NEW MAN AT THE NFFC by Penelope Houston

Sight and Sound – Spring 1979

On January 15, Mamoun Hassan took over as managing director of the National Film Finance Corporation. The appointment is unusual and challenging; perhaps a victory for the Association of Independent Producers pressure group, which has been working with great energy to impress on the Government the needs of the film-makers outside the big battalions and the American companies. Certainly it sets a new style, in that for the first time this key job goes to a film-maker. Mamoun Hassan’s predecessor, Sir John Terry, who took over 21 years ago and has had to keep the NFFC going through recent years of chronic under-funding, was a lawyer. Mamoun Hassan was in charge of the BFI Production Board operations from 1971 to 1974, producing Kevin Brownlow’s Winstanley, Bill Douglas’ My Childhood and My Ain Folk, David Gladwell’s Requiem for a Village and Peter Smith’s A Private Enterprise, among other films. He has been a cogent and resolute supporter of a great tradition of British film-making. After leaving the BFI, he worked for the United Nations and more recently has been teaching direction at the National Film School. The NFFC’s finances are being put on a firmer footing (amount unknown at the time of writing, but £5m has been a widely quoted figure), so that it has some real chips to play with in the great gamble of trying to inject new confidence into the British cinema. Mamoun Hassan, taking an optimistic but realistic view of the possibilities, gave us this interview in early January, shortly before taking up his appointment.

You have said that your appointment might be regarded as rather a curious one, or at least unexpected …

MAMOUN HASSAN: Well, the last three managing directors of the NFFC have been an accountant, a banker and a lawyer, so to appoint a film-maker is certainly curious, unless it means the Government has accepted that the situation has changed so drastically that it calls for a completely new approach. Thirty years ago, when the Corporation was set up, we had something like fifteen hundred million cinema admissions a year in Britain last year the figure was 107 million. And basically the way the Corporation originally operated was that they financed producers. They didn’t look too closely at the scripts; they backed a producer, and if he or she failed they stopped financing him, and if he succeeded they tended to finance his next project, and so on. Even then, the kind of projects they were getting were not necessarily those with the least risk attached. But there was a home market, you could earn your bread and butter on that market, and since no film was supported without a guarantee of distribution you tended to feel fairly safe. Also, of course, the Corporation used to put its money into a film last, and it was seen very much as a loan.

That’s a long time ago. Things have changed gradually over the last twenty-five years, so that instead of merely rubber-stamping the decisions of the distributors the Corporation has had more and more to take a decision itself as to whether a film was commercially viable. They’ve had to question what kinds of films were coming in, to exercise a different kind of judgment. So it was felt that they needed someone who could do that-a producer or a film-maker of some kind.

Also, the NFFC is having to put up a larger share of a film’s budget, isn’t it?

The Corporation went first from giving only the end money to having a pari passu involvement, which also changed the relationship with the industry. If you go in pari passu, financially that is a more responsible position. Also, with the risk becoming ever greater and the American involvement as always un-certain, the Corporation has of course found itself being asked to invest larger and larger shares. Recently we put up nearly a hundred per cent for Ken Loach’s Black Jack and the major share of James Ivory’s The Europeans. I would rather not put up a hundred per cent, because it cuts down on the number of films we can back and in any case we couldn’t do it with the more expensive projects. But the fact is that if you want to make a British film which is not regarded by the Americans as attractive for their market, then you are not going to get full finance from anyone except the NFFC-other than from the odd gambler or bold spirit. You are not going to get even half the money from anyone else. And I think we will find ourselves more and more having to bite this particular bullet.

What about television money?

For that we will have to look largely outside Britain. There was the case of The Shout, where Euston Films invested half the budget, about £200,000, but that was just Euston investing as a company, not as a television subsidiary. I think we are going to have to look to the European television organisations and to the North American companies, including the Canadians, for pre-sales to top up our own investment. It’s uncertain and difficult to make it work financially, and it does mean a lot of research, and investigation into whether the money is really secure. But more and more we at the NFFC are going to have to be responsible for finding the finance for a film, either by putting it all up ourselves or by going out to find the rest of the money if there is a project that excites us. Because the independent producers themselves are going to find it very difficult to hunt around. Tony Garnett and Ken Loach have a track record; Merchant and Ivory can approach the television companies because their films have already been shown on the various European networks. But what about the unknowns whose films have not been shown? We are going to have to do the work for them, or at least help them. And with that in mind, it’s inevitable that we are going to have some kind of marketing or distribution arm to our activities.

That is what the AlP has been arguing for, isn’t it?

Yes, and people outside AlP. But, you know, there are more than 400 film-makers in the AlP, ranging from the latest film school graduate to Lindsay Anderson and Sam Peckinpah. It’s not some kind of monolithic organisation where everyone thinks alike. But one thing I do find refreshing about AlP is that it is at least trying not to exercise simply its own prejudices. It is doing research to find out what is actually happening; and that has not so far been done by any body that I know of in Britain, or not in a serious way. The larger organisations are too much involved with the American market to be interested, and the rest tend to be independents who simply haven’t the capacity to undertake this work on their own.

Is the Department of Trade supporting this kind of research?

The relationship has, I think, been a very useful one. The Department of Trade tempers AlP’s idealism and the AlP encourages and supports their boldness. And although there are disagreements, there is no question but that there is a sharing of all available information. I am convinced that both sides really are looking for ways to change the situation. We have to find something new or we might as well give up. But the film-makers have to do their bit, which means creating the films that are going to appeal at least to British audiences and which will generate some real energy.

At the moment, in so far as there is a British film industry, much of it is based in America, through such enterprises as EMI, and many of the film-makers would probably just as soon work in the United States.

Of course people want to go abroad when the atmosphere in Britain is so debilitating. And I am not particularly upset by EMI wanting to make its money in America, if that is where it thinks its profits are. But I am exercised by one thing: that on the one hand EMI is choosing to invest in America, and that on the other hand EMI as a distributor, as one of the duopoly, is making. key decisions about British cinema as well. It can’t help but do so. If it wants to lose its money in America, let it. Convoy may have made a little money, a few other films will make money, but in the long run I think it will go the way of all British investors in the American film market – eventually EMI is likely to lose its shirt, because in the end there is no reason why it should be tuned in to the needs and preferences of the American market. But that is all up to EMI. The one thing I object to is that this company is also making some very important decisions about the kind of films that should be made and distributed in this country.

So how does the NFFC try to adjust that situation?

We are going to have a very small amount of money compared to the finance available to EMI or Rank. What we can do is say to the British film-makers that here at least is one body which will consider their projects on a continuing basis, and will not be put off by the fact that these projects are based in Britain-in fact quite the opposite, which will be excited by it. That is the difference. And if we can support a dozen films or so on that basis in the next year or two, we have a real chance of creating a different climate. After all, how much money was actually invested in the Nouvelle Vague or Free Cinema films?

You can change the climate quite dramatically with a little money if you also convince people that they are being listened to, that they don’t have to pretend to be Americans-or for that matter pretend to be Germans, or anything else. That is an argument I have heard in AlP and which I don’t believe to be the answer: that we should become more European rather than more American. Britain is an offshore island, and I think one has to fight for one’s own. I’m speaking as an Arab living in England, not as some kind of little Englander; I’m talking about reflecting the kind of life that we all lead here, which to me is the important thing. I’m not concerned about the nationality of the film-makers: if Kurosawa wanted to come here, I’d welcome him; if Antonioni wanted to come back, I’d be very happy; or any interesting and lesser known people. What concerns me is that they should make films which reflect the quality of life here.

We still have the same remit that the NFFC had in 1949; we still have the same engine. Nobody should think that we can somehow miraculously make this old engine from 1949 go at two hundred miles an hour. But we can change a few things, we can retune the engine. And one thing, I believe, is that we cannot continue to operate taking single risks and supporting projects on their own. If the remit is to make films which stand a reasonable chance of a commercial return, then one has to look at a portfolio, at a year’s work. One film has a star name, it may look fairly safe; another has no stars and an unknown director and a very oddball script, but you have an intuition that there is genuine talent there and perhaps a film which might also make a lot of money. It may turn out that your oddball film does very well and your safe film loses money: that happens all the time. We must balance risks, of various kinds.

If you treat each film as a one-off, you are always having to play safe; and one thing film history has shown us is that if you go towards the centre, then you fail artistically and you also fail commercially. You are actually courting disaster in every possible way. We are going to ask film-makers to take risks-and I am asking them, because they don’t. Most of the scripts we have are lacking in boldness and vigour. But in that case we must be seen to be taking risks as well. That’s part of the dialogue we must have with the industry.

Also, although it may be time-consuming and perhaps even painful for me, and irritating for the film-makers who approach the Corporation, I think we are going to have to talk and argue about the scripts. We can’t just say yes or no: we must say maybe, let’s talk about a second draft and a third draft. And therefore we have to operate like a film company. If film-makers are looking for finance and coming to what they think of as a bank, they may be annoyed to find that they are going to have to talk about their films in a serious way. But I think we have to do this, and we have to consider films in the light of the audience they are aimed at. The size of the audience and the kind of audience is always open to discussion, but I don’t want to back films which are not intended to be seen.

Do you think that the actual cinema machinery is there for a real audience in Britain?

No, and that’s why we have to get into distribution and marketing ourselves. There is no other industry – if we are talking about film as an industry, and the NFFC is after all a Department of Trade outpost – which will simply manufacture a product and not make some arrangement for selling it. If they are going to insist that this is a commercial activity, then it has to be treated seriously as a commercial activity. We have to look to our market. But I also believe that the market does exist. Two years ago, when things were very bad, I wrote a paper in which I suggested that there was going to be an upturn and that people would go back to the cinema. That has happened, and I don’t think it is just that people are going out to see a certain type of big American picture. They are going out because they don’t want to stay at home, because people don’t feel that just to sit at home with a television set is the be all and end all of everything. People want to experience things with each other.

Yes, but even if people want to go to the cinema, and if we had the distribution machinery, are there still the right number of seats in the right places. Have things run down too far?

That’s the big question, and I do think that eventually some larger involvement of the local authorities will be needed. Stanley Reed, ex-director of the BFI, proposed a long time ago that there really is no reason why local authorities should involve themselves in theatre and not in cinema. Of course, they are doing something now through the regional arts associations and the film theatres and so on, but it will all have to be on a larger scale.

What do you see as a reasonable average cost for a film supported by the NFFC?

That is an interesting one … Just before Christmas, Lord Grade was berating me in the Guardian for what he saw as my turning away from American finance. ‘How would he be able to get us the fifty million dollars for Superman?’ was his challenge. Now, the effect of Superman, and of films like Superman, is of course that the average goes up, because that establishes a new norm for salaries and for the scale of operations. A student at the National Film School who may soon be doing his first feature as writer-director was talking to me recently, and he saw a film costing about £450,000 as a low-budget movie. I was appalled, but of course it’s true: that really is a low-budget movie now. We have had films in for less, but they come from film-makers who know they are not going to get into the big cinemas or the American market and are looking to sales to art houses and to some television outlets, mainly in Europe. Otherwise, you really are talking about films costing half a million pounds.

Now, of Lord Grade’s $50 million (which is a wonderful ’round’ figure, isn’t it?), we all know that over two million went to Marlon Brando, and I should think ten million to the producers and director and writers, and a lot of the special effects were shot in the States. So we are really talking about fifteen or twenty million spent in Britain. That is fine: it creates work and keeps the studios busy. But when the Americans go away we are left with our industry still tied in to their system. We find it more and more difficult to make films for £300,000 or thereabouts. More and more British film-makers have to look to the American market, and that takes us back to that vicious circle we cannot get out of, where we rely on the Americans to decide what kind of films we make. In the end, we have to decide who is responsible for our industry.

How do you break that circle?

We break it by making it clear that we will invest in a British cinema, that we will not look to the American market as the sole or essential target, and that we will put up half the money, or even all the money if we are able to get a picture for £300,000. But we also have to talk to the ACTT – in fact, it’s already being talked about-along the lines of a two-tier system, looking for greater flexibility in cases where a film is totally British-financed and is the kind of project that really has to be made in Britain.

Would any concessions be in the direction of smaller crews, or lower salaries, or both?

I don’t know … it might be both. My own experience with the ACTT, when I was at the Production Board, was that they were understanding and generous. Everyone said that the ACTT would not allow us to operate, to make features, without imposing minimum salaries and minimum crews. In fact, they really gave us carte blanche to do as we wanted, so long as we in turn did not break faith with them by allowing commercial organisations to rip them off. They don’t want to see American companies financing British films on the cheap and then selling them in America and making a lot of money. Nor do I. One thing we have to accept as a fact of life is that the American companies – or some of them, at least operate, very special, not to say creative, accounting methods. So we have to be careful about the kind of deal we are looking for, to be sure that the film-makers and technicians are not ripped off by American concerns. Or by any other concerns, for that matter.

What about the possible role of the British Film Authority, the deliberations of the Wilson Committee, and also the question of the way the Eady system is now functioning?

Our industry in general behaves in a delinquent fashion. It simply doesn’t do its duty, as I see it, because it doesn’t seek to create the conditions for its continuance. Everyone is out to make his next film, by hook or by crook, and doesn’t care too much about what happens afterwards. I don’t think we can carry on like that, but the way the Eady Fund is now operating is very much in line with that way of thinking. It is being used to pay for the distribution costs, whereas we ought to be giving it to the producers not for this film but for the next film, so that we are always investing in tomorrow.

There is another way of looking at the film industry, which is the way the Treasury looks at it. They see our way of financing films, the extraordinarily high salaries and the perks and kickbacks that everyone gets, and they see no reason why they should invest in an industry of this kind. In the country’s present economic state, they would come under considerable attack at every level of decision-making, from the cabinet and parliament to the press and the media, for investing large sums of public money. in an industry which is so inflated. We have to convince people that we are capable of operating in a serious way before any government of any kind is going to invest real money.

But how can we expect them to invest millions in an industry where the salaries are what they are, and where people are not so much dishonest as extremely optimistic and highly forgetful about how money is spent? With that kind of circus atmosphere, the NFFC is going to have a very hard time persuading government to finance film-makers on a continuing basis. The only way we can guarantee continuing finance is that some of the Eady money should be assigned to the Corporation. I really believe that; I think it’s the only way people are going to invest in tomorrow and not just in today.

Now of course the approach of the industry has been that we should create a British Film Authority to bring all the different film operations together, with the idea that a larger body will sort out problems more rationally, carry more weight, and therefore be able to get more money from the Government. That is a perfectly reasonable approach. My anxiety about such a body, and it is a serious anxiety, is that you can never have too many organisations supporting the cinema but you can have too few. If you centralise control in that way, I am worried that the non-conformist elements could find it very difficult to get access to the money. If we do have a BFA, I’m worried that in ten years time we may all be wondering about finding ways to dismantle it. Because it will be so powerful, and it will be in the hands of the very people who I feel have already failed us for the last quarter of a century, and who are destined to fail us again.

I’m talking here about people like myself, whose arteries will harden. We will become less willing to take risks and more and more confident about what we believe to be true, and eventually we will become a negative force, not so much encouraging films as stopping certain films from being made. I think it’s vital to remain open to change, open to disturbance. To me, the BFA does not promise to be such a body.

The report of the Interim Action Committee worries me, because it seems more concerned with administrative detail than with the kind of films we should be making, the real raison d’etre of the operation. No belief comes out of that document, and you can’t be too surprised at that because most of the people involved believe in the present. I don’t mean this in any way personally, but they are people who are effective in the world as it is, the ‘haves’. A handful of them tried to represent the views of the ‘have nots’, but there was not even a token ‘have not’ to speak for himself.

The BFA could become a kind of Swedish Film Institute. If, for instance, you take just the production arm of the Swedish Film Institute, it has three or four different kinds of funds and there is a great deal of argument and enquiry between one committee and another. In the discussions in Sweden which led to the setting up of the various committees, there was much more talk about the different elements in films than there has been in the whole of the British deliberations. One committee had in mind film as a popular medium, and the second was treating it as a popular medium but not forgetting it is an art form as well, and so on. Even by defining film in that way, you immediately have to agree or disagree or take some stand. ‘Is film still a popular medium? What kind of art medium? And bearing this in mind, what then is the appropriate level of finance?’ That at least is something you could get excited about. But you can’t get excited about a report which defines the BFA as a body which ought to have seven people on a committee, etc.

I’m not against a BFA in principle, but the language used in the discussions does tell one something about the approach, and I’m afraid that it has been very boring. The document itself should be a banner; it should tell us that we are embarked on a great adventure. Unfortunately, it tells us that we will be in the grip of a powerful bureaucratic machine, which in ten years time we are going to have to work very hard to dismantle.

How about areas where there is excitement? What sort of conclusions have you reached from your experience at the Production Board and the National Film School?

It’s a curious thing, because at the very time when more and more of our established, senior film-makers are looking to America, we also have all these young film-makers who are basically being supported by the Government and who are clamouring for a British industry. We can’t go on like this: something has to give somewhere. You only have to go along to some of the meetings to get a sense of the anger and the frustration. And of course what could happen is that the NFFC could be torn apart between the two-the establishment, really wanting just another banking operation with low interest rates, and the independent sector looking for another kind of support. The Corporation could be mangled between them. Or it could try to stand aside and look objectively at what is available.

As to my Production Board experience … Everyone seems to think that I am just going to do again exactly what I did there, so I should say right away that I don’t think one can fire the same arrow twice. I can’t do it, and neither can those film-makers. Bill Douglas, Kevin Brownlow, David Gladwell, Peter Smith … they are not going to make the same films again. They are looking for something else, and that in itself opens up a big subject. What kind of style, what aesthetic should a British film-maker be pursuing now?

It seems to me that the richest seam in British cinema has always been the poetic realist and that our best film-makers have come from that tradition. Has that seam given out? Ought we perhaps to be looking for something else? I don’t know. This is an argument we should all take part in, but in any case it is not something for me to hand down to the film-makers, because l don’t think it is the job of someone involved in the administration of money to tell people what kind of films they should be making. In any event, those film-makers are not going to make the same films again, nor am I interested in doing the kind of films that we did then. A lot has happened since, and we should be looking for a different style of film for a different and perhaps larger audience.

I’m very encouraged by what I saw at the School. One of the bugbears of British cinema has been the dependence on language, the interminable chat, the way every dramatic point is made by actors portraying garrulous characters who carry the burden of guiding you through the life of the film. Now there seems to be a real turning away from that. There is a return to the ‘spectacle’ of film-spectacle not in the epic sense, but in the sense of the seen world. Of course some film-makers in Britain have pursued that course: Humphrey Jennings, Lindsay Anderson, Hamer and Mackendrick, Hitchcock, and more recently Douglas and Brownlow, seem to me people who are essentially interested in the total shot. Now more and more of the budding film-makers are interested in the seen and experienced world. But they are not going to come out of the School tomorrow and make their extraordinary contribution overnight.

Because I do feel pursued, slightly, by a sense of great expectations all around… I can’t promise you a new film industry in three years’ time. I can promise a fight to create that industry, but not on my own. We are all going to have to do it.

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