of understanding within which the type of change that sometimes looks impossible begins to look at least possible. And once you cross that frontier of doubt, trust begins to develop, and before you know it, the unthinkable becomes, not only thinkable – but maybe even achievable.

This is why cinema and television industries, and their relationship with history and the ‘real world’, matter. In fact they matter more than ever in a digital age in which those images travel round the world quicker than you can say ‘Google Instant.’

As I hope I’ve made clear, from my perspective far and away the most important role of the individual filmmaker is to help illustrate and explain the ambiguities and complexities of life, and in doing so, help promote understanding and, where necessary create narratives that support or encourage dialogue – leading, in some cases, to the possibility of acceptable compromises.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. One of my primary political concerns at present is the issue of ‘climate change’. Having now had the opportunity to talk to leading scientists from all over the world I’m personally convinced that we are staring at the gravest threat civilisation has ever faced. As filmmakers it’s somewhat shaming that we left it to a politician, Al Gore, to lift the lid off the global warming story, yet there is enough film and television talent here in Australia alone to develop narratives so compelling that the world would be forced to wake up and stop pretending that this is just another scare story – an avoidable nightmare – a little like the ‘millennium bug’.

Our children, in my case my grandchildren, will be rightly puzzled, maybe even angry, should the present generation of filmmakers simply walk away from the enormous cultural responsibility this impending crisis imposes. In respect of climate change, it’s my belief that should we fail to get to grips with it, there’ll be no need to ask ‘for whom the bell tolls’, it will be tolling for every man, woman and child on this, once beautiful, planet. And should I be even halfway right, then as intelligent and responsible filmmakers, working in a free society, we will firmly find ourselves among those who will have to shoulder the blame.

So to conclude, what exactly am I asking of you, wherever you may be on your filmmaking journey, as we enter this digitised world of opportunity and challenge. The answer I’m afraid is – a very great deal. I mentioned at the outset that I started my career in advertising. Early on I found myself working for an extraordinarily gifted, but occasionally tyrannical taskmaster, a man who at times I found it all but impossible to please. One day I really lost it with him and yelled, ‘What the hell do you want of me?’ Somewhat to my surprise he replied: ‘It’s simple: I want you to amaze me. You’re here to do things I can’t, otherwise you’re simply a waste of space. Your job is to amaze me!’

So I’m putting the same challenge to you, as representatives of a generation of filmmakers addressing this incredibly complex world. Amaze me, with your commitment to squeezing the very best from your craft – whatever your specialisation may be. Amaze me, with the subtlety and sophistication with which you steal up on, excite, and inform your audience. Amaze me, with the ingenuity with which you persuade your finance and distribution partners to send out into the world the movie, and the message, as you originally conceived it. Amaze me, by telling your stories in such a way as to allow people, especially young people, to feel understood, valued and never ever alone. Amaze me, with the way in which you make, and leave a distinctive mark on your generation – not just in this country, but on millions of like-minded people around the world. Most important of all, amaze me with the maturity, the wisdom, and the compassion with which you are prepared to address genuinely complex issues.

I know that must sound like a very big ask; but surely it also represents a future to which you can really commit yourself – a worthwhile future for you, for the society that supports you, and for the generation you represent and reflect in your work.

Cinema is far too important, and the opportunities presented by being at this film school are simply too extraordinary, to unrepeatable, for any of you to simply allow them to go to waste.


Edited version of the 2010 Griffith Lecture by Lord David Puttnam, CBE, delivered at Griffith Film School South Bank Campus South Brisbane Australia, 22 November 2010.

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About the author

David Puttnam

Lord David Puttnam CBE is one of the world's great filmmakers.Lord Puttnam's impressive credentials and award winning films include The Memphis Belle, The Mission,...

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