Stephen Fry’s status as a national treasure was made official in September, when the BBC devoted a whole evening on one of its channels to celebrating his 50th birthday.
“Stephen Fry Night” gave BBC4 its best-ever audience share. British TV viewers can’t seem to get enough of the plummy polymath with a brain the size of a planet, whether he’s hosting the comedy quiz “QI,” fronting the AIDS doc “Stephen Fry: HIV and Me,” revealing his bipolar disorder in “The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive,” or playing a cuddly country lawyer in “Kingdom.”
His popularity — not to mention his versatility — is good news for Sprout Prods., the company he formed with producer Gina Carter after they worked together on “Bright Young Things,” his debut as a film director.
“The idea is to use what an asset Stephen is on TV to allow us to make the movies that we want to make,” Carter says. “We’ve made the decision to develop more TV in order to finance our love of cinema.”
Sprout was born in 2004, but it’s only now up and running. Carter was kept busy producing “Snow Cake” for Michael Winterbottom’s Revolution Films, where she previously worked, and Fry was up to his neck in other commitments, such as scripting “Dambusters” for Peter Jackson.
They also wasted eight months last year on fruitless negotiations to merge Sprout with Iostar, the ambitious multimedia start-up that collapsed on launch in April.
“We spent a huge amount of money on legal and accounting fees,” Carter says. “We really got burnt.”
After the Iostar fiasco, Sprout received offers from super-indies RDF and DCD. But with money finally starting to flow in from their first show, the ITV series “Kingdom,” Fry and Carter decided they were strong enough to go it alone.
The company has taken its own offices at Revolution. It has hired young Dutch producer Jasper van Hecke as head of development and production, and picked up development exec Sarah Scougal from Working Title, where Carter herself started out as an assistant.
Sprout will be the main vehicle for Fry’s future TV work, such as the upcoming BBC travelogue “Fry in America,” in which he will drive his own black cab around all 50 states; and “Last Chance to See,” a wildlife series about endangered species.
“Kingdom,” a co-production with Irish producer Alan Moloney, is already shooting six more episodes after the first series bowed in spring to more than 8 million viewers. Maligned by critics for being excessively warm and fuzzy — but loved by viewers for the same reason — the show has sold heavily around the world, including to Hallmark in the States.
With U.K. webs now forced to let producers keep the foreign rights to their shows, that success has given Sprout the financial clout to invest in its own development slate.
Its first movie will be “Jane Austen Handheld,” a period spoof to shoot next spring, financed by the Isle of Man’s new production venture NX, with HanWay handling sales. The debut feature of TV comedy helmer Tristram Shapeero (director of cult shows “Green Wing” and “Peep Show”), this re-tells the story of “Pride and Prejudice” through the lens of a fly-on-the-wall doc crew.
Fry himself will play the paterfamilias, Mr. Bennet, with Carrie Fisher as his wife, pop starlet Lily Allen as wayward daughter Lydia and louche comedian Russell Brand as the dastardly Wickham. The traditional lead roles of Lizzie Bennet and Darcy have yet to be cast.
Sprout is also prepping Luis Mandoki’s family drama “The Winged Boy” with Gold Circle to shoot next spring, the thriller “Ponte Tower” and the historical romp “Messiah,” about the comic misadventures of 18th century composer Handel, which Fry hopes to direct in 2009.
Fry is scripting a biopic of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan for Scott Rudin, and is talking with StudioCanal about a couple more remakes of classic British movies to follow “Dambusters.”
Fry is clearly far more than just a name above the door at Sprout. In a world where most TV personalities seem to have no personality at all, let alone talent, he’s the exception. His combination with Carter, one of the most clued-in producers around, is a formidable addition to the Brit film scene.