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The top drawcard for the 2010 SPAA Conference (Sydney Hilton, Nov. 17 – 19) was Lord David Puttnam, who made sure he repaid in full the cost of hosting him with a powerful keynote address full of wisdom and insight learnt the hard way. Andrew L. Urban reports.

Lord David Puttnam agrees with Margaret Pomeranz (speaking earlier) that raw emotion on the screen is crucial to satisfy and engage audiences – and that as a Brit, he finds himself usually trying suppress it."It's hard ... but it's crucial." In an inspirational keynote address to several hundred film and tv producers and associated persons, the noted producer and all round film industry icon admitted he had changed his speech after hearing Pomeranz give her Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture.

But whatever he changed, the one thing that remained unchanged was his clarity of thought and sharpness of vision. To the assembled industry he stressed the crucial importance of speaking to Government with one voice. He cited the British industry’s disastrously divided response to the recent closure of the UK Film Council as an example of what not to do.

And he reflected on what not to have done himself, when he arrived at Columbia Pictures in 1986 as the first non-American studio boss. “I didn’t make allowances for the fact that I speak with an English accent,” he said. “They [the Americans] read what you write in their own American accent, but when you speak it’s very different, and I didn’t realise the importance of that.” Given the miserable time he had and the conflicts, he said he was also likely to be the last non-American studio boss.

He singled out Pixar’s John Lasseter as the most compelling filmmaker, “who takes us to places we want to go and he has the courage to defy conventions.”

As a well as raw emotion, Lord Puttnam stressed the value of humour as a powerful weapon – but one that is deceptively hard.

Cinema, he said, “is the most immersive experience and one that gives us a sense of togetherness and generates unequalled cultural impact. But, he added, “we have to accept that the way people access cinema is dying,” referring to the looming demise of the 35mm film, which is “on the way out.”

Audiences now demand a more active role in what they see and how they access films, “no longer as a totally passive experience. It represents a fundamental sea change. Digital cinema is the future.”

And in that future, he said, archive content has a vast role. Digital technology is an extraordinary opportunity offering great flexibility for shared experiences of all kinds. 3D, says Lord Puttnam, is a game changer and the challenge for cinema is to remodel itself.

Touching on piracy, Lord Puttnam noted that a recent report into the prelavence of piracy pointed out that the activity of content thieves proves that a) consumers want the content, b) they want more flexibility and affordability and c) many are not sure what’s legal and what’s not.

But ultimately, the copyright wars is a battle for hearts as well as the pocket. 

He closed his address urging Australian filmmakers to use cinema for finding and saying what it is they have to say. Filmmakers need to be given a chance and given support to achieve their goals, which provide audiences with illuminating experiences; films can make change possible. “That’s how confidence in national filmmaking can be restored.”

Published November 20, 2010

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Lord Puttnam’s successes as a producer include Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express, The Duellists (Ridley Scott's feature film debut), Chariots of Fire (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture), Local Hero, Memphis Belle, Meeting Venus, The Killing Fields and The Mission with Roland Joffé (which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986).

He was Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Columbia Pictures from 1986 to 1988. During his time at Columbia he was criticised for what some saw as a condescending attitude toward the Hollywood film industry, and for not sufficiently exploiting the studio's few box office hits. This strategic failure contributed to the sale of the studio to Sony.

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