Whatever happened to Polygram Pictures?

Polygram Filmed Entertainment
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It gave the big US studios a run for their money for nearly 20 years – but what happened to Polygram Pictures?


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Polygram Pictures was founded 40 years ago as a partnership with film producer Peter Guber. A few years later, PolyGram Video was launched, headed by Michael Kuhn and David Hockman. It was designed by its parent company, Dutch music giant PolyGram, to take advantage of the growing home video market and also to take on the US film studios at their own game by creating a European version of one of the big US movie companies.

Its first big hit was John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London, which was a co-production with Universal Pictures. Costing just under $6m, it took $62m worldwide and meant that Polygram Filmed Entertainment (PFE) had arrived – but it had quite a story ahead of it.

I spoke to its former head Michael Kuhn, who filled us in on the gensis of Polygram Filmed Entertainment and how he ended up running it.

Origin Story

As it turned out, it was a slightly circuitous path, although considering that Guber used to be Barbara Streisand’s hairdresser, perhaps that’s in keeping with its history.

“I started off in Polygram as a lawyer, climbing the management ladder, and through various circumstances ended up on the board of Polygram,” Kuhn recalls. “After a terrible recession, we had an incredible boom with the launch of CD audio as a new format, and the company had tremendous success, mainly because you could really use your old catalogue to increase prices without having to pay any more royalties to the artists. So it meant a huge inflow of cash.”

“The thing that occurred to us was that there would come a point in time when everyone had replaced their old catalogue with new CDs. And then what would be the follow-up act? By then we were a public company, so there had to be a plan of what to do next. So I proposed we should think about getting into film.”


Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian’s film critic, recalls the importance of Polygram Filmed Entertainment. It was really quite straightforward. “PFE was important because it symbolised a new determination here that British production companies could develop movies that would sell well in the United States. The ‘hands off’ approach would allow these modestly budgeted movies to be the quirky, individualist pieces of work that US audiences – or at least US critics – professed to adore and could be profitable.”

“I remember attending a lavish lunch hosted by PFE in Cannes in 1999 – ironically at the end of its existence – to boost Working Title Pictures and its imminent release of Notting Hill. The feeling was that although PFE was through, the 2000s would be a new age of smart Brit features doing well in Hollywood,” he added.

But then Polygram was different to other UK and European film companies, because thanks to its eclectic approach – releasing both indie films and more mainstream titles – it was able to compete with the big US studios. It also acted as an umbrella company, commissioning from a variety of different companies that sat under the Polygram name.

It was this eclecticism that former Empire editor Ian Nathan sees as making it hard to pin down why Polygram was so significant.

Four Weddings And A Funeral

Four Weddings And A Funeral

Four Weddings And A Funeral was its main success. It was quite schizophrenic as a company, but there was certainly a through line of cool. I think it all came quite nobly from this democratic approach to greenlighting film. The way it was set up had come out of the music business and come out of the video business as well. It had moved from the hardware to the software, which made it less traditional than the old studio models that were always hierarchy based. In the end, it comes down to one, two or three people saying yes or no. And I’m not sure that was necessarily the case with Polygram as a whole.”

Geoffrey McNab’s book Stairways To Heaven, about British film, devoted an entire chapter to Polygram. Polygram’s head of international distribution had this to say about the company within it, with Stewart Till talking about how Polygram made distribution “sexy and interesting” at a time when it was “looked down on as a necessary evil,” a process you had to go through to “get the film out there” but without the “glamour or prestige of production.”

Till explained to us how he fitted into the company when we spoke to him. “Michael acquired a couple of production companies, Working Title and Propaganda, out in LA, and a sales company. He was investing in film and selling on the rights. So that’s being in the business, but not really enjoying the benefits of any film’s success. So having done that for a couple of years he persuaded the Polygram board that it was time to to upgrade, and the plan was he was going to move to Los Angeles and bring someone in London to run international.”


That someone in London became Stewart Till. Polygram had deeper pockets than its predecessors in UK film, as Kuhn explained. “That had been the problem with companies like Goldcrest, which never had enough money to see them through the rocky bits that you have in film. But I definitely felt we had enough money in Polygram, which we did.”

It was also a good time in UK film generally, thanks to the emergence of something new, Kuhn pointed out. “At that time, it was the beginning of home video, and home video accounted for about 50 percent of revenue. So that was a very lucky time and you were in control, especially if you were a record company, because a record company’s business was making, selling and distributing bits of plastic. So with great ease, we could just slip into distributing different sorts of bits of plastic.”

Polygram became well known as a place where newer filmmakers could get noticed, and this just happened organically. “You have to remember that at this time, there was no one whose door you could knock on in London and get an answer. ‘Yes, you can make this film,’ whether the budget is $10m or $50m. And that was a big, new thing at Polygram. So that naturally attracted people who might otherwise have run off to Hollywood,” Kuhn pointed out proudly.

When we asked him if could pick one film that he was most proud of from his time heading it up, it was a question he couldn’t definitively answer without qualifying it. “No, not really, because you have to say what sort of film. If you’re talking about huge commercial success, then it’s obviously Four Weddings And A Funeral. If you’re talking about remarkably creative films, it’s probably Fargo. The one thing you could also say about Polygram is that all of our films had a European vibe to them. They weren’t Marvel films. I’m not saying anything derogatory about Marvel films, but they weren’t what we did well in Europe or this country,” he explained.


Polygram lasted from 1980 until the early 2000s, responsible for some of the most memorable UK and US indie films of that period. But what caused the company’s downfall?

For Kuhn, its demise was easy to explain. “It was a very simple thing. Polygram was owned by Philips in Holland and it never felt comfortable being in the content business as opposed to consumer electronics and so it wanted to exit that. At the time, we thought ‘oh that’s fair enough, we’ll find a buyer and maybe set up a huge, new conglomerate for Europe involving Canal Plus or any number of things.’ But it went behind out backs and sold the company to Seagram. And that was it.”

40 years since it started and nearly 20 years since it was wrapped up, Polygram Filmed Entertainment still leaves a huge legacy. Working with the finests actors, directors and producers for the UK, US and Europe, and kickstarting the careers of people like Danny Boyle, Vin Diesel and Spike Jonze is a pretty impressive calling card to leave. It was designed to give the big US studios a run for their money, and for just over 20 years it did exactly that.

The indie films that we watch now, either on the big screen or increasingly on our TVs through streaming services, owe a huge debt to the work of Michael Kuhn, Stewart Till and Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

British and European cinema was never the same again.

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