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Distrib-production deals fly to U.K.

U.S. studios find no shortage of British companies

With the U.S. indie film biz suffering from a glut of medium-budgeted products in the market and fewer specialty distribs to release them — as well as the ongoing impact of the credit crunch — U.K. production companies are jumping at the chance to link up with the studios.

And while most Brit producers agree a studio deal is essential to building a sustainable business, the exact nature of that special relationship differs with each pact.

Working Title, by some margin the most successful banner in the U.K., has been a wholly owned subsid of Universal Pictures since 1999, yet has enjoyed a harmonious independence thanks to the stellar track records of co-toppers Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan.

It remains the aspirational benchmark for most U.K. film producers. Fellner and Bevan have the power to greenlight projects with a budget of up to $30 million, while Universal covers the company’s overhead and formidable development slate.

Working Title’s dynamic duo have proved particularly adept at working with their trans-

Atlantic partners. This year, they co-produced “Frost/Nixon” with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine, and also teamed with Universal’s speciality division Focus Features on the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading.”

“For 100 years, there have only been six major international distribution organizations,” Fellner says, “and however many brilliant independents there are, if you want worldwide access to distribution and shelf space and output deals for TV, there are really only five or six companies that have that, and they are the studios.”

And Fellner wants studio investment to increase.

“I hope that more studios operate within the U.K. and start to grow new talent and give producers and directors and actors the opportunity to get films made that otherwise we wouldn’t get,” he says.

While Working Title sits confidently atop the Brit film biz, others are following in its footsteps.

David Heyman’s Heyday Films, another U.K. powerhouse, has a long-standing first-look deal with Warner Bros. that dates back to the mid-1990s. While Heyday and Warner Bros. enjoy a fruitful relationship buoyed by the mega-success of the “Harry Potter” franchise, Heyman has branched out to work with other partners.

This year, for example, the producer teamed up with Miramax on the $10 million-$15 million “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” after Warner Bros. passed on the project. Miramax is releasing in the U.S., with Disney handling the pic’s international territories.

Heyman still has a slew of post-Potter projects in the pipeline with Warner Bros., including a live-action version of kiddie classic “Paddington Bear” and Jim Carrey starrer “Yes Man.”

Pacts romantic

Given the success of both Working Title and Heyday in using studio coin for development — in scarce supply elsewhere in the U.K. indie film biz — as well as distribution, other shingles are also making their own pacts.

In June, Matthew Vaughn and Kris Thykier’s Marv Films inked a three-year first-look deal with Sony Pictures as part of the studio’s international film initiative. Sony covers the company’s overhead and has first dibs on distribbing Marv projects in the U.K., internationally and, where appropriate, in the U.S.

Marv execs, however, fund their own development slate through private investors. The company has a slew of upcoming projects, including Helen Mirren starrer “The Debt,” Michael Caine pic “Harry Brown” and comicbook adaptation “Kick-Ass,” which Vaughn is directing.

Notably, none of these projects as yet has any Sony participation.

“I genuinely believe Sony is the most forward thinking of the studios in terms of international,” Thykier says. “What the Sony deal gives us is the opportunity to go out and say we are backed by an international studio, a studio with an international view and an international voice.

“And while we would certainly set out to make all our films with Sony, if they choose not to move with us, I know the other studios quite well because I’ve worked with them over time, and hopefully we’ll find the best studio for the film. But we’ll always go with Sony first.”

Sony may still end up partnering with Marv on either “Harry Brown” and “Kick-Ass,” but the fact that Marv has been able to make those pics outside of its Sony deal is a measure of the flexibility U.K. companies want when working closely with the studios.

In March, Ruby Films — the British company behind “The Other Boleyn Girl” that is co-topped by Alison Owen and former U.K. Film Council exec Paul Trijbits — inked a three-year development and production deal with Miramax and Film4. More than simply a first-look deal, the pact lays out a structure for the partners to greenlight and fully finance projects in the $10 million-$20 million range.

They mean business

“This is a serious commitment from Miramax and Film4 to support what we’re doing at Ruby,” Trijbits says. “We already have a development slate of 25 projects.”

Trijbits calls the deal much more than a first look. “The ambition for Miramax is to make Ruby its designated destination for its films in the U.K,” he says.

The deal is Miramax’s first of its kind anywhere in the world since Daniel Battsek took the helm in 2005. Miramax will take worldwide rights on all Ruby projects made under the partnership, with Film4 retaining U.K. TV rights.

Many projects are already in development under the agreement, including Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Young Stalin,” based on Simon Sebag Montefiore’s bestselling biography of the Soviet dictator’s wild early years in Georgia, and “Friends Like These,” based on Brit scribe Danny Wallace’s attempts to track down his childhood friends.

While having a U.S. partner has its undeniable benefits, the drawbacks, most notably in being answerable to Hollywood-based execs, are also evident.

When Fox Searchlight and U.K.-based shingle DNA Films agreed in 2003 to a five-year, $50 million joint venture (now up for renewal) to produce and distribute British films worldwide, it seemed like a perfect fit. The new incarnation of DNA Films produced a string of critically acclaimed pics such as “The Last King of Scotland,” “Notes on a Scandal” and “The History Boys.”

DNA, led by co-toppers Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich, helped boost Searchlight’s foreign box office presence to a great degree.

Earlier this year, however, production was delayed on DNA’s “The Sweeney,” its adaptation in partnership with U.K. shingle Vertigo of the iconic 1970s Brit TV cop skein, after concerns over the pic’s $16 million pricetag and lack of internationally recognizable cast. DNA expects pic to re-cast in the coming weeks and start filming sometime next year, with helmer Nick Love still onboard.

“The disadvantage can be that the studios are big places, and historically that can be a problem for some U.K. companies,” says Reich. “Searchlight has been terrific for us in that respect because they’re actually a small organization within a bigger one.”

Reich notes how difficult it is for a solely independent U.K. film company to grow.

“It’s very hard to exist without access to finance,” he says. “Now that could be through a studio deal, a sales company or a TV deal. We’ve chosen the studio deal.”

And while indie producers remain at large in the U.K. film industry — the legendary figure of Jeremy Thomas (“The Last Emperor”) continues to beat the odds and thrive — the likelihood is that sealing that all-lucrative deal with a studio will continue to be the Holy Grail for Brit film execs.