U.K. Agency Curtis Brown Flexes Its Prod’n Muscle

Film, TV work are part of the expansion, but it’s not about packaging

Nick Marston

Since joining Curtis Brown in 1997, Nick Marston (pictured above) has led its transformation from musty literary boutique into one of London’s largest and most dynamic talent agencies, with its own flourishing production arm.

As chairman of the theater, film and TV department, Marston reps the film rights to novelists such as John Le Carre and David Mitchell. His writing and directing clients include John Hillcoat, Rowan Joffe, Hossein Amini and Niels Arden Oplev.

But his most radical and controversial move was the 2008 launch of Cuba Pictures to develop, package and produce for Curtis Brown clients.

The label recently announced plans for a $20 million, seven-part BBC TV series based on Susanna Clarke’s novel about warring 19th century magicians, “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.”

That’s a significant step up following the acclaim for its first two productions: John Crowley’s telepic “Boy A” (pictured below) which launched the career of Andrew Garfield, and Rufus Norris’ debut “Broken,” which premiered at Cannes last year and took top prize at the British Independent Film Awards.

(Cuba Pictures’ works include “Boy A,” the film debut of thesp Andrew Garfield.)

Cuba is just one part of Curtis Brown’s expansion. In April, the agency took over lit boutique Conville & Walsh. Christopher Little, the former agent for J.K. Rowling, brought his shingle under Curtis Brown’s umbrella last year.

The acting division, under Sarah Spear, has carved out a lucrative niche repping teen heartthrobs, such as Robert Pattinson, Kaya Scodelario and Tom Holland. “It was a conscious decision for us to invest in young agents and young clients,” Marston notes.

Unlike in the U.S., British agents are allowed to act as producers — but many, including some of Curtis Brown’s rivals, think they shouldn’t.

Marston defl ects talk of conflict of interest. He argues that Cuba champions more challenging material that clients might otherwise be unable to get made, rather than picking the most obviously commercial plums.

“The most important thing,” Marston says, is “to set a benchmark of quality, to produce films that, if we hadn’t put them together, wouldn’t exist.”

“Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” was languishing in turnaround from New Line when Cuba rescued the project and reconceived it as event TV.

Marston also points out that Cuba doesn’t just package its own material with its own clients. “Boy A” brought together two clients, author Jonathan Trigell and screenwriter Mark O’Rowe, but neither director Crowley nor star Garfield were repped by the agency.

“I’m against that word ‘packaging,’ ” Marston says. “A packaged film doesn’t sound like a very alluring proposition.”

Vet producer Dixie Linder joined Cuba last year, and Marston’s longtime sidekick, Tally Garner, recently gave up her agenting chores to work full-time on production.

Upcoming movie projects with BBC Films include “London Road,” directed by Norris, based on a musical play; and “The One Below,” a chiller that marks the directing debut of playwright David Farr.