Interview: Colin Vaines, Producer – Part II

Interview of Colin Vaines, Part II Image

“Our industry is more than just Hollywood, or any other place. Entertainment is global. As story-tellers, we have to be as well. If anyone in this game isn’t clear on that, they really are falling behind.”

Throughout his career, Colin Vaines has been at the forefront of film and television development, overseeing production and executive producing some of the most iconic pictures over the past several decades.  His filmography includes Memphis Belle, Gangs of New York and The Rum Diary.  Through his litany of pictures he has managed to develop a global contact network of the industry’s most powerful production and acting talent. 

Vaines is a highly sought-after freelance producer known for his dedication to developing high-quality film and television projects, including the recent Netflix Original, The Unforgivable with Sandra Bullock.  Retaining his reputation as a “gentleman scholar” after four decades in the business, Vaines remains a well-known figure in his beloved Soho neighbourhood in London.

In Part I of our in depth interview, we explored Colin’s motivation, the essential nature of collaboration he cultivates as a Producer and a few of his memorable experiences with deal making while being in the room with some of the industry’s most notable characters, including David Puttnam, Harvey Weinstein and Dino De Laurentiis.

Join us now for Part II (or catch up after you read Part I here).

Part II

The Media C-Suite:

Most people identify a film or television show by the actors in it.  A lot of people will recognise the name of the distributor or the name of a director.  Why are Producers themselves not walking the red carpets?

Colin Vaines:

Oh, we do, of course, but who notices me when Sandra Bullock is walking past?  I wouldn’t.

Producers are not in this business for the glamour.  None that I know anyway.  Speaking for myself, it’s for the love of film-making.  The glamour is for the audience.  Producers are firmly behind the curtain.  Or at least we should be.

In this business, we all know who the Producers are.  The audience will know that MGM distributes the James Bond movies, or that Daniel Craig is Bond, for now.  But inside the business, we all know that Barbara Broccoli and her stepbrother Michael Wilson at EON are the Producers and control the franchise. 

Producers know each other.  Directors and actors know who the Producers are.  It’s a genuine community.

The Media C-Suite:

You’ve been doing this for a long time.  But you didn’t start out as a Producer. 

Colin Vaines:

Not at all.  No one really does to be honest.  Producers are like the CEO of a startup company, you end up falling into the role if the stars align in the right way. 

Perhaps that’s not really fair to say. 

Being a Producer takes a lot of hard work and a long time to get right.  It’s a combination of knowing the art of story-telling and having the right networks to build a temporary organisation that coalesces around a sincere proposal meant to attract serious media executives who must believe that they won’t get fired for supporting you. 

There are so many dependencies. Ultimately they all fall on the shoulders of the Producer.  There’s no school for that, it takes a while to learn from others and gain experience that translates into other people’s faith in what you say is good and can be delivered.

The failures are as valuable as the successes, and you need both.

The Media C-Suite:

You started out as a journalist for Screen International in London.

Colin Vaines:

I did. 

It was a tremendous piece of good luck and a perfect opportunity for me to work as a journalist there as my first real job.  I was totally unqualified of course, and at the time thought the best I could do is to become a film critic of all things.  I really should have been paying the publisher of Screen, Peter King, for the privilege of working there; but there I was being paid to rub shoulders with film-stars and producers. 

I don’t think anyone thought I would last, including me, but I absolutely loved it.  Out of nowhere I was able to speak to real film-makers, people with names I knew from the cinema.  Producers, actors, everyone.  And they spoke with me.

I could walk down the street in Soho, bump into someone and have a story to write.

Screen International really was working at the heart of British film and that gave me a real leg up.

The Media C-Suite:

You worked your way up at Screen International to co-Editor.  What motivated you to leave journalism to oversee the UK’s National Film Development Fund?

Colin Vaines and Ralph Fiennes on the set of Coriolanus.
Colin Vaines (left) and Ralph Fiennes (right) on the set of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in 2011. Courtesy: Colin Vaines.

Colin Vaines

Well, making films was always at the heart of my ambition. 

By the time I was in the co-editor role at Screen, I had been lucky enough to know a number of people willing to encourage me. 

At the time, in the early-1980s, there was still a Levy on cinema tickets that was being invested back into British film production; the Eady Levy it was called.  This had been going on since the 1920s, but it came to an end in 1985.  The Government wanted to take the pressure off of the cinemas and ten years later we had the National Lottery bringing in funding for the arts.

Most of the Hollywood Majors had production and distribution offices here.  We were making Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies as a service industry, but it was important to have backing for British movies, and that was what the National Film Development Fund was set up to do.

The Development Fund was intended to keep British film relevant internationally, and that meant commercially as well as maintaining the elements of British and European film that were being adapted so well by Hollywood.  There was a clear interaction between Hollywood and London and this was being recognised commercially.

A wonderfully maverick producer/executive called Mamoun Hassan was running the National Film Finance Corporation at that point, and he convinced me to put my hat in the ring for the job running the Development Fund. So what was I to do?  I leapt at it of course.    

The Media C-Suite:

That was a good period for British film and British production.  There were a number of films that did well internationally such as Educating Rita with Michael Caine, Tony Scott’s The Hunger and of course both Bonds came out in 1984, Never Say Never Again with Sean Connery and Octopussy with Roger Moore.  Did British film need more help from the Government?

Colin Vaines:

It was a good time for British film, certainly.  And for production generally in the UK.  Our studios were full, and Hollywood was permanently established in Soho and around London.  And they had been for years, with 20th Century Fox at Century House for example.  There was competition, of course, but I think that it was really collaboration.  All of the Hollywood Majors had a substantial presence in London.  And London really was the centre of European and international distribution then.  The box office outside of North America was becoming really important financially.  That made it a natural place to do deals for film production.

In the 1970’s, Hollywood was eagerly adopting more European and British elements and a lot of American film-makers were influenced by French, Italian and British style.  I think that Warren Beatty’s Bonny and Clyde really changed Hollywood forever in this way.  European and British film had a major influence on American cinema.  The benefits worked both ways.

The problem that the Government here understood well was that maintaining that momentum required investment into development of new stories and the cultivation of new film-makers here in Britain.  That is what the Development Fund was created for. 

Development is, and perhaps will always be, the most risky part of film-making.  That is when the artistic elements of writing a script collide with the commercial elements.  For new film-makers, that is a very difficult period to overcome.  Developing a film or television show well requires time and money, like any other venture. 

The Media C-Suite:

Do you think it worked in the long run? 

Colin Vaines:

Oh, yes. Public funding made a real difference to sustaining and building the industry as we see it here today.  We had some amazingly talented writers and directors and producers come up through the Development Fund and the NFFC before that, and through successor bodies such as British Screen Finance and the companies funded from the UK Lottery, like The Film Consortium and DNA Films.

The careers of major film-making talents like Ken Loach and David Puttnam were helped immeasurably by these programmes. British television evolved so much as well, with the BBC being prominent for years, and Channel 4 making a massive impact when it launched.

But to answer your question, and it’s only my opinion, the British film industry would not have cultivated so many talented story-tellers or produced so many iconic British films and television without the support of publicly funded organisations.

The Media C-Suite:

Why not?

Colin Vaines:

Well.  Let’s have a think. 

The Americans had money.  And they had the most lucrative film and television market in the world at the time.  Like any artists, film-makers would have to go to where the money is.  The Development Fund allowed talent to stay here in the UK and develop pictures that were in demand on both sides of the Atlantic. 

It was my great privilege to be part of that, to cultivate the necessity of development as a crucial component of producing serious commercial films that attract critical attention. 

The Media C-Suite:

You left the National Film Development Fund to work for David Puttnam when he took on the role of Chairman and CEO at Columbia Pictures.  What was your role?

Colin Vaines:

My role at Columbia was development. 

David had a large slate of films and he asked me to help him oversee development, alongside production head Lynda Myles, in Europe.  He had his reputation for quality films with the likes of Chariots of Fire and Midnight Express and The Duelists and wanted to continue in that vein.

When he left Columbia, he asked me to move into his Production house, Enigma Films.  We developed and produced Memphis Bell and I was able to fully produce the television movie, A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia.  David provided the framework and the environment for me to fully build out my own skills as a developer of film and television shows.

Media C-Suite:

You mentioned earlier that film-makers have to go to where the money is.  For a long time, that meant spending time in LA and New York.  Do you think that is still true today?

Photo of Colin Vaines and Mel Brooks in 2017.
Colin Vaines (left) and Mel Brook (right) at the BAFTAs in 2017. Courtesy: Colin Vaines.

Colin Vaines:

For me, and I am on the creative end of the Producer spectrum, being in the room with the likes of Martin Scorsese or Dino de Laurentis is a cinephile dream come true.  Working with directors and actors who either are, or are clearly going to be, the leaders in film-making offers lessons I could never have learned otherwise.  It was necessary for me to grow and a privilege that I was able to undertake.

For a film-maker, there is only so much you can do alone at a keyboard.  At some point, you have to go to where the action is.  For a Producer, that means where the deals are being negotiated.  For me, that meant LA and New York and London. 

That seems to have changed somewhat today.  The Pandemic opened everyone to the Zoom call and being able to make connections from a distance.  I think it opened opportunities that otherwise might not have been possible without actually meeting. 

The market has changed as well.  Streamers are now truly global in a way Hollywood never was.  Local content is more important now.  Producers are able to be a bit more niche and Streamers never know when a decidedly “local” film or TV show in a market like South Korea might springboard into mainstream markets like Squid Game did for Netflix.  

The Media C-Suite:

So, is there still a centre for the global film industry?

Colin Vaines:

Oh, some might think Hollywood. 

LA is certainly where a high concentration of talent is living.  That density of talent, the proximity, certainly makes it easier to converge around a good project.  New York and London have this as well.  But so do a lot of other places, especially today.

Hypothetically, if Hollywood was the concept of the centre for the global industry twenty years ago, I would say that centre of mass is moving, diversifying, dispersing.  But the places with concentrations of talent will always have an edge.

Our industry is more than just Hollywood, or any other place. Entertainment is global. As story-tellers, we have to be as well. If anyone in this game isn’t clear on that, they really are falling behind.

In Part III of our interview, we hear about investment in film, what Producers get out of it and the trends being pursued by large Private Equity investors today. We hope you’ll join us.

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