Working Title back in Oscar race

'Atonement' among season's early front runners

Working Title co-heads Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner have the best of both worlds.

They’re the big fish at the top of the British film pond, drawing top scripts and directors. At the same time, they boast a rich seven-year first-look deal with Universal Pictures, which finances and releases their films Stateside via the studio or Focus Features, and overseas, where their films earn the lion’s share of their grosses. This fall they’re back in the Oscar race with Focus Features’ World War II romantic epic “Atonement,” starring Keira Knightley and Vanessa Redgrave which is shaping up to be the award season’s early front runner.

“They truly support a filmmaker’s voice,” says Universal co-chairman David Linde, “with a uniquely global sensibility that is always applied to making the film work as commercially as possible and really without boundaries, no matter the genre.”

Because Working Title is so profitable for Universal, they have earned rare autonomy within the studio — they even control their own international marketing. Bevan and Fellner nurture edgy American fare from the likes of the Coen brothers and “United 93” helmer Paul Greengrass alongside comedies like the “Mr. Bean” films, which have vastly more appeal to global auds than they do to Americans.

“We’re keeping alive the spirit of the independents with the resources of a studio,” says Bevan, sitting in the company’s sunny Beverly Hills conference room, while Fellner listens on the intercom from Scotland. “We make films for all around the world. You have to be honest to yourself and not ask, ‘What would the Americans think of this?'”

With Working Title well-established and its key personnel in place for some 15 years, “everybody knows who can do what and how well to trust them,” says Fellner. “Less crap gets in the way. We can make movies with young talent, old talent, whatever. We tailor the budget to the size of the audience we’re going to have.”

While they still wince at their biggest box office debacle, the $55-million bigscreen version of Brit kid fave “The Thunderbirds,” Bevan and Fellner are enjoying the fruits of maturity, churning out such global sequels as “Mr. Bean’s Holiday,” starring Rowan Atkinson, alongside the ambitious $55-million sequel “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” in which Cate Blanchett reprises her role as the British monarch. “Golden Age” did not woo critics and crowds at September’s Toronto Fest as well as “Atonement,” which is steadily building Oscar buzz.

Working Title has enjoyed a long and fruitful dance with the Oscars. Since 1986’s “My Beautiful Laundrette,” which earned a writing nom for Hanif Kureishi, Working Title has earned 38 Oscar nominations and four wins: best actress for Susan Sarandon for “Dead Man Walking” and Frances McDormand for “Fargo,” which also scored for original screenplay, and a makeup prize for “Elizabeth.”

In many ways Working Title is the house that Richard Curtis built. The witty Brit wrote Working Title’s biggest hits, from the “Bean” and “Bridget Jones” pics to “Notting Hill,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and his directorial debut, “Love Actually.” Bevan and Fellner have kept Curtis happy and close. He’s now casting the comedy “The Boat That Rocked,” about a ’60s pirate radio station afloat in the North Sea, for a planned March pre-strike start.

Working Title has also nurtured other key talent relationships that are paying off. “They are the U.K. film business, but they’ve managed to expand and succeed here as well,” says Universal producer Mary Parent.

Working Title’s in-house star Hugh Grant has toplined three hit comedies: “Four Weddings and A Funeral,” “About a Boy,” and the company’s biggest grosser to date, 1999’s “Notting Hill,” opposite Julia Roberts. The actress is returning to the Working Title fold to play murdered Kenyan wildlife filmmaker Joan Root in a film based on the Vanity Fair article “Flowering Evil.”

Fellner’s collaboration with Joel and Ethan Coen goes back to 1991’s “Barton Fink.” The Coen brothers are currently shooting their sixth film for Working Title and their third starring George Clooney, “Burn After Reading.” The darkly comedic spy spoof based on Admiral Stansfield Turner’s CIA novel also stars Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand and John Turturro. “It’s funny, like ‘Fargo,’ says Focus Features production chief John Lyons. “Stupid people doing bad things and paying for it.”

As soon as they finish “Burn After Reading,” the Coens plan to shoot “A Serious Man,” a ’70s-era Job story, in March. “It’s a small personal movie for them,” says Fellner.

Pitt will also star in another coveted project with a hot director, Kevin MacDonald’s American remake of the Brit TV series “State of Play.”

Bevan’s discovery Edgar Wright, who wrote and directed Working Title’s 2004 zombie comedy sleeper “Shaun of the Dead,” starring Simon Pegg, is another Hollywood fave these days. Wright and Pegg’s follow-up for Working Title, the action-spoof “Hot Fuzz,” scored $80 million worldwide, and Wright is prepping an adaptation of the Marvel comicbook “Ant-Man” for Paramount.

Working Title imported Stephen Daldry from the theater in 2000 with his directing debut, “Billy Elliot,” which grossed $109 million worldwide and spawned a hit Elton John musical in London that will next open in Australia and head to Broadway in 2009. While Bevan and Fellner are thrilled to be successful theater producers, they insist “Billy Elliot” will be their only show.

Another top director, Greengrass, will follow up the Oscar-nominated “United 93” with his Iraq action thriller “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” starring Matt Damon.

One talent who got away was Sacha Baron Cohen, who starred in Working Title’s “Ali G in Da House,” which underwhelmed at the box office. While Bevan was “desperate to get ‘Borat,'” he says, Cohen landed a richer deal at 20th Century Fox.

Another key member of the Working Title talent stable, Brit TV director Joe Wright, landed the plum assignment of helming the 2005 remake of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice.” “He pitched two or three images,” recalls Bevan. “Directors never pitch images. We were so flabbergasted and liked him so much we decided to give him the job.”

Light, airy, romantic and hugely entertaining, “Pride & Prejudice” grossed $121 million worldwide and scored four Oscar noms, including one for actress Keira Knightley.

After Bevan teamed with director Richard Eyre and screenwriter Christopher Hampton to win the pricey bidding war for the rights to Ian McEwan’s sprawling World War II romance novel “Atonement” (beating out Tom Stoppard and John Madden), Fellner thought Bevan was “insane,” he said.

“We did pay a lot of money,” Bevan admits.

When Eyre became caught up in both the theater production of “Mary Poppins” and the film “Notes on a Scandal” and had to let “Atonement” go, Bevan had a back-up plan. Wright, already inspired by another set of vivid images, reassembled his “Pride & Prejudice” crew. Knightley agreed to play the role of a young country beauty who falls for her childhood friend, the family gardener, played by James McAvoy, who starred in Working Title’s “Rory O’Shea.”

One lesson learned from their Euro-pudding adaptation of “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”: Don’t deviate too much from the book. “The author has worked it out in terms of story,” says Bevan. Thus, “Atonement” hews close to McEwan.

Instead of letting Imagine Entertainment and Working Title battle with each other over rights to the hot legit property “Frost/Nixon,” Universal saw the wisdom of having them band together on “The Queen” writer Peter Morgan’s reimagining of what went on behind the scenes before the infamous TV interviews between ousted ex-president Richard Nixon and down-on-his-luck TV host David Frost. All parties agreed to keep the Ron Howard project on a modest scale with theater stars Frank Langella and Michael Sheen playing Nixon and Frost, respectively.

DreamWorks’ Stacey Snider, who worked closely with Working Title when she was Universal Pictures chairman, recently brought Bevan and Fellner in to help produce “The Soloist,” a Parkes and MacDonald project about a homeless musician, so that she could bring in director Joe Wright.

“It’s pretty simple with them: taste,” Snider says. “It’s not that its ‘fancy’ or ‘highbrow’ — it’s just good. And since both Tim and Eric are such smart, fun, interesting, righteous guys, the best talent want to work with them on their tasteful films. Everyone’s motivated — the talent and the studio — to do what’s needed to make their films as successful as they are special.”

“We know we’re spoiled,” says Bevan.

“Until it all goes to crap,” adds Fellner.

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