What Hollywood Owes to Oxford

Starting as a way for two guys to stay in school in the ’70s, the Oxford Film Society has yielded stars, Oscars and hit films and filmmakers

It’s hard to think of a more disparate connection than Tinsel Town and the ancient college on the Thames, Oxford University. But believe it or not, there is one, a quarter-century old, that has yielded numerous stars, Academy Awards, hit films and hit-film makers. And I have some little personal knowledge.

Now, this goes back till the baby boomers were all still in college. While I was studying in New York, my friend Billy Levy headed off to Oxford, the ancient market town that, since the Dark Ages, had been home to a number of colleges that collected themselves into what we know as Oxford. Of course, in those days they were more interested in studying Latin or Greek than Hollywood, but that would, 800 years later, change.
Not without some trial and tribulation, naturally — as Bill explained, in the 1200s, merchants, angry at the haughty attitude of too many professors strolling around as though “entitled” in those hooded snuggies they wore to keep warm, descended on the colleges, killing students and professors and driving others off. Some fled 60 or so miles to the East and found a nice spot without an annoying town around it at the base of a bridge over the Cam River, which became England’s other great university, Cambridge.
For the hearty scholars who stayed at Oxford, however, fame and fortune soon arrived in the sons and daughters of the landed gentry and, eventually, their survival was assured.
Cut to the late 1970s — America is in crisis, there are no jobs for graduating college seniors. (And kids today think the economy is rough — try 19 percent inflation and 20 percent unemployment!)
I once asked my classmate, the legendary filmmaker Ric Burns, how he came to be a documentary maker. As he pointed out, he never planned it — with no jobs, he decided to take a Fulbright scholarship to Oxford and return three years later, hoping things would be better. With students from around the world — not to mention hot chicks, like the late Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, then a teenager driving an MG around the Bear pub looking for parties) what better place to ride out a recession?
Likewise, at the same time in the Midwest, a young farmboy named Michael Hoffman, and in Seattle, a young history student named Rick Stevenson, had similar ideas.
Ric was luckier — by the time his fellowship ran out, his brother Ken had started the New York film company where they would produce the legendary PBS series “Civil War” that changed the face of filmmaking.
Michael and Rick Stevenson, as they told me years later, weren’t so lucky. As their fellowships were about to expire, they still had no idea what they wanted to do, other than continue their idyllic lives as foreign students. How to find the money to stay?
As I understand it, they came up with a brilliant idea: bring stuffy old Oxford into the modern era! After all, how could it call itself a world-class University with no film program? And what did the English know about film — their last big hit had been “Lawrence of Arabia” two decades before?
Anyway, as I heard it, they came up with an idea to stay in Oxford — convince the ancient Dons of Oxford to put up $100,000 to finance something called the Oxford Film Society (later, the Oxford Film Company) to produce a film about rich kids at Oxford to be directed by, surprise, Michael Hoffman and produced by Rick Stevenson.
Ironic, isn’t it, how that all worked out. But the real irony was — they produced a hit!
The movie? “Privileged.” The star? A young Oxford actor named (at that time) “Hughie” Grant (later Hugh Grant). Their director of photography? A young Swiss student Uli Steiger (later DP of such giant films as “The Day After Tomorrow”).
Though shot for only the $100,000 they could promote from the Dons, Michael and Rick knew how to sell their film. With a full-page rave for “Privileged” from Time Magazine in 1982 (long before Sundance had become the launching pad for indie filmmakers), they were suddenly courted by everyone in the industry. Savvy Americans that they were, they decided to finance their next film, “Restless Natives,” by getting Marine Midland Bank to sponsor an “all-England script competition,” with the reward being … Michael Hoffman gets to direct your film and Rick Stevenson produces it!!!
By their third picture, Robert Redford of Sundance had discovered them and arranged the production of “Promised Land,” which added famed director Pier Paulo Pasolini’s production designer Eugenio Zanetti to their crew and starred Meg Ryan. They were off — the same team of Michael, Rick, Uli and Eugenio producing the lost MGM classic “Some Girls,” which started the career of “L.A .Law” beauty Sheila Kelley, revived that of Patrick “McDreamy” Dempsey and gave future Academy Award-winner (and Harvard student) Jennifer Connelly her first part.
Let’s see, so far they’d created Hugh Grant, Sheila Kelley and Jennifer Connelly.
Ultimately, the old crowd had to break up — Uli Steiger left to shoot Connelly in full frontal nudity in “Hot Spot,” I went on to hire Eugenio Zanetti for his first U.S. studio film, “Flatliners,” where he created an entire U.S. medical school on Stage 15 of Warner Bros. by vacuforming bricks. Later, our director, Joel Shumacher, took him on to his next picture, “Last Action Hero,” where as Eugenio teased me, his art department budget was larger than the entire budget of “Flatliners” ($15.9m)
On the other hand, “Flatliners” was the most profitable picture Columbia Pictures had in years; “Hero” the least profitable. Oh, well, Michael Hoffman went on to hire Eugenio back for ‘95s “Restoration,” for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, as he was for ‘97s “What Dreams May Come.” He won one of two — not a bad percentage, before moving on to directing.
Rick Stevenson — he went on to directing, too, and, I hear, has a film coming out this year.
All this comes to mind, of course, because of the Academy Awards — Michael’s newest film, “The Last Station,” a Tolstoy adaptation that has won numerous critical plaudits, including Academy nominations for Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, seems to be falling under the radar. Despite being described as “****Perfect” by no less a paper than the well-regarded New York Observer.
And that’s a shame. After all, if it weren’t for Michael and Rick and the Oxford Film Society, there would have been no Academy Awards for Jennifer Connelly and Eugenio Zanetti, no Brit film “revival” with “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “About a Boy” or “Love, Actually” (all starring “Hughie” Grant), no incredible shots of space aliens from “Independence Day” or moving glaciers from “The Day After Tomorrow.” Heck, there wouldn’t even have been Sheila Kelley, Elizabeth Hurley and/or, heck, “The Governator” in “Last Action Hero.”
And while you may not agree with all those choices, the old Oxford Film Society, which only existed in it’s original form for a brief period, seems to have as much or more effect on modern Hollywood than any group of filmmakers from America’s “Big Four” of film schools: Columbia (“The Hurt Lockers” Kathryn Bigelow; Jim Jarmush); NYU (Marty Scorcese); UCLA (Francis Ford Coppola) or USC (too numerous to mention.)
May the OFS rest in peace — and godspeed to Michael’s “The Last Station.”