Jake Eberts, producer of Oscar-winning films, dies at 71

September 8, 2012

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 Eberts.

During four decades in the movie 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 that presented compelling stories without gratuitous sex, car chases and violence.


Producer Jake Eberts poses for a portrait during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. (Matt Carr/GETTY IMAGES)

“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.”

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 political leader Mohandas K. Gandhi; and “The Killing Fields,” a gripping story about Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime told from the perspective of two journalists.

Director Richard Attenborough had tried to make “Gandhi” for 20 years until finally finding his angel in Mr. Eberts. The film won eight Oscars and launched the career of actor Ben Kingsley, who played Gandhi.

“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.’ ”

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 of dollars into some problem-plagued films, and was sold in 1987.

Mr. Eberts later 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.”

Mr. Eberts was born in Montreal on July 7, 1941. He trained as a chemical engineer at McGill University in Montreal and in 1966 earned an MBA from Harvard University. He worked on Wall Street for three years before joining an investment house in London in 1971.

In addition to his wife, survivors include three children.

During the past decade, Mr. Eberts 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.”

— Los Angeles Times

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