NEW YORK — Jake Eberts, who trained to be a chemical engineer but instead built a career producing and financing acclaimed and successful films like “Chariots of Fire,” “Gandhi,” “Dances With Wolves,” and “The Killing Fields,” died Sept. 6 in Montreal. He was 71.
The cause was liver cancer, said his wife, Fiona.
Mr. Eberts stumbled into making movies, and once he started he maintained a visceral approach.
“He never did anything according to a plan or a strategy, ever,” Fiona Eberts said. “He literally did it through his gut. He said: ‘If it makes me cry, why wouldn’t it make Joe Public cry? I’m just an average Joe.’ ”
After abandoning engineering while in his 20s, he earned a master’s degree in business administration at Harvard University and took a job trying to sell diesel engines (he said he never sold one).
Then he tried investment banking on Wall Street. After moving to London in the early 1970s to work as a banker, he struggled to provide for his young family.
“Without bringing any sense of false modesty, I just wasn’t very good at all the other things I tried,” Mr. Eberts said in an interview with The Montreal Gazette.
When another banker asked for his help finding investors for a film featuring animated rabbits, based on the popular Richard Adams novel “Watership Down,” Mr. Eberts found the financing and became convinced that film was his future. In 1977, he formed Goldcrest Films. A year later, ‘‘Watership Down’’ was released to critical acclaim and commercial success. (Among its voices were those of Ralph Richardson, John Hurt, and Zero Mostel.)
Britain’s film industry was struggling for financing at the time, and Goldcrest quickly became a crucial investor for the country’s aspiring moviemakers.
Mr. Eberts showed an early affection for historical drama.
“I remember him reading a script in bed about these runners, and I thought it sounded really boring,” Fiona Eberts recalled. “He said, ‘No, no, this is really great.’ ”
He was reading a draft of “Chariots of Fire,” the true story of two British track stars, a Jew contending with prejudice and a preacher running for God, competing at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Released in 1981, the movie won the Academy Award for best picture.
“Gandhi,” directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley in the title role, was released the next year and also won the best picture Oscar. So did “Driving Miss Daisy,” based on Alfred Uhry’s play about a rich Jewish widow and her black chauffeur in the Jim Crow South. The film was in danger of not being made until Mr. Eberts provided financing.
Another best-picture Oscar went to “Dances With Wolves,” a sprawling Western released in 1990 and directed by its star, Kevin Costner. Mr. Eberts worked on it and “Driving Miss Daisy” independently from Goldcrest. He left the company for a period in the 1980s, and it struggled in his absence. He returned briefly to try to salvage it, without success, and left for good in 1987.
His 1990 book, “My Indecision Is Final,” written with Terry Ilott, describes his experience with Goldcrest.
Among the other films he helped produce are “A River Runs Through It,” a 1992 drama set in Montana and directed by Robert Redford, and the 2005 documentary “March of the Penguins.” While some critics found many of the films he worked on overly sentimental, Mr. Eberts told colleagues that he was committed to conveying goodness and triumph over adversity and that he felt there was an audience for stories that captured those themes without gratuitous sex and violence.
“The films he was attracted to always told stories of people who were facing great odds, who were facing great challenges in their life,’’ said Jim Berk, chief executive of Participant Media, with which Mr. Eberts produced a documentary, “Oceans,” in 2009. “We talked about this a lot, because that was at the heart of what he believed about his life.”
John David Eberts was born on July 10, 1941, in Montreal. His father, Edmond, worked for an aluminum manufacturer; his mother, born Elizabeth MacDougall, worked as an interior decorator. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal, he received a master’s from Harvard.
In addition to his wife, he leaves a daughter, Lindsay; two sons, Alexander and David; a sister, Elizabeth Stikeman; and four brothers, Edmond, Gordon, Lindsay, and Jeremy.
Mr. Eberts frequently traveled to Hollywood, but did not live there, and he made it clear in interviews that he did not trust many of its inhabitants. He lived in Paris for many years beginning in the 1990s and his family also had a house outside Montreal, where they created an elaborate system for producing maple syrup that they distributed to friends each year.
Many of the films that Mr. Eberts helped produce, including “Gandhi” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” had been passed over by others. In an interview with The New York Times in 1990, Mr. Eberts said big studios in the United States spent too much time trying to forecast what kind of films people would want to see.
‘‘The Europeans tend to say, ‘Gee, I love this story,’ ” he said. “ ‘This is a story I’d like to make. It’s important to me, and because I feel that way, I’m sure the audience will feel that way, too.’ ”