“Chicken Run” executive producer Jake Eberts dies

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Jake Eberts

Jake Eberts

Montreal-born producer Jake Eberts, whose movies won 37 Oscars — including four for best picture — died Thursday morning in his hometown after a brief illness. He was 71.

He was executive producer of seven theatrical animated feature films, including the 2000 hit Chicken Run, on which he partnered with Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Others were The Nutcracker Prince (1990), The Thief And The Cobbler (1993), James and the Giant Peach (1996), Doogal and Renaissance (both 2006), and The Illusionist (2010).

Born John David Eberts on July 10, 1941, he grew up in Montreal and Arvida, Quebec. He attended Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, Quebec and graduated from McGill University (Bachelor of Chemical Engineering 1962) and Harvard Business School (MBA 1966).

Eberts’s working career began as a start-up engineer for L’Air Liquide in Spain, Italy, Germany and France. He then spent three years as a Wall Street investor. He moved to London in 1971, where he joined Oppenheimer & Co., rising to the position of managing director of the British brokerage and investment company in 1976.

With no apparent prior interest in film, he turned to film financing in about 1977, and joined David Puttnam in founding Goldcrest Films, an independent film production company, for which he served as president and CEO. His first venture was the 1978 animated movie Watership Down, directed by Martin Rosen.

He produced or financed over 50 films, including Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, The Killing Fields, Dances with Wolves, Driving Miss Daisy, The Dresser, Local Hero, A River Runs Through It, Black Robe, Ocean and Grey Owl. He worked with such famed actors as Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, Morgan Freeman, Bruce Beresford, Richard Attenborough, Pierce Brosnan and Albert Finney.

“He was an extraordinary film producer and an extraordinary man,” said his close friend, Montreal director and frequent tennis partner Denys Arcand, a close friend and frequent tennis partner of Eberts. “He took filmmaking seriously. He felt cinema should be used to better mankind. This is a lofty standard in an age where movies are being adapted from comic books. He had such noble ideals and morals.”

“He was such a smart and eloquent man, yet he was also such a humble man and such a generous man — he gave to so many causes,” said producer Denise Robert, Arcand’s wife and film collaborator. “He brought out the best in everybody. It’s a great loss for us, but it’s also a great loss for the world.”

“It’s a huge loss for the film community, but also for members of his extended family,” said the producer’s brother, Jay Eberts. “He touched the lives of so many and brought so much light into the world. He was an inspiration to us all.”

Montreal film producer Kevin Tierney described Eberts as someone scarcely seen nowadays in the movie business: “A great entrepreneur with a great esthetic sense. They just don’t make them like him any more.”

In 1985, Eberts founded Allied Filmmakers, based in London and Paris, an independent feature film development and production company.

Eberts served as media advisor to Participant Media and the Abu Dhabi Media Company. He sat on the board of the Sundance Channel.

A resident of London and Paris for 50 years, Eberts was chairman of National Geographic Films (which distributed March of the Penguins) and trustee emeritus of the Sundance Institute.

In 1991, Eberts published My Indecision Is Final, his autobiographical study of the film industry. In 1992, he became an Officer of the Order of Canada. Eberts was awarded honorary doctorates by McGill University in 1998, Bishop’s University in 1999 and Trent University in 2005.

Eberts’s most recent project, the IMAX 3D documentary Jerusalem, is scheduled for release in 2013.

“I could never be a director because I could never stand focusing all that time on just one project,” he said last year in a Montreal Gazette interview. “I’m much more the executive producer.”

Eberts began, oddly enough, as an engineer.

“People wouldn’t think of someone with a chemical engineering background to end up in the movie world,” he said. “But life can take you down these wonderful paths.”

Besides his brother, Jake Eberts is survived by his wife Fiona and their adult children: sons Alex and Dave and daughter Lindsay.

The funeral is private. Plans for a memorial will be announced soon.

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