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Reborn Ealing pins hopes on film

Studio's 'St. Trinian's' launching at Cannes

It’s hard to imagine anything more English than Rupert Everett in drag, up to hijinks with a bunch of saucy schoolgirls.

But will they get the joke in Tokyo, Turin or Topeka?

Barnaby Thompson is praying they do. His ambitious project to restore Blighty’s historic Ealing Studios to its former glory will reach a crucial moment this month, when its new international sales arm launches “St. Trinian’s” at Cannes, amid as much hullabaloo as it can muster.

Expect to see nubile British starlets parading down the Croisette in gym slips, which should at least get the Japanese buyers through the door.

This $12 million caper, set in a posh girls’ boarding school presided over by a strangely masculine headmistress played by Everett, is a contemporary reprise of a 50-year-old series of Brit films, much loved in Blighty but unknown abroad.

The old Ealing of the 1940s and ’50s could rely on a strong home market to support classic comedies like “The Ladykillers,” “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and “The Man in the White Suit,” without worrying about how they would play abroad. But the 21st century Ealing must tailor its Britishness to global tastes.   

The debut of Ealing Studios Intl., headed by Natalie Brenner, thus reps a major turning point in the ability of the reborn studio to control its own destiny. Brenner’s not just there to sell the movies, but to make sure Ealing makes only what the market wants to buy.

“St. Trinian’s,” which Thompson is co-directing alongside his old chum Oliver Parker, is actually the second Ealing movie Brenner has handled. Her first, the lame sex comedy “I Want Candy,” was already well advanced when she arrived and, although she’s too diplomatic to say so, clearly not the kind of parochial film she expects the studio to make in the future.

Brenner is much more optimistic about “St Trinian’s.” With Entertainment Film Distributors aboard for the U.K., the high concept — a British version of “Mean Girls” — plus the ensemble of Colin Firth, Lena Headey, Toby Jones, Caterina Murino and, of course, a busload of Blighty’s most alluring young actresses — presales are already rolling in Germany and Benelux.

Ealing is also stretching its brand beyond the narrow confines of British comedy. “From Time to Time,” starring Maggie Smith, is a magical family tale by Julian Fellowes. The studio is even developing a dark U.S. caper with Dustin Hoffman producing.

As Thompson points out, the old Ealing was never just about comedy. But that’s what it was famous for, and the classic posters on his walls are a constant reminder of the brand he’s trying to live up to. The studio’s patchy recent run with pics such as “Alien Autopsy,” “Imagine Me and You,” “Valiant” and “Fade to Black” reflects how hard it is to rediscover that old formula for quality British filmmaking with broad appeal.

With the library owned by StudioCanal, Ealing’s only real link to its past is the name and the buildings themselves — still in the long process of refurbishment that Thompson started when he rescued them from crumbling obscurity in 2000.

The studio, with its three soundstages and warren of offices to rent, is financially separate from Ealing’s own production activities. The bricks and mortar nonetheless help intangibly to raise production finance, by giving investors confidence that the team is serious about building a sustainable business. According to m.d. James Spring, that’s what encouraged Investec to provide gap finance for “St. Trinian’s.” The studio’s symbolic importance to the British film industry also explains why the U.K. Film Council, which initially turned down “St. Trinian’s,” rode to the rescue when the tax funding collapsed two weeks before the start of shooting.   

Now Ealing is closing a deal with a bank and an equity financier which will help bankroll 50% of the budgets for its films or third-party projects sold by the international arm. 

After seven years of slogging, the new Ealing is still a work in progress. But out in the leafy west London suburb, something is finally starting to emerge from the rubble. What Ealing needs now is a hit to define its new era. Whether “St. Trinian’s” fits the bill will be much clearer after the schoolgirls strut their stuff in Cannes.

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