EMI Films

EMI Films was a British film studio and distributor. A subsidiary of the EMI conglomerate, the name was not used throughout the entire period of EMI's involvement in the film industry, from 1969 to 1986, but the company's brief connection with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Anglo-EMI, the division under Nat Cohen, and the later company as part of the Thorn EMI conglomerate (following the merger with Thorn) are discussed here.


Headed by Bryan Forbes

The company was formed after the takeover of Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) in 1969 by EMI, following the acquisition of Warner Bros. shares in ABPC the previous year.[1] At the time ABPC owned 270 ABC Cinemas, a half share in ITV contractor Thames Television, Elstree Studios at Shenley Road, and had recently bought Anglo-Amalgamated, a film studio in which Nat Cohen had been a partner.

EMI moved into film production with the foundation of a new company, EMI-Elstree. Bernard Delfont appointed writer-director Bryan Forbes head of production at Elstree in April 1969 for three years at £40,000 a year, plus a percentage of the profits.[2][3] As part of the general shake up of EMI, Nat Cohen was appointed to the Board.[4]

EMI announced they would make 28 films for $36 million - 13 of these would be from Cohen's unit for £7 million,[5] the rest from Forbes'. Bernard Delfont called it "probably the most ambitious program ever undertaken by a British film company."[6]

Forbes announced his intention to make a variety of films at Elstree, steering away from what he called the "pornography of violence."[7][8] He claimed EMI would make 14 films in 18 months with such stars as Peter Sellers and Roger Moore at a cost of £5-10 million pounds in total.[9] His aim was to keep budgets down and create a varied slate which would increase the chances of appealing to audiences and making a sufficient return to continue productions.[10]

Forbes soon announced his slate of projects including Hoffmann (with Peter Sellers), The Go-Between, The Breaking of Bumbo, The Feathers of Death (directed by Richard Attenborough from a story by Simon Raven), a script by Richard Condon, The Railway Children, A Fine and Private Place, Dulcima and Forbrush and the Penguins.[11][12]

However, the first few films of Forbes' regime actually performed poorly commercially: Hoffman, And Soon the Darkness and The Man Who Haunted Himself (starring Moore), with only The Railway Children making money.[13] This continued and Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971) was Forbes' only other hit.

The company was affected with labour problems and Forbes felt as though he did not have support of the EMI board, arguing he never had the funds to market his films, in contrast with those available to Anglo-EMI headed by Nat Cohen.

In addition, there were some expensive failures on EMI's slate, such as Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (1971) and the abandoned A Fine and Private Place. Forbes clashed with Bernard Delfont and their American backers, in this case Columbia, over the artistic and commercial value of director Joseph Losey's film The Go-Between (1970).

Forbes resigned in March 1971,[14] after committing himself to a no-redundancy policy.[15] He had made eleven films in total for an estimated cost of £4 million.[16] Although Forbes' regime was seen at the time to have been a commercial failure, he later claimed that by 1993 his £4 million program of films had eventually brought EMI a profit of £16 million.[17]

Unmade Films

Among the films Forbes wished to make but was unable to during his time at Elstree were adaptations of The Living Room, the play by Graham Greene to be directed by Michael Powell;[18] Feathers of Death from the Simon Raven novel to be directed by Richard Attenborough;[19] a musical about the Bernado Boys;[20] and The Loud, Loud Silence a post-apocalyptic story from Richard Condon. He turned down Ned Kelly (1970) because its projected budget was too high.


In April 1970 EMI struck up a co-production agreement with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Hollywood studio announced they would sell their British studios at Borehamwood and move their equipment to EMI's Elstree studio. MGM and EMI would then distribute and produce films in co-operation through a joint venture to be called MGM-EMI.[21] and MGM began to finance some of EMI's productions.[15] EMI's studio complex was renamed EMI-MGM Elstree Studios[22] while a film distribution company MGM-EMI Distributors Ltd. was formed as part of the co-production agreement. This company, headed by Mike Havas would handle domestic distribution of MGM and EMI-produced films in the United Kingdom.

It was originally announced that MGM-EMI would make six to eight films a year, but they ended up producing far fewer.[23] Forbes was given the title of managing director of MGM-EMI[24] to add to his existing title of head of production.

MGM pulled out of the amalgamation in 1973, and became a member of CIC, which took over international distribution of MGM produced films. At this point the distribution company became EMI Film Distributors Ltd., and EMI-MGM Elstree Studios reverted to EMI-Elstree Studios.[22]

Nat Cohen

EMI had another filmmaking division, Anglo-EMI Film Distributors Ltd, which had come out of Anglo-Amalgamated and was run autonomously by Nat Cohen. This wing of the company had released films such as Percy (1971). They also financed and distributed a series of films made by Hammer Film Productions, which partly came about through Bernard Delfont's friendship with James Carreras.

Nat Cohen had taken over Forbes' responsibilities as head of production after his resignation in 1971.[25] Cohen backed productions intended for international success, and EMI had a more obviously commercial outlook.

Cohen was responsible for overseeing about 70% of the films produced in the UK during 1973, following a significant decline in domestic projects. In particular, long-term duopoly rival Rank had by now greatly reduced its own investment in British film production to a token presence,[25] Cohen was not unaware of the problems inherent in his dominant position.[26] Meanwhile, dependent on support from the most profitable parts of EMI, the company's financial position meant that they had to avoid backing any risky productions.[21]

In May 1973, Cohen announced a £3 million production slate of movies including an adaptation of Swallows and Amazons and a sequel to Alfie.[27]

The greatest success of Cohen's regime was Murder on the Orient Express (1974), which Cohen later claimed was the first British movie fully financed by a British company to reach the top of the American box office charts.[28][29]

In July 1975, Cohen announced a £6 million programme of new films, including Seven Nights in Japan and To the Devil a Daughter (both 1976).[30][31] These were not particularly successful.

Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings

In 1976, the company merged with British Lion Films and the two men who ran British Lion, Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings, took over management, rejuvenating the film production arm.[32]

Deeley and Spiking's method was to only make a film if at least half the budget was put up by an American studio, reducing their financial risk although making the studio's product less obviously British.[33] They focused on movies with international appeal - i.e. action films - and big stars.[34]

EMI helped finance a series of popular films, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The Deer Hunter, Death on the Nile and Convoy (all 1978), as well as some American TV movies like Deadman's Curve and The Amazing Howard Hughes with Roger Gimbel Productions. EMI backed out of funding Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) at the last moment, after Bernard Delfont read the script.

Michael Deeley left EMI in 1979 but Barry Spikings remained in charge of film production. Delfont created a new company, Associated Film Distribution, to distribute films of EMI and ITC Entertainment, then controlled by Lew Grade, his brother.[35] This move proved to be financially unsuccessful as EMI suffered a number of box office failures, in particular Can't Stop the Music (1980) and Honky Tonk Freeway (1981).


In the early-1980s, the film division was renamed Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment, to reflect EMI's merger with Thorn Electrical Industries to become Thorn EMI in 1979. In January 1983 Barry Spikings left the company and Verity Lambert was appointed head of production. Gary Dartnall became executive chairman.

In December 1984 Thorn EMI offered investors the chance to invest in several films by issuing £36 million worth of shares. The films were A Passage to India (1984), Morons from Outer Space, Dreamchild, Wild Geese II and The Holcroft Covenant[36] (all 1985).

Lambert resigned in July 1985. After this TESE wound down its in-house production arm and relied on films from independent outfits.[37]


Thorn EMI later sold its film & film distribution (Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment), home video (Thorn EMI Video), and cinema (ABC Cinemas) operations to businessman Alan Bond in April 1986. Bond, in turn, sold it to The Cannon Group a week later.[38] A year after the purchase, a cash-strapped Cannon sold the film library to Weintraub Entertainment Group.[39]

The library ended up in the hands of several companies over the years and is now owned by StudioCanal, a sister company to Universal Music Group who acquired EMI in 2012, via parent company Canal+ Group's acquisition of European cinema operator UGC who acquired the library's then-owner, the United Kingdom-based Lumiere Pictures and Television in 1996. EMI Films also owned Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England; in turn, Cannon ended up purchasing the studio as well, but later sold it to Brent Walker Group plc in 1988.[38]

Select filmography

EMI financed films under a variety of corporate names and with a series of production partners. Below are the main ones:


  1. Warren, Patricia (2001). British Film Studios: An Illustrated History. London: B. T. Batsford. p. 75.
  2. Forbes, p 62
  3. Pearson, Kenneth. "The Great Film Gamble." Sunday Times [London, England] 13 Apr. 1969: 53. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
  4. "BUSINESS diary." Times [London, England] 9 Apr. 1969: 23. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.
  5. ECONOMY: Ease the squeeze now please The Observer (1901- 2003) [London (UK)] 30 Nov 1969: 18.
  6. Shot in Arm for British Film Industry Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 29 Nov 1969: a9.
  7. Dennis Barker, 'Parable of talent: DENNIS BARKER interviews Bryan Forbes', The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 9 August 1969: 6.
  8. Walker, 1974, p.426-428
  9. 'Britain steps back into cinema's big league', The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)], 13 August 1969, p.5
  10. John Heilpern "The End: In the Last Fifteen Years the British Cinema Has Lost Four-Fifths of its Audience. Today Half of the Industry'sTechnicians Are Out of Work", The Observer (London), 28 June 1970, p.9
  11. In the Picture Sight and Sound38.4 (Fall 1969): 181.
  12. City comment: Soon the darkness The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 08 Mar 1971: 12.
  13. "Forbes Quits as Flstree's Film Chief", Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 26 Mar 1971: e15.
  14. 1 2 Brian McFarlane (ed.) The Encyclopedia of British Film, London: Methuen/BFI, 2003, p.203
  15. Walker, 1985, p 114
  16. Forbes, p.108
  17. Forbes, p.102
  18. Forbes, p.103
  19. Pearson, Kenneth. "News in the Arts." Sunday Times [London, England] 4 Apr. 1971: 37. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
  20. 1 2 Sian Barber The British Film Industry in the 1970s: Capital, Culture and Creativity, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p.47
  21. 1 2 Patricia Warren British Film Studios: An Illustrated History, London: B.T Batsford, 2001, p.76
  22. "MGM to Close, Down English Film Facility", Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif], 25 April 1970: p.a6
  23. Gary Arnold, 'Spectrum Of Interest: Film Notes',The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973) [Washington, D.C] 15 July 1970, p.B5
  24. 1 2 Sue Harper Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, London & New York: Continuum, 2000, p.128
  25. Barber, p.48
  26. "News in Brief." Times [London, England] 9 May 1973: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.
  27. "'Murder on the Orient Express' tops US charts." Times [London, England] 11 Feb. 1975: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.
  28. EMI Films at BFI Screenonline
  29. Walker, 1985 p141
  30. "News in Brief." Times [London, England] 9 July 1975: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.
  31. Mills, Bart. "British money is suddenly big in Hollywood,'right up with Fox and Warner." The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 02 Sep 1977: 8.
  32. Michael Deeley, Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: My Life in Cult Movies, Pegasus Books, 2009, p. 128-199
  33. If a Movie Goes in America, Will Rest of World Buy It?: E.M.I. Films Chief Says Answer Depends Upon Motion and Stars By ALJEAN HARMETZ Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 01 Aug 1977: 34.
  34. FILM CLIPS: A New Dimension for a Brother Act Kilday, Gregg. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 28 October 1978: b11.
  35. Walker 1985 p286
  36. Walker, 1985, p35-36
  37. 1 2 http://www.terramedia.co.uk/media/film/vertical_integration.htm
  38. http://articles.latimes.com/1987-08-07/business/fi-1232_1_cannon-group

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