Down in the vault of the British film industry, something is stirring. The old magic, long buried, is being conjured anew.
Several decades after their heyday, Hammer Films and Ealing Studios, two of the most evocative names in British cinema, are being brought back to life by entrepreneurial new owners, who are seeking to revive these fabled labels for a 21st century audience.
From London to Hollywood, the legacy of Ealing’s whimsical comedies and Hammer’s blood-drenched tales from the crypt seems to resonate more strongly than ever with studios and filmmakers alike.
Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” was an homage to Hammer’s grand guignol style, while one of the company’s greatest stars, Christopher Lee, is enjoying a belated renaissance in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” franchises.
The Coen brothers are remaking Ealing’s “The Ladykillers” with Tom Hanks, Working Title is buffing up “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” and directors as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam and Gurinder Chadha cite Ealing pics as a primary influence on their work.
But the new proprietors of Ealing and Hammer are acutely aware that all of that means nothing to the kid munching popcorn at the local multiplex. Their heritage gives them a headstart with talent and media, but their challenge is to use this advantage to reinvent their old-fashioned brands for the multimedia age.
In Hollywood, efforts to revive old studio brands have been stillborn.
A relaunch of RKO has stalled, and a brief try to breathe life into Monogram came to naught. But unlike those, Ealing and Hammer enjoy a clearly defined identity based on a single genre.
As well as remakes, Hammer’s plans include original movies, stage shows, vidgames, Web ventures, books, toys, merchandising and possibly lending its brand to a pay-TV horror channel combining its movies with pics from the Hollywood studios.
Ealing, which operates both as a physical studio and a production company, is already further advanced, expanding from movies into TV, standup comedy and even kidvid licensing and merchandising.
After spending a couple of fallow years under their new proprietors, both companies are now within weeks of securing fresh equity — $5 million apiece — to bankroll their creative rebirth.
The brands may trade heavily on their British heritage, but there’s nothing parochial about the outlook or experience of the people now shaping their future.
Barnaby Thompson, the suave Brit producer spearheading the Ealing revival, learned his comedy trade at the feet of Lorne Michaels on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. He was part of the team responsible for “Wayne’s World,” and recalls Mike Myers constantly using Ealing movies as a point of reference.
Thompson’s production partner, Uri Fruchtmann, is an Israeli, and Ealing’s other shareholders include Canadian property mogul Harry Handelsmann and San Francisco-based creativity guru John Kao.
“Ealing means a lot to a lot of people,” Thompson says. “It stands for a universal bunch of values, a certain kind of sweetness and charm that you don’t have to be English to understand.”
Hammer equally has its acolytes. With the Hollywood studios increasingly remaking old B-movies as blockbuster franchises, there’s no shortage of interest in the potential of the company’s backlist.
Hammer ceased active production in 1983, but is being nursed back to life by ex-journo Terry Ilott and his partner Peter Naish, formerly of defunct U.K. distrib First Independent Films.
Their backers include advertising mogul Charles Saatchi; ex-Warner Music UK chairman Rob Dickins; Brit publishing duo William Sieghart and Neil Mendoza; Ric Senat, the former Euro legal chief of Warner Bros.; Israeli entrepreneur Uri David; and Larry Chrisfield, the doyen of U.K. film accountants.
“It’s tough trying to build a production business offshore, outside Hollywood,” comments Ilott, who was a Variety reporter during the early 1990s. “Both Hammer and Ealing represent efforts by entrepreneurial people to get a bit of leverage, using a brand combined with an underlying business to get off the treadmill of producing for fees and build something bigger.”
It’s all very well having a historic brand that’s a magnet for finance and talent. But Ealing and Hammer know that to succeed they have to win a new audience to whom their heritage means little or nothing.
“The average 24-year-old at a multiplex hasn’t heard of Ealing,” admits Thompson. “But maybe in three or four years, if we make some good movies, the name over the credits will start to mean something again.”
Hammer has a more established cult following — but Ilott acknowledges this is just a starting point.
“If the first few things we produce fail to deliver on the creative ambition we have set, in terms of presenting horror in a way which can convincingly carry the Hammer brand and tap into an audience, then we will quickly exhaust the goodwill that exists in the media. It’s a great opportunity to do something right, but we could still do it wrong.”
Hammer’s primary asset is its name. But it also owns around 70 of the old movies, and gets royalties from another 100 pics that were co-produced with various Hollywood studios. The library is modestly profitable.Ealing, by contrast, owns none of the classic movies produced by Michael Balcon at its west London studio in the 1940s and 1950s. Its core business today is the physical studio itself, comprising four soundstages plus production offices, which Thompson and his partners bought three years ago.
The plan is to revive Ealing as a film production label, by merging it with Thompson and Fruchtmann’s Fragile Films. Fragile has already made one movie, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” under the Ealing banner, and last year struck a first-look deal with Miramax for the combined label.
A TV arm also has been launched, with two shows already aired and a third to come this fall.
“What Ealing offered with its heritage, that Fragile didn’t, is an opportunity to scale up, to get critical mass, to have a team and an infrastructure,” Thompson says. “We have an enormous talent base in Britain, and there should be room for five or six companies.”
The new Ealing is actually two companies — the production arm, Ealing Enterprises, which is finalizing its fresh tranche of equity; and the studio complex, Ealing Operations, which is in the midst of an $80 million redevelopment.
Phase one of construction — three smart office buildings — has just been completed. One will house the CGI animation studio where “Shrek” producer John Williams is due to make the $43 million “Valiant” (an Ealing-like tale of a plucky pigeon serving in the Royal Air Force during WWII). It’s the first pic in a longterm co-production relationship between himself and Ealing, with Disney as domestic distrib.
Another will be home to a British Telecom team creating multimedia content for mobile phones.
Both are examples of how Ealing’s history — images from the old movies are plastered everywhere at the studio — is being used to rebuild the studio as an eclectic creative community.
The studio runs a standup-comedy club every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night on one of its soundstages. It’s a seedbed for talent that Ealing’s production arm can take into TV shows and, ultimately, to movies. Movie director Mark Herman (“Brassed Off,” “Little Voice” and Fragile’s recent “Hope Springs”) is already developing a sketch show for Channel 4 with six of the acts he saw at the club.
Ealing has also formed a kidvid arm, Ealing Family Entertainment, in a joint venture with three BBC veterans: James Arnold-Baker, Mikhail Shields and Tony Greenwood.
Despite specializing in a single genre — British comedy for Ealing, gothic horror for Hammer — both companies are reinterpreting their brands to suit their own commercial imperatives.
Just how liberally Thompson interprets the Ealing brand can be gauged from his assertion that “most of the biggest British hits of the past 10 years could be loosely described as Ealing comedies,” including his own movies “Kevin and Perry Go Large” and “Spice World.”
British humor is a specialized taste that the Australians and Italians seem to love, but the French and Japanese, for example, remain largely baffled by. U.S. crowds were decidedly indifferent toward “Spice World,” which grossed $29 million.
Thompson says he fully expects Ealing to make some American movies, and may not even restrict itself wholly to comedy; pointing out that the old studio produced the WWII drama “The Cruel Sea,” Thompson says he is developing a biopic of Elizabethan adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh.
Projects in development at Ealing/Fragile include a “St. Trinian’s” movie, romantic-comedy “Click” from tyro helmer Ol Parker; and porno-themed comedy “I Love Candy,” with helmer Stephen Surjik (“Wayne’s World 2”).
Hammer has an equally pragmatic attitude to the issue of its heritage.
“We don’t care about being British for its own sake. What we care about is being distinctive. The Britishness of Hammer is not a flag-waving trait; it’s just a mark of distinction,” says Ilott.
Ilott encapsulates his aspiration for the Hammer brand as “thrilling intensity, high quality, commercial, great stories, iconic characters, identifiably British.” No mention there of “cheesy, garish and old-fashioned,” the other qualities that the Hammer name conjures up.
“The retro appeal of the iconography works for teenage audience, most evidently in the games business, but you can also see it in movies such as ‘Harry Potter,’ ” says Ilott. “But negotiating that for an adult audience is our biggest challenge. We need to find a language that uses some of that retro look and feel, something of that Gothic tradition, but it needs to be classier than the old stuff. That’s the hardest thing, far more than raising the money, for us to get right.”
Ultimately, as Ilott and Thompson clearly recognize, owning a famous corpse is just the beginning: Making it walk, talk and earn money again — that’s the real challenge.