Hits or snits?

Feisty Brits fight for respect as they bridge film cultures

They covet their English roots, yet yearn to bust through the glass ceiling that their films encounter in the States. They relish low-budget, edgy movies, but have just opened an $80 million wannabe-tentpole. They have enjoyed sustained success for over a decade, but only seem to get more dissatisfied.

Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, heads of Universal-owned Working Title, are anomalies in the film community.

They’re the only major studio producers who live, work and earn the vast majority of their box office outside North America. They’ve produced over 70 films that have earned $3 billion at the global boxoffice and, at a time when everyone is talking about the international market, Working Title is one of the few companies to succeed domestically and overseas.

Their success is envied, resented and largely misunderstood in London and Hollywood alike. This brings them freedom and frustration in equal measure.

Now they are hoping that “The Interpreter,” with its $22.8 million opening weekend, will help to bring them a new level of acceptance in the U.S., but without compromising their English uniqueness.

Over the past 18 months, the company had two worldwide hits — “Love Actually” and “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” — a few minor blips, a low-budget breakthrough (“Shaun of the Dead”) and one disaster: the live-action “Thunderbirds.”

This flop, allied to a critical backlash against the WT brand of romantic comedy, fueled a perception in some quarters that 2004 was an annus horribilis for WT. But in fact, from the “Love Actually” bow in Christmas 03 to the “Bridget” sequel a year later, the company grossed $600 million worldwide, the best run in its 21-year history.

A remarkable 76% of those tallies were earned outside North America, which explains why many U.S. insiders don’t automatically think of Bevan and Fellner in the same league as Bruckheimer, Grazer or Rudin.

In a reaction to this rollercoaster year, they have come up with a twofold shift in strategy. After a run of lightweight comedies, they are determined to make more “meaningful” films with heavyweight filmmakers from both sides of the Atlantic; and they want to raise Working Title’s profile in Los Angeles by making more and bigger purely American movies. (It’s always made American films, including the Coen brothers’ pics.)

“The Interpreter,” a political thriller directed by Sydney Pollack, starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, aims to fulfill both of these ambitions. It’s not just the most expensive film ever made by WT, but as Bevan explains, it represents something new for the company.

“Because it was made in America, that’s the first proper studio movie we’ve made, because the studio movies we’ve made here in London we’ve still been able to make very much as Working Title films,” he says.

Boxoffice for the film has proven stronger than expected, but many critics were unimpressed (the New York Times called it “a swamp of cliches”). In some respects, the U.N.-based thriller can be seen as a metaphor for the company itself: High-minded, taking itself seriously and featuring a lot of people with accents doing things that are baffling to onlookers.

Bevan and Fellner acknowledge Working Title has a problem of perception. At home, they are considered commercial sellouts to Hollywood; Hollywood considers them quirky outsiders who only make little British films.

In other words, Bevan and Fellner are embraced as successes everywhere in the world except in the two places where they do business. The two profess indifference, but in truth they crave acknowledgement in both places — if only because it might ease the process of putting movies together.

“I’m amazed how difficult it still is, getting an actor to say yes, getting a writer to develop a script; it’s just infuriating,” Fellner admits. “It doesn’t matter how much success you’ve had: Out of sight is out of mind. And if Tim and I really want to ramp things up, even if it’s British films, we’re going to need to be more visible and spend more time in the States.”

As part of that plan, longtime development exec Chris Clark has shifted from London to the L.A. office alongside its veteran U.S. chief Liza Chasin. Bevan and Fellner will also be stepping up their regular visits, even though both have previously limited their time in Los Angeles, saying that their London base offers them the clarity of perspective.

Not that they are giving up their quirkier, upscale Brit pics or (contrary to Brit media reports) their trademark romantic comedies. “Pride and Prejudice,” directed by first-timer Joe Wright and starring an unlikely Keira Knightley, is in the can for a fall release.

But the two execs are in the mood to get even bolder.

Identifying “Million Dollar Baby” as a pic he would love to emulate, Bevan says, “Last year wasn’t a stunning year for movies, and one of the reasons is that people aren’t making films that are about anything. I think that we in Britain have an opportunity to do that because we’re a little bit off the radar. I very, very, very much want to do that.”

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the WT slate was jam-packed with ambitious, low-budget dramas, often with a political angle like “Bob Roberts” and “London Kills Me.” Then they stumbled upon 1994’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” a $4.5 million pic whose global boxoffice hit $250 million.

They recognized a hit formula and capitalized upon it with a slew of romantic comedies such as “Notting Hill.” But there has been a lingering sense that neither of them was making the kind of movies that are closest to their hearts.

Fellner, 45, started as a producer with gritty fare like “Sid and Nancy.” He’s the urbane yet prickly diplomat who enjoys the luxurious trappings and social whirl of life at the top. While Fellner has a fastidious attention to detail, the more unpolished Bevan, 47, is the one with the more confident creative vision.

Bevan, who founded Working Title in 1984 and produced “My Beautiful Laundrette,” seems the more driven of the two. He keeps his life private even from close colleagues, but is impassioned, opinionated and decisive when it comes to movie-making.

Fellner and Bevan, each with several children, enjoy the liberty that their London base gives them to lead personal lives unconnected with the film biz.

Instead of breeding complacency, their success — which has survived several changes of ownership as Polygram went to Seagram then to Vivendi and now to NBC — seems to have intensified the urge to prove themselves.

“I don’t really believe in the success,” admits Bevan. “Don’t forget, we’d been at it for 10 years before ‘Four Weddings’ came along, and I always say thank God it took so long, because we know that being successful is definitely not the norm.”

They enjoy the advantage of complete autonomy in development, and greenlight power for movies up to $25 million. U reinforced the Polygram model of giving Bevan and Fellner the financial freedom to follow their instincts. Other studios cast envious eyes at WT and wonder how to replicate its success, but none has yet absorbed the lesson that it comes from devolving a substantial amount of creative power to London.

“It’s easier because we don’t have to chat to anyone, especially when that first draft comes in and it’s way off the vision that we all had. If we had to talk to others who didn’t share our vision, they would probably cut us off at that point,” Fellner says.

In the past nine months, WT has released its three costliest movies ever: “Thunderbirds,” at $55 million; “Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason,” at $50 million, and “The Interpreter.” By Hollywood standards, these budgets are modest, but for Working Title they rep a step up in risk and pressure.

Eager to see them fail, naysayers were quick to seize upon the flop of “Thunderbirds” and the critical backlash against romantic comedies such as “Love Actually,” “Wimbledon” and the “Bridget Jones” sequel as evidence that the company was losing its mojo.

As for the British critics who accuse WT of playing it too safe, Fellner points to the low-budget “Shaun of the Dead,” an admired comedy for its WT2, its low-budget label. Director Edgar Wright and co-writer/star Simon Pegg will make the follow-up, police comedy “Hot Fuzz,” for WT later this year.

“Eric gets more upset by media criticism than me,” Bevan says. “But with all due respect, ‘The Interpreter’ is pretty bold, and with ‘Pride and Prejudice’ we took a kid and we gave him a lot of money to make his first movie, and that’s a bold thing to do, just like when we made ‘Elizabeth’ with Shekhar Kapur.”

The problem with “Thunderbirds,” says Bevan, his voice rising in exasperation: “We fell into the mid-Atlantic trap. We used to fall into it all the time, and we did it again! We learned a long time ago that if you’re going to make a British picture, make it really British, and if you’re going to make an American film, make it really American, but don’t try and do one that’s in the middle.”

Clark’s mandate in L.A. is to help Chasin develop a larger number of bigger, broader American movies. “We will probably make thrillers, higher-end dramas and American romantic comedies,” Fellner says. “But I don’t think you will see us doing action movies or big special effects movies. People like Jerry Bruckheimer and Joel Silver do that better than we ever could.”

Three U.S. rom-coms are vying to shoot this year, including “100 Weddings” directed by “Sex and the City” creator Darren Star, and “Being Booey,” to which “Hitch” helmer Andy Tennant is attached.

Fellner is developing his own WWI epic “Birdsong,” with Joe Wright attached to direct. Minghella has become a producing partner of WT, both through the collaboration on “Interpreter,” and now with Phillip Noyce’s apartheid thriller “Hot Stuff.”

Kapur is returning to make “Golden Age,” the sequel to “Elizabeth,” again starring Cate Blanchett. With the bloody religious schism between Protestants and Catholics at the heart of the drama, Bevan describes it as a film “about tolerance.”

Stephen Daldry has also come back to direct the “Billy Elliot” stage musical (a whole new direction for WT), which premieres May 12 at London’s Victoria Theater. Then he will move onto the logistically ambitious movie “Everest,” about the storms that killed a dozen climbers.

“Notting Hill” helmer Roger Michell CQis lined up to direct “The Rip,” a heist pic.

Bevan is raising the creative bar for the sequel to “Bean,” with stage heavyweight Simon McBurney injecting some gravitas.

And continuing their mission to break new directing talent, promo helmer Ringan Ledwidge will make his debut with the low-budget Aussie backpacker thriller “Lonely Planet.”

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