Close friend Denys Arcand told The Montreal Gazette that Eberts “felt that cinema should be used to better mankind … a lofty standard in an age where movies are being adapted from comic books.”
Added his wife and collaborator, producer Denise Robert: “He was such a smart and eloquent man, yet he was also such a humble man and such a generous man … he brought out the best in everybody.”
John David Eberts was born in Montreal on July 10, 1941, the third of six children born to Edmond Eberts and Elizabeth (Toppy) MacDougall, an anglophone, middle-class couple. When Eberts was four, his father’s job with the Aluminum Company of Canada shifted the family to Arvida, Que., a company town north of Quebec City built around Alcan’s aluminum smelter.
“I saw few films as a boy,” Eberts wrote in his 1990 memoir (co-written with journalist Terry Ilott) My Indecision is Final: The Rise and Fall of Goldcrest Films. Instead, he played sports and explored the lakes and mountains of the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region.
At 12, he began boarding at Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, near Sherbrooke, and from there went to McGill University. After graduating with a degree in chemical engineering in 1962, he worked in the Montreal office of L’Air Liquide, and was soon transferred to France, where he worked on the design of gas-liquefaction plants.
“Before I was 21,” he writes in My Indecision, I had been promoted to start-up engineer, responsible for putting those new plants into service,” and that included inspecting a new sewage system in Stockholm.
Bored by his job and its finite earning potential, he applied to Harvard Business School. He was “captivated by the world of balance sheets, leverage, leasing and venture capital,” but even though he graduated with a “good” MBA degree in 1966, he couldn’t find a job on Wall Street and ended up as a financial analyst with Cummins Engine Company, a diesel-engine manufacturer in Columbus, Ind. After one very humid summer, sweating through dinner every night with his boss and the man’s two unmarried daughters, the French-speaking Eberts escaped to Brussels as head of Cummins’ European marketing operation. That’s where he met British-born Fiona Leckie. They married in 1968, about the time he was finally offered a job on Wall Street with Laird Inc.
Raising a family in New York didn’t appeal, so they moved to London. He spent the early 1970s leapfrogging from one disastrous venture-capital scheme to the next, falling ever deeper into debt. He admitted to being “seriously depressed” in My Indecision, when a man named Dimitri de Gunzberg of Bankers Trust International approached him about an even more unlikely prospect: raising money for an animated film based on Richard Adams’s bestselling novel, Watership Down, about a group of rabbits, with their own mythology, language and culture, who seek a new home when their warren is overrun.
Why this venture worked when so many others had failed was due to a happy conjunction of Eberts’s natural talent for picking good stories and his dearly won financial acumen. It took three years to make the film, which was co-written, directed and produced by Martin Rosen, and featured the voices of John Hurt, Sir Ralph Richardson and Zero Mostel.
By 1977, Eberts had joined forces with film producer David Puttnam to form Goldcrest Films, an independent production company. Often credited in the British media with saving the local film industry, Goldcrest, with backing from the Pearson Publishing conglomerate, made more than a score of audience- and Oscar-pleasing films. One of their early successes was Chariots of Fire, the unlikely tale of two religiously observant British runners, Harold Abrahams, a Jew, and Eric Liddell, a Methodist, who competed in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Fiona Eberts thought the story sounded like a yawn when her husband first talked about the script, and admits she wasn’t much impressed with the film itself until they added the music, which “elevated” it to a “completely different category.” Chariots of Fire won four Academy awards, including Best Original Score and Best Picture.