Obituary: Jake Eberts / Oscar-winning 'gentleman of Hollywood'
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Jake Eberts, the Canadian independent producer and founder of Britain's Goldcrest Films, which revived the British cinema industry in the 1980s with a string of Oscar-winning movies, including "Gandhi" and "Chariots of Fire," died Sept. 6 in Montreal. He was 71.
He was diagnosed in late 2010 with uveal melanoma, a rare cancer of the eye, which recently spread to his liver, said his wife, Fiona.
During four decades in the film business, Mr. Eberts financed or produced more than 50 films, including four that won Academy Awards for best picture: "Chariots of Fire" (1981), "Gandhi" (1982), "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989) and "Dances With Wolves" (1990).
He also produced "The Killing Fields" (1984), "City of Joy" (1992), "The Legend of Bagger Vance" (2000) and the ecological documentary "Oceans" (2009).
Mr. Eberts was known for his financing savvy and personal approach to moviemaking, backing projects that appealed to him on a deep emotional level and presenting compelling stories without gratuitous sex, car chases and violence.
"He was truly the gentleman of Hollywood," said Jim Berk, chief executive of Participant Media, which partnered with Mr. Eberts on "Oceans" and other projects.
"Jake's purpose in life was to try to create content that not only tells stories but leads to social awareness and people inspired to do things that are beyond the norm. So he would look for that. ... He had that special touch finding those stories."
Mr. Eberts was a struggling, 33-year-old investment banker in 1974 when he was approached to arrange the financing for an animated feature about a group of beleaguered rabbits. "Watership Down" (1978), based on the novel by Richard Adams, became a box-office and critical success and hooked Mr. Eberts on the movie business.
He formed Goldcrest Films in 1976 with backing from the British publishing giant Pearson. Goldcrest's first major success was "Chariots of Fire," the drama about two runners in the 1924 Olympic Games that was nominated for seven Oscars and won four.
In rapid succession Goldcrest produced "Gandhi," the epic about India's charismatic Mohandas K. Gandhi, the spiritual and political figure who led a historic campaign of nonviolent resistance against British colonial rule; and "The Killing Fields," a gripping story about Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime told from the perspective of two journalists.
"Films had to touch his heart," Fiona Eberts said of her husband on Friday. "He went by gut feeling on a lot of them, starting with 'Gandhi,' " which director Richard Attenborough had tried to make for 20 years until finally finding his angel in Mr. Eberts. The film won eight Oscars.
When Goldcrest came on the scene, the two major British studios, EMI and Rank, were in steep decline.
"Jake got on with the business of making big, popular movies," said Terry Illott, who covered the media business for the Financial Times and co-wrote a 1990 book with Mr. Eberts about Goldcrest's rise and fall called "My Indecision Is Final."
Mr. Eberts left Goldcrest in 1984 to work for Embassy Pictures but was lured back a few years later. The company was on the verge of collapse, having sunk millions into some problem-plagued films, including "Revolution," a sweeping 1985 drama about the American Revolution starring Al Pacino. Mr. Eberts was unable to avert disaster and the company was sold in 1987.
After leaving Goldcrest, Mr. Eberts founded Allied Filmmakers, an independent film development and production company based in London and Paris.
In the late 1980s he was approached by producers Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck, whose project about a crotchety spinster in Atlanta and her black chauffeur had been turned down by every major American studio. But Mr. Eberts liked the story and put up $3.25 million, which attracted an additional $4.5 million from Warner Bros. "Driving Miss Daisy" was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won four.
"Without Jake Eberts," Richard Zanuck told The New York Times in 1990, " 'Miss Daisy' would never have been made."
The son of an Alcan Aluminum executive, Mr. Eberts was born in Montreal on July 7, 1941. He trained as a chemical engineer at McGill University but found he wasn't very good at it. In 1966 he earned an MBA from Harvard University and worked on Wall Street for three years before joining an investment house in London in 1971.
During the past decade he began concentrating on developing nature-themed documentaries. He collaborated with National Geographic on several projects, including its upcoming theatrical release about nanotechnology, "Mysteries of the Unseen World."
"People wouldn't think of someone with a chemical engineering background to end up in the movie world," Mr. Eberts wrote in "My Indecision Is Final," "but life can take you down these wonderful paths."
First Published September 14, 2012 12:00 am