Nat Cohen

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Nat Cohen (23 December 1905 – 10 February 1988)[1] was a British film producer and executive. For over four decades he was one of the most significant figures in the British film industry, particularly in his capacity as head of Anglo-Amalgamated and EMI Films; he helped finance the first Carry On movies and early work of filmmakers such as Ken Loach, John Schlesinger, Alan Parker and David Puttnam. In the early 1970s while head of EMI Films he was called the most powerful man in the British film industry.

Early career[edit]

Cohen was the son of a kosher butcher from the east end of London who was president of the Jubilee Street synagogue.[1] He was the only son with one elder sister. Cohen's parents had emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s and his father was a silent partner in a cinema in the east end. Cohen attended a local LOC school and then joined his father's business.[2]

In 1932 Cohen bought a 650-seat cinema, the Savoy, in Teddington. Over three years he built up a circuit of three cinemas in London and four in the provinces.[2] One of the cinemas was the Mile End Empire, where Cohen ran talent quests before the movies commenced; among the artists who featured were a young Tommy Trinder and Bernard Delfont.[3]

Cohen then turned to distribution, starting with re-releases of Hal Roach comedies.[4]

During World War II he distributed and exhibited military instruction films in England. His wife and daughter were sent to stay with his friend Sam Goldwyn.[3]

Anglo Amalgamated[edit]

With Stuart Levy he co-founded Cohen and Levy Films in 1945 which eventually became Anglo-Amalgamated. His first film was a £800 pound documentary called Horse and Country.[5][6]

They started making half hour featurettes at a cost of £10,000 then movied into features.[7]

His biggest success around this time was the Carry On series, which Cohen helped initiate in 1958.

For the company, he produced Peeping Tom and The Criminal (both 1960), the former now highly regarded was controversial at the time of its release. He greenlit some of the most important British films of the 1960s, including early feature films directed by John Schlesinger, John Boorman, and Ken Loach.[8]

The company was bought out by Associated British Picture Corporation and Cohen became a director of them in 1969.[9]

EMI Films[edit]

Anglo Amalgamated were majority owned by ABPC, who were taken over by EMI Films. Cohen joined the board of EMI and was put in charge of his own independent unit, Anglo-EMI.[10]

The actual head of EMI at the time was Bryan Forbes but Cohen had autonomy over his own unit. EMI were going to spend $36 million on 28 films, 13 of which would be from Cohen's Anglo-Amalgamated unit with a budget of £7 million.[10][11] Cohen:

Right from the start of Bryan Forbes joining the company, there was a sharp distinction between his films and mine. If Bryan had a cocktail party to announce his programme, then I had a cocktail party a few weeks later for mine, too. I had all I needed to keep me at full strength.[12]

"We now have a great opportunity for British productions by British people," said Cohen.[13]

Among the films Cohen made for Anglo-EMI included Get Carter, Percy, and several big screen adaptations of popular TV series. On the whole Cohen's movies for EMI outperformed those of Bryan Forbes financially.[14][15] They were less well received critically, although Cohen's unit was the one that initiated the highly acclaimed The Go-Between (1971).

The most powerful man in the British film industry[edit]

Following the resignation of Forbes, Cohen became overall head of production for EMI. In April 1971 Cohen was appointed managing director of EMI-MGM, a new company formed to make international films.[16] He was also put in charge of Anglo-EMI Film Distributors, Anglo-EMI Films, and Anglo Southern Film Music Publishing.

By 1973 the British film industry was in crisis, due to a combination of declining audiences, a weak dollar and lack of overseas investment. Anglo-EMI was the biggest studio operating in the country and was dubbed "Britain's one man film industry."[17] Cohen was described as:

The most powerful man in the British film industry and almost the final arbiter of film taste in this country. No single man in Hollywood at its zenith held as much power. Nat Cohen not only finances productions but also distributes and exhibits. One American producer cracked that that he wouldn't be surprised if Cohen didn't also own the popcorn concessions.[2]

That year Cohen estimated he was involved in 70% of films made in Britain that year; other figures put this at 50%. He also claimed that 95% of the films he had been involved with had made money. "It's bad for the film industry that I'm the only man making films," he said. "Because of this I don't really enjoy my power. I need competition and it's important there's competition if the industry is to survive."[2]

Cohen however was bullish about the British industry's chances.

I can tell you there are still wonderful opportunities in the film industry, good and wonderful opportunities... a good film is doing better than ever before. A lot of people who complain about the industry don't have their feet on the ground. Look at their track records. They're not very good. The industry still has life. There's gold in them thar hills I tell you.[17]

During this time Cohen commissioned two short films from director Alan Parker who later wrote of Cohen:

Nat Cohen was an avuncular, vulgar man with a shifty, pencil thin moustache who looked more like a Soho strip club spiv than a film mogul. His lowbrow taste in film production had secured him a sizeable wallet and hence his puffed–up position running EMI. No one could remember any films he’d made except that they’d apparently made a ton of money — one of his racehorses had even won the 1962 Grand National. He drove up and down Wardour Street in a cream Rolls Royce with a number plate that said Nat 1 (just to rub it in the noses of all of us snobby and opinionated film industry oiks who were less than enamored by him) to emphasize just who actually was the smart one.[18]

Cohen's best known and most successful film from this period was Murder On the Orient Express (1974), which Cohen says was his idea.[19] This enabled Cohen to fund a slate of six new films worth £6 million: Evil Under the Sun (later made in 1982), Aces High Seven Nights in Japan, and Spanish Fly, plus two adaptations of TV shows, The Likely Lads and The Sweeney .[20][21] Eventually To the Devil, a Daughter was made instead of Evil Under the Sun.

In 1976 EMI bought out British Lion and their management wound up running EMI.[22][23] Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings became managing directors of EMI while Cohen became executive chairman.[24] He retired from this position at the end of 1977 to become a consultant.[25]

Cohen stayed at EMI for a number of more years, a period he described as "an awkward stage... not quite sure where I was supposed to be; and rarely finding people available when I wanted to consult them. A delicate situation."[26] During this time EMI made some expensive failures including Honky Tonk Freeway and Can't Stop the Music, none of which involved Cohen. "I suppose you could sum it up this way," he said later, "I was very fortunate that as these costly deals were being made, I seemed to be losing control of picture making in the company."[26] Michael Deeley however claimed that Cohen committed $1 million of EMI's money for the flop Roar.[27]

Race horse owner[edit]

With the success of his film company, Cohen was able to become a race horse owner. His blue colours with white diamond, hooped sleeves and amber cap were carried to victory by Kilmore in the 1962 Grand National.[1][28][29] He also owned the champion horse Anglo.[30]

Personal life[edit]

Cohen died in hospital in February 1988 after suffering a heart attack. He was predeceased by a wife and a daughter who both died of cancer; he was survived by another daughter.[31]

Appraisal[edit]

In 1974 a profile of Cohen described him as:

A more urbane version of the one-man-bands who used to boss the studios in Hollywood's heyday of the movie moguls. An impresario, a bon vivant, a racehorse owner with many winds in his stable, he applies the lessons of the turf to the film industry when he affirms that 'there is no such thing as playing safe' and describes himself as 'a gambler, but an extremely cautious one. Never reckless. I gamble when the odds are in my favour, not simply on hunches. I back judgement, not luck. But, ultimately, gamble I've got to... when the proposition has merit, I put it into effect without delay. I made the decision on a combination of the project and the individual who brings it to me.'[32]

Another 1971 article called him "a natty, cool, watchful man he does not admit to, and has never admitted to a crisis in the British film industry."[33]

Cohen said of himself:

Making films is no different from the manufacture of shoes or any other product... My job is to entertain the public and if I can commercialism and art, all the better. But I have to remember they have other means of entertainment and a limited amount of money... Films are a pure gamble and I always try to bet with the odds in my favour. It's not so much the film one gambles on as the people making it.[2]

Filmography[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c William D. Rubinstein, et al (eds.) The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p.171
  2. ^ a b c d e NAT KING COHEN: To the cinema-going public he is the name at the start of the credits, But to the industry he is a dominant force in production, dustribution, and exhibition Murari, Tim. The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 17 Nov 1973: 9.
  3. ^ a b "Nat Cohen." Times [London, England] 11 Feb. 1988: 14. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.
  4. ^ A mogul's farewell Pulleine, Tim. The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 11 Feb 1988: 12.
  5. ^ "Better Than Ever." Financial Times [London, England] 26 Nov. 1969: 16. The Financial Times Historical Archive, 1888-2010. Web. 13 July 2014.
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ The Cinema Tycoons. The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday, January 10, 1960; pg. 9; Issue 7130. (2313 words)
  8. ^ Anglo Amalgamated Productions at Screenonline
  9. ^ "Business Appointments." Times [London, England] 28 Mar. 1969: 27. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.
  10. ^ a b Shot in Arm for British Film Industry Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 29 Nov 1969: a9.
  11. ^ ECONOMY: Ease the squeeze now please The Observer (1901- 2003) [London (UK)] 30 Nov 1969: 18.
  12. ^ Walker 1985 p 114
  13. ^ "BUSINESS diary." Times [London, England] 28 Mar. 1969: 31. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.
  14. ^ City comment: Soon the darkness The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 08 Mar 1971: 12.
  15. ^ The eclipse of the moon man Malcom, Derek. The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 26 Mar 1971: 15.
  16. ^ M-G-M Forms World Unit New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 22 Apr 1971: 67.
  17. ^ a b Blundy, David. "Ooh, you are awful, film men tell Tories." Sunday Times [London, England] 16 Dec. 1973: 5. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
  18. ^ Alan Parker, "Our Cissy and Footseps, Alanparker.com accessed 12 March 2015
  19. ^ Walker 1985 p 129
  20. ^ Walker 1985 p 141
  21. ^ The great movie money show. Michael Pye. The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday, July 13, 1975; pg. 47; Issue 7935. (966 words)
  22. ^ Acquisition of B Lion The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 19 May 1976: 18.
  23. ^ Boost for studios The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 09 July 1975: 5.
  24. ^ The final fade-out for British Lion Barker, Dennis. The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 14 May 1977: 2.
  25. ^ FILM CLIPS: 'The Body Snatchers' Moves Up Kilday, Gregg. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 22 Oct 1977: c11.
  26. ^ a b Walker 1985 p 207
  27. ^ Michael Deeley Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: My Life in Cult Movies, Pegasus Books 2009, p 142
  28. ^ Kilmore sold to film producer The Irish Times (1921-Current File) [Dublin, Ireland] 25 Feb 1961: 3.
  29. ^ [2] Findon Village; The Kilmore club
  30. ^ Carry on Anglo Malcolm, Derek. The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 28 Mar 1966: 7.
  31. ^ British film producer Nat Cohen Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 11 Feb 1988: B20.
  32. ^ Walker p 111
  33. ^ People. Peter Lennon. The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday, April 11, 1971; pg. 24; Issue 7714. (915 words)
  • Walker, Alexander, Hollywood England Stein and Day, 1974
  • Walker, Alexander, National Heroes, Harrap, 1985

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