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‘Performance’ hard to repeat

LONDON — The good news for British cinema is that lastweek saw the theatrical release of a film hailed almost across the board as “daring” and “breathtaking,” and in the case of Evening Standard critic Colin MacCabe, “the greatest British film ever made.”

The bad news: the film, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s “Performance,” starring Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg and James Fox, was made 36 years ago.

While Cammell, sadly, has passed on and Roeg, almost as sadly, hasn’t added another gem to his brilliant body of work in many years, the film’s producer, Sandy Lieberson, is an indefatigable member of the British filmmaking community, currently toiling as chairman of the recently launched Film London uber-agency to support filmmaking in the U.K. capital.

So who better than the producer of “the greatest British film ever made” to ask what so many people continually ask me: Why aren’t there more great British films getting made and/or seen?

Lieberson quickly identifies what he sees as the underlying problem and rather than just whinging, as too many fellowfilmmakers are prone to do, he’s got a solution or two up his sleeve.

  • Problem No. 1: In Lieberson’s view, “we are living in an era of conformity,” but worse than that, he feels that “filmmakers don’t believe they can do anything about it. There’s no belief that these kinds of films can make money. But even worse, the filmmakers have largely stopped trying.”

    Lieberson contrasts that with the ’60s, when “everyone just naturally assumed if you were smart and clever, you’d get it done.”

  • Problem No. 2: Lieberson says the Hollywood studios and the creative filmmakers “always had an uneasy co-existence,” but today he sees a paucity of hands-on filmmaking experience at the studios that he describes as “debilitating.”

“There was once a group of producers who really ran the studios and they knew something about filmmaking, but they’ve been replaced by a development system filled with people with no experience, other than this new system they’ve created. Everyone in it is terrified and only have one goal, which is to keep their jobs by developing blockbusters.”

“Performance” was famously held back from release by Warner Bros. for two years and, per Lieberson, “cost $1.1 million and still hasn’t shown a profit after 34 years of continual release. Even now, the film’s restoration for the new release was paid for by the British Film Institute, not Warners.” So one might expect Lieberson’s cynicism to overwhelm his enthusiasm for the prospects of the moment. But about those solutions up his sleeve:

  • Solution No. 1: Avoid the development process completely.

    Lieberson says of all the projects and plans being hatched by Film London, the one he finds most exciting is the Micro Budget Initiative.

    “We’re going to fund movies that cost £100,000 ($180,000),” he says. “And our hope is that by freeing young filmmakers from the burden of making a profit — by treating this as training — we may just spawn a new generation of entrepreneurial filmmakers who aren’t self-censoring and self-limiting.”

  • Solution No. 2: Keep swimming.

    In Lieberson’s view, “Today is no different than the ’60s. We were fighting against the conformist culture of the ’50s and the studios and we were always swimming against the current.

    “So maybe the water is deeper, but it’s still the same swim.”

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