It’s an arguably shaky time for independent producers in Blighty, but one shingle that continues to outperform is the small, Chelsea-based Ecosse Films.
Since its inception in 1988, toppers Douglas Rae and Robert Bernstein have built the shingle (the name means Scotland in French) into a £30 million ($47 million) television and film production company that continues to straddle the line between bankability and cultural kudos.
The shingle has churned out a slew of period pieces such as “Becoming Jane,” which banked $37.5 million worldwide, and Emma Thompson starrer “Brideshead Revisited,” which took just $13 million but received glowing reviews. And 2007’s $40 million family pic “The Water Horse” generated more than $103 million in box office receipts for Sony Pictures.
Its television activity, which kickstarted the company, has remained buoyant: Irish drama series “Raw” is heading into its third season; 2005’s “Monarch of the Glen” ran for seven series on BBC; and it’s currently co-producing “Camelot,” starring Joseph Fiennes and Eva Green, with Graham King’s GK Films for Starz in the U.S.
Rae, who founded the shingle, notes that the company’s film momentum started with 1997’s Judi Dench starrer “Mrs. Brown,” which was originally skedded for BBC as a made-for. After Harvey Weinstein saw a screening of the $3.1 million pic, he hailed it as an Oscar contender and snapped it up for theatrical for Miramax.
The period pic, helmed by John Madden pre-“Shakespeare in Love” (which perhaps started the Weinstein/Madden love affair), went on to win two BAFTAs, received two Oscar noms and took $10 million at the domestic box office.
“Once ‘Mrs. Brown’ happened, we continued to pursue film,” Rae says. “We were very green then, so we started making a film every 18 months, then every year and now it’s three a year.”
The two arms of the company are complementing each other very well indeed. Rae says that the international sale of “Monarch” helped cushion the film side of the shingle, pushing it from 80% television and 20% film to an even split now.
“We’ve made an active decision to diversify and make films in different genres, irrelevant of what they were but just because we felt passionate about them,” Bernstein says. “I think it’s important now that we aren’t perceived as a company that just does traditional period pieces.”
The shingle has just finished shooting its first romantic comedy, “The Decoy Bride,” starring David Tennant (“Doctor Who”) and Kelly MacDonald (“No Country for Old Men”) alongside “Ugly Betty’s” Michael Urie.
And it’s working on Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Emily Bronte’s tome “Wuthering Heights.”
“She’s a very interesting filmmaker,” Rae says, “very centered, very focussed and very individual.”
Bernstein adds that while the project is period, it’s not traditional: “I think if you’re going to do something period, you have to do something that has a skew to it, something different.”
Additional feature projects on the slate are an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tome “Treasure Island,” which will lens in Australia next year (“we’ll make a franchise out of it,” Rae says), and a $20 million feature of Sebastian Faulks’ tome “On Green Dolphin Street,” penned by “Becoming Jane” scribe Kevin Hood.
On the television front, Bernstein says the company is looking for more television projects that can be placed internationally following its union with GK Films for “Camelot,” which is funded entirely out of the U.S.
“I think the issue with TV in Britain is there are only so many people you can go to,” he says. “It’s becoming a more international marketplace, so we have to be broader minded and look for international deals. Right now, there are less slots in the U.K. because of budget cuts.”
And what of the current Brit pic biz?
“I think the British film industry is very good at making films work for the little money that’s available,” says Rae. “But if we go on just doing that, we’re never going to build up an industry. You always constantly have hand-to-mouth companies who aren’t developing into a proper industry.”
He adds: “But to be a producer anywhere, you’ve got to be an eternal optimist, because the odds are so stacked against you.”