Brit Producers Aiming Films for Diverse Global Audiences

Eric Fellner
David M. Benett/Getty Images

Filmmakers in London fret a lot about subsidies, rebates and the obstinacy of Hollywood distributors, but when I encountered Eric Fellner this week, he seemed resolutely unfretful. And with good reason.

Arrayed before the co-chief of Working Title is a hefty film slate headlined by his familiar partners — including the Coen Brothers; and Tom Hooper. But his immediate focus was on three more modest, if idiosyncratic, ventures: “We Are Your Friends,” starring Zac Efron, a $10 million hipster movie shooting in Hollywood, and playing against the electronic music scene; “Trash,” a political thriller set in Rio directed by Stephen Daldry (and mainly in Portuguese); and a one-night-only screening of his “Billy Elliot” stage musical (it grossed $3.2 million across England).

Fellner and his partner, Tim Bevan, can well afford to nurture an eclectic (and occasionally eccentric) range of film and TV projects. They’ve been responsible for a singular list of hits over the past three decades (“Les Miserables” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” among them) as well as an occasional miscue, like “Green Zone.” Moreover they continue to play the Hollywood scene while adeptly keeping a safe distance, and the indie scene while maintaining a long-term relationship with Universal (though Comcast owns Universal, and thus the shingle, Fellner and Bevan’s contracts are up for renewal at year’s end). StudioCanal is among Working Title’s frequent co-financing partners.

Not that they’re immune to the challenges facing filmmakers worldwide. Even as co-financing sources tighten budgets, production costs keep rising — especially in success. This is particularly true in London, where major Hollywood productions dominate studio space, and experienced crews are in short supply in film and TV.

“Prices are being bid up, both in terms of cast and crew,” observes Gareth Neame, the savvy producer of “Downton Abbey,” whose immensely popular show enters its fifth season in January on PBS in the U.S.  HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” shooting in Northern Ireland (where it commands extremely generous rebates), also is a major player on the U.K. TV production scene.

“History teaches us that filmmaking in London is an intensely cyclical business,” notes respected producer Marc Samuelson (“The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” “Arlington Road”), who is concerned about the prospect of wage inflation. Like many producers , he is increasingly active in TV miniseries (such as 2011’s “Shadow Line”), finding television to be more of a producers medium, while film is ever increasingly a director’s medium.

While those making miniseries in Europe are happy to find a profusion of potential buyers, film producers like Working Title increasingly are interested in distribution trends — especially as concerns release windows.

Fellner believes, for example, that Hollywood should sharply narrow windows between theatrical release and exposure on TV, VOD or other media. Like others in Europe, he is perplexed by the inhibitions on more intense discussion of this within the industry: In his view, many filmgoers go to the cinema because they like the experience, not necessarily because they’re driven by a specific film. Hence the fast-expanding audience growth at cinemas in England for screening live-event programming like ballet, concerts and shows like Fellner’s own “Billy Elliot.” In Fellner’s view, the public apparently wants to consume entertainment where and when they wish.

And he’s willing to deliver thrillers partly in Portuguese, like “Trash,” to seemingly test their eclectic tastes.

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