The rolling cornerstones

U.K.'s most prolific film firm adds coin & prestige to Universal

LONDON — With $3.5 billion in worldwide grosses since their breakthrough “Four Weddings and a Funeral” in 1994, and having just notched $1 billion in the U.S. alone, it’s finally time to admit Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, co-chairs of Working Title Films, might just be onto something.

There are few Hollywood producers who have matched their output, both in terms of commercial appeal and creative quality, over such a long period and across such a large range of material.

Though best known for the blockbuster comedies of Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, they also deliver punchy period pics, urgent political dramas, highbrow literary adaptations, quirky family fare, cultish low-budgeters and the somewhat uncategorizable output of the Coen brothers.

And they have a formidable record of launching fresh talent — from directors Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice”), Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot”), Shekhar Kapur (“Elizabeth”) and Stephen Frears (“My Beautiful Laundrette”) to actors Cate Blanchett and veritable house leading man Hugh Grant.

But what makes the Working Title duo unique, in both their relationship with Hollywood and as prolific British filmmakers, is that Bevan and Fellner have achieved all of this without leaving London.

Having first come together under the benign parentage of Polygram, they have transformed into one of the cornerstones of Universal Pictures while remaining true to their British roots and indie spirit.

“They are unique because they do everything so well,” says Universal chairman Marc Shmuger: “how they work with the talent, and the incredible responsibility with which they manage productions and costs. What’s unusual, even unprecedented, is how consummately capable and responsible they are.

“They are not in the business of scooping vanilla onto the cone,” Shmuger adds. “That’s not the flavor of where the world is going. Their taste is so eclectic, you end up with really interesting movies.”

Much of that is attributable to teamwork. All the key execs at Working Title have been there for well over a decade, and none shows any signs of ever wanting to leave.

It’s no wonder that U toppers are determined to ensure that the duo renew their personal deals with the studio, which are due to expire in 2007.

Fortunately for U’s chances of re-signing them, Bevan and Fellner seem to feel more comfortable and secure of their status within the studio than ever. The promotion of Shmuger in March, and the arrival of David Linde as co-chair, has only improved what was already a strong relationship.

“Marc and David seem to value producers and their ability to deliver product to the studio,” Fellner comments.

Yet their achievements haven’t always been fully appreciated or understood, either in Hollywood or in Blighty.

Even after such artistic breakthroughs as “United 93” and “Pride & Prejudice,” there’s still no shortage of people in the U.K. who prefer to damn them with faint praise — dismissing their output as formulaic, crediting their success to their studio wealth and their fortunate relationship with Curtis, the scribe behind “Four Weddings,” “Notting Hill” and the “Bridget Jones” and “Bean” movies who moved behind the camera with “Love, Actually.”

For a long time, the scale of their success was also invisible to many in the Hollywood community, because the vast majority of their revenues were earned overseas. Only one Working Title movie, “Notting Hill,” has ever broken the $100 million barrier in the U.S., whereas seven have passed that mark internationally. WT movies routinely take two-thirds of their gross outside North America, with $2.5 billion of its total take since 1992 attributable to foreign grosses, and more than $1 billion tallied in the U.S. with recent returns from “Nanny McPhee” and “United 93.”

But the true measure of Working Title is its bottom line. Because of its tight budgets, even modest theatrical results can be highly profitable. “United 93” was clearly an artistic triumph, but with a budget of $15 million and worldwide box office of $75 million, it’s also a commercial one.

“The confusion about them in the Hollywood community is less than it was five or 10 years ago, and one gigantic breakout domestic hit will change that forever,” Shmuger comments. “Will that come? Of course it will, eventually. Their talents are too great for it not to happen.”

The launch of Universal Pictures Intl., the studio’s own foreign theatrical arm, will only make WT’s output more central to the studio’s strategy.

Bevan and Fellner even claim to be less bothered that they used to about their failure to break through the glass ceiling at the U.S. box office. Perhaps that’s because, in the past couple of years, they have felt a positive shift in Hollywood’s attitude to them.

“We do exactly the same as we always do, but it’s just easier to pick up the phone to a really good director or a decent writer or in some cases an actor,” Bevan explains.

“With the shifting around of the independent field, the more artistic filmmakers are realizing that you can go to us or to Focus and make a studio movie without having the studio interfering. ‘United 93’ was a very high-profile example of that.”

The proof is in the pudding. Director Paul Greengrass was given the greenlight to use a no-name cast, many of them non-actors, and a docudrama approach for “United 93,” and the risk paid off in uniformly strong reviews for a 9/11-themed movie that was wide open to potential charges of exploitation and the Hollywoodization of a sensitive subject.

For the upcoming “Catch a Fire,” helmer Phillip Noyce cited the duo’s commitment and hand-off approach to the apartheid-era drama, which was shot in South Africa and Swaziland. “This was a project that Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner were determined to make,” Noyce says. “They have a deal with StudioCanal and Universal that allows them to put certain pictures into production below a certain budget; presumably our $15 million budget qualified. If Focus and Universal hadn’t agreed, they were that determined to have it made anyway.

“It really was a case of: ‘You have $15 million, do what you like, then bring it back. Call us when you need us.’ They were very supportive.”

Never complacent, Bevan and Fellner continue to push themselves further. They stepped into uncharted territory with “United 93,” “Billy Elliot: The Musical” and “Pride & Prejudice” (because it gave an ambitious budget to an untried director), but these gambles paid off. Joe Carnahan’s blood-soaked Vegas mob thriller “Smokin’ Aces” also reps a fresh departure.

“We’re looking all round the world for ideas in a more aggressive way than we have done before,” Bevan says. “I suspect that out of that will come some movies that have a bigger scale than we have worked on in the past. It would be great to make a film in China one day, or in Russia.”

At the low-budget end, they are starting to develop documentaries, and other fact-based material, inspired by the success of “United 93.” “There seems to be a new cinema to me, this so-called reality cinema,” Bevan says.

Meanwhile, encouraged by “Pride & Prejudice,” they are seeking to marry first-time filmmakers with larger budgets, to give them more chance of breaking through.

Not that WT has abandoned its traditional brands. Curtis should be back behind the camera next year, Emma Thompson is returning with a sequel to “Nanny McPhee,” and the Coens have a new East Coast caper in the works.

WT has high hopes for the spring release of “Mr Bean’s Holiday,” the sequel to Atkinson’s 1997 slapstick smash, and its L.A. office is readying several American romantic comedies, such as “Definitely, Maybe,” set in New York during the ’92 Clinton campaign, with Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Kline and recent Oscar winner Rachel Weisz.

Bevan and Fellner have had their share of luck, but such sustained consistency happens by hard work and talent, not accident. “We don’t really plan, we don’t sit down strategically, it’s very organic,” Fellner confesses. “We try to make it as scientific as possible, but it just never works out that way.”

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