Nat Cohen (23 December 1905 – 10 February 1988) 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.
Cohen was the son of a kosher butcher from the east end of London who was president of the Jubilee Street synagogue. 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 LCV[clarification needed] school and then joined his father's business.
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 regions. 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.
Anglo-Amalgamated began to produce half hour featurettes at a cost of £10,000 then moved into features. Their early films included Ghost Ship (1952), Crow Hollow (1952), and Wide Boy (1952). They started to make films with American stars such as Street of Shadows (1953) which had Cesar Romero. They also had success with comedies such as Glad Tidings (1953).
Cohen's first film of note was The Sleeping Tiger (1954), starring Alexis Smith and Dirk Bogarde, and directed by Joseph Losey, an American expatriate making the first of many movies in Britain. Cat Girl (1957) began relationship between Anglo-Amalgamated and American International Pictures. The relationship with AIP resulted in Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Circus of Horrors (1960), and Konga (1961).
For the company, he produced Peeping Tom and The Criminal (both 1960), the former, now highly regarded, was badly received 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.
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. 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.
|"We now have a great opportunity for British productions by British people", said Cohen.
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. 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
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. 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." 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.
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."
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.
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.
Cohen financed key films in the career of David Putnam, That'll be the Day and Stardust. Puttnam said Cohen would "work out what his downside risk was, the most he would lose, so consequently he would never turn down a project that was remotely interesting." He said Cohen would routinely offer to pay part of the budget, meaning producers had to get the rest.
Puttnam's then-producing partner Sandy Lieberson later said, "He gave us a blank cheque in effect, but always kept the reins on. The man had a real flair for movies and was such an underrated figure in the British film industry in the sixties and seventies, probably the most underrated. He made a tremendous contribution... He backed people. If he liked you, he'd back you.He hated failure, that was one thing he couldn't stand to be associated with."
Cohen's best known and most successful film from this period was Murder On the Orient Express (1974), which Cohen said was his idea. 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 . Eventually To the Devil, a Daughter was made instead of Evil Under the Sun (which was filmed in 1982).
EMI Changes Management
In 1976, EMI bought out British Lion and their management wound up running EMI. Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings became managing directors of EMI Films while Cohen became executive chairman. He retired from this position at the end of 1977 to become a consultant.
Cohen stayed at EMI for several 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." 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." Michael Deeley, however, claimed that Cohen committed $1 million of EMI's money for the flop Roar. Deeley said Cohen was "quite a different" type of executive to him and Spikings. "His style was defined by great lies", according to Deeley.
With the success of his film company, Cohen was able to become a racehorse owner. His blue colours with white diamond, hooped sleeves and amber cap were carried to victory by Kilmore in the 1962 Grand National.
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.
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.'
|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."
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.
- Murder at the Windmill (1949) – producer
- Shooting Stars (1950) (documentary) – producer
- Miss Pilgrim's Progress (1950) – producer
- Ghost Ship (1952) – executive producer
- Sport and Speed (1952) (documentary) – producer
- Crow Hollow (1952) – executive producer
- Wide Boy (1952) – producer
- The Dark Stairway (1953) – executive producer
- Street of Shadows (1953) – executive producer
- The Drayton Case (1953) – producer
- Glad Tidings! (1953) – executive producer
- Radio Cab Murder (1954) – executive producer
- The Sleeping Tiger (1954) – executive producer
- Escapement (1957) – executive producer
- Cat Girl (1957) – executive producer
- The Tommy Steele Story (1957) – executive producer
- The 6.5 Special (1958) – executive producer
- The Duke Wore Jeans (1958) – producer
- Carry On Sergeant (1958) – executive producer
- Female Fiends (1958) – executive producer
- Carry On Nurse (1959) – executive producer
- Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) – executive producer
- Peeping Tom (1960) – executive producer
- Circus of Horrors (1960) – executive producer
- A Christmas Carol (1960) – executive producer
- The Criminal (1960) aka The Concrete Jungle – executive producer
- Konga (1961) – executive producer
- Payroll (1961) – executive producer
- A Kind of Loving (1961) – executive producer
- Dentist on the Job (1961) – executive producer
- Carry On Cabby (1963) – executive producer
- Billy Liar! (1963) – executive producer
- Carry on Jack (1963) – executive producer
- Nothing But the Best (1964) – executive producer
- Carry on Spying (1964) – executive producer
- The Masque of the Red Death (1964) – executive producer
- Carry on Spying (1964) – executive producer
- I've Gotta Horse (1964) – executive producer
- Gonks Go Beat (1964) – executive producer
- Three Hats for Lisa (1964) – executive producer
- The Tomb of Ligeia (1965) – executive producer
- City in the Sea (1965) – executive producer
- Catch Us If You Can (1965) – executive producer
- The Big Job (1965) – executive producer
- Carry on Cleo (1965) – executive producer
- Those Fantastic Flying Fools (1967) – executive producer
- Poor Cow (1967) – executive producer
- Shalako (1968) – executive producer
- Lock Up Your Daughters (1969) – executive producer
- The Year of Sir Ivor (1969) – executive producer
- All Neat in Black Stockings (1969) – executive producer
- The Body (1970) – executive producer
- The Chastity Belt (1971) – executive producer
- Up Pompeii (1971) – executive producer
- Villain (1971) – executive producer
- Up the Chastity Belt (1971) – executive producer
- Family Life (1971) – executive producer
- Percy (1971) – executive producer
- City Beneath the Sea (1971) – executive producer
- The Go-Between (1971) – executive producer
- Fear in the Night (1972) – executive producer
- A Time for Loving (1972) – executive producer
- Straight on Till Morning (1972) – executive producer
- Up the Front (1972) – executive producer
- Demons of the Mind (1972) – executive producer
- Our Miss Fred (1972) – executive producer
- Made (1972) – executive producer
- That'll Be the Day (1973) – executive producer
- Our Cissy (1973) (short) – executive producer
- Footsteps (1973) (short) – executive producer
- Steptoe and Son (1973) – executive producer
- Love Thy Neighbour (1973) – executive producer
- Steptoe and Son Ride Again (1973) – executive producer
- Holiday on the Buses (1973) – executive producer
- The Final Programme (1973) – executive producer
- The House in Nightmare Park (1973) – executive producer
- Man at the Top (1973) – executive producer
- Swallows and Amazons (1974) – executive producer
- Take Me High (1974) – executive producer
- It's Not the Size That Counts (1974) – executive producer
- Stardust (1974) – executive producer
- The Dove (1974) – executive producer
- Murder on the Orient Express (1974) – executive producer
- All Creatures Great and Small (1975) – executive producer
- Alfie Darling (1975) – executive producer
- A Boy and His Dog (1975) – executive producer
- Spanish Fly (1976) – executive producer
- Aces High (1976) – executive producer
- Seven Nights in Japan (1976) – executive producer
- It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet (1976) – executive producer
- The Likely Lads (1976) – executive producer
- Are You Being Served? (1977) – executive producer
- Sweeney! (1977) – executive producer
- Death on the Nile (1978) – executive producer
- Clockwise (1986) – executive producer
- William D. Rubinstein, et al (eds.) The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p.171
- Murari, Tim (17 November 1973). "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". The Guardian. p. 9.
- "Nat Cohen". The Times. London. 11 February 1988. p. 14 – via The Times Digital Archive.
- Pulleine, Tim (11 February 1988). "A mogul's farewell". The Guardian. p. 12.
- ""Better Than Ever."". Financial Times. London. 26 November 1969. p. 16.
- "The Cinema Tycoons". The Sunday Times (7130). London. 10 January 1960. p. 9.
- Anglo Amalgamated Productions at Screenonline
- "A.B. Pictures Acquire 50% Of Anglo Amalgamated". The Times (55358). London. 5 April 1962. p. 21.
- "Business Appointments". The Times. London. 28 March 1969. p. 27 – via The Times Digital Archive.
- "Shot in Arm for British Film Industry". Los Angeles Times. 29 November 1969. p. a9.
- "ECONOMY: Ease the squeeze now please". The Observer. London (UK). 30 November 1969. p. 18.
- "Walker 1985 p 114".
- "BUSINESS diary". The Times. London. 28 March 1969. p. 31 – via The Times Digital Archive.
- "City comment: Soon the darkness". The Guardian. 8 March 1971. p. 12.
- Malcom, Derek (26 March 1971). "The eclipse of the moon man". The Guardian. London. p. 15.
- "M-G-M Forms World Unit". New York Times. 22 April 1971. p. 67.
- Blundy, David (16 December 1973). "Ooh, you are awful, film men tell Tories". Sunday Times. London. p. 5. Retrieved 29 March 2014 – via The Sunday Times Digital Archive.
- Alan Parker. "Our Cissy and Footseps". Alanparker.com. Retrieved 12 March 2015.
- Yule, Andrew (1989). Enigma : David Puttnam, the story so far ... Sphere Books. p. 90.
- Walker 1985 p 129
- "Walker 1985 p 141".
- Michael Pye (13 July 1975). "The great movie money show". The Sunday Times (7935). London. p. 47.
- "Acquisition of B Lion". The Guardian. 19 May 1976. p. 18.
- "Boost for studios". The Guardian. London. 9 July 1975. p. 5.
- Barker, Dennis (14 May 1977). "The final fade-out for British Lion". The Guardian. London. p. 2.
- Kilday, Gregg (22 October 1977). "FILM CLIPS: 'The Body Snatchers' Moves Up". Los Angeles Times. p. c11.
- Walker 1985 p 207
- Michael Deeley Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: My Life in Cult Movies, Pegasus Books 2009, p 142
- p 114
- "Kilmore sold to film producer". The Irish Times. 25 February 1961. p. 3.
-  Findon Village; The Kilmore club
- "British film producer Nat Cohen". Chicago Tribune. 11 February 1988. p. B20.
- "Walker p 111".
- Peter Lennon. (11 April 1971). "People". The Sunday Times (7714). London. p. 24.
- Walker, Alexander, Hollywood England Stein and Day, 1974
- Walker, Alexander, National Heroes, Harrap, 1985