It was never clear how much ex-Beatle George Harrison really knew about what went on at his shingle HandMade Films in the 1980s.
He would turn up occasionally at the office in London’s swanky Cadogan Square — the call would go out to clear the garage, because Harrison didn’t like to park alongside other vehicles — and disappear into intense conferences with business partner Denis O’Brien.
It was O’Brien, a prickly American with an uncanny resemblance to Phil Silvers and a mania for secrecy that bordered on the paranoid, who actually ran the company. He would soothe, cajole and scare Harrison — staff remember these encounters as more like a session between a patient and his therapist than a rock star and his manager — and send him on his way.
Then everyone would get on with the business of developing, financing, producing and selling some of the quirkiest, most distinctive British movies of that or any era — from “Life of Brian,” “The Long Good Friday” and “Time Bandits” to “Mona Lisa,” “A Private Function” and “Withnail and I.”
For a golden period, HandMade churned out more money than anyone knew what to do with. But when the artistic risks stopped paying off, it became more and more dependent upon Harrison’s wealth to keep it afloat.
When a company accountant discovered Harrison didn’t know how much HandMade was costing him, and confronted the ex-Beatle at his mansion with the specter of his potential bankruptcy, the whole web started to unravel.
Harrison ended up suing O’Brien for fraud. The company was sold in 1992 and spent the rest of the ’90s declining into obscurity, until its final remains were bought by Irish entrepreneur Patrick Meehan, himself a former rock manager.
All that’s left today of the original HandMade is the name and its library of cult classics and oddities. But Meehan plans to use these as the foundation for an ambitious new venture, spanning movies, TV, legit and merchandising.
This summer, Meehan reversed HandMade into his publicly quoted Equator Group, listed on London’s Alternative Investment Market. With the HandMade brand to entice investors, that gives the company access to the capital markets to fund its expansion.
“HandMade represents a great name, a great company with a great history,” says Meehan. “For many, it’s one of the heroes of the British film industry. We will take that reputation and tradition to build an ever greater, integrated U.K.-based entertainment company.”
He took a big step toward that goal last week with a deal to acquire Guy Collins‘ and Michael Ryan‘s Sequence Films for up to $8.4 million in cash and shares.
Collins and Ryan, both veterans of the foreign sales biz, will run HandMade Films Intl., handling the combined libraries and raising finance for the company’s slate of new movies. This includes a franchise based on the “Eloise” children’s books and a remake of “Mona Lisa” directed by Larry Clark.
HandMade’s production arm is headed by another seasoned exec, Antony Rufus Isaacs, formerly of defunct L.A.-based indie Nelson Entertainment, where he oversaw pics including “When Harry Met Sally….”
Collins and Ryan bring their long experience of brokering co-production coin. Their current slate includes bullfighter biopic “Manolete,” starring Adrien Brody and Penelope Cruz; the latest “Highlander” movie; and Brit animated pic “Tales of the Riverbank.”
Plans are afoot for a remake of “Time Bandits,” a sequel to “The Long Good Friday,” a Broadway version of “A Private Function” and a U.K. stage adaptation of “Withnail.” Alex de la Iglesia is set to direct a new project, “Dogs.”
Under Meehan, HandMade has already produced two straight-to-video “Eloise” films starring Julie Andrews. An animated TV series is nearing completion, with a merchandising campaign about to launch. The first theatrical movie, “Eloise in Paris,” will shoot next spring, with Nigel Cole in talks to direct.
Harrison is gone and O’Brien was last heard of living in Switzerland, but their twisted partnership created an extraordinary company that could never quite die. The attempt by Meehan and his team of industry veterans to breathe new life into HandMade should be fascinating to watch.