From “Bridget Jones’s Diary” to “Mr. Bean,” Working Title has for the past three and a half decades helped ensure that the sun never sets on British pop culture.
The leaders of the London-based film and television production company, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, have been important emissaries from across the pond, backing stories that resonate with global audiences.
Be they quirky rom-coms or costume-heavy historical epics, their films have enjoyed commercial and critical success. Since it was founded in 1984, Working Title has produced more than 100 features, which have generated $8 billion globally. They have been nominated for 86 Oscars and won 14 statuettes.
Despite its sterling track record, the company, housed in Central London offices near the West End, is an anomaly in today’s movie business. The films that form the spine of its reputation, such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Billy Elliot,” are part of a vanishing style of moviemaking. They are human stories that don’t rely on caped heroes or explosions to draw crowds.
“All the time you’re thinking is this compelling?” says Bevan. “Can it cut through? Because there’s so much noise out there for consumers now, from streaming services to television.”
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So far, the company seems to be navigating the churn in the industry. Just this summer, Working Title scored with the surprise comedy hit “Yesterday,” which imagines a world in which nobody knows the music of the Beatles. It’s hoping to close out 2019 on a high with the Dec. 20 release of “Cats,” the risky big-screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage smash.
And yes, Bevan, Fellner and their team have seen the memes and read the mean tweets that greeted the first trailer for “Cats.”
Commentators feasted on the way that an A-list cast that includes Taylor Swift and Judi Dench had been feline-ized with whiskers and swishing tails, calling the transformation creepy. The two executives are taking a “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” stance, noting that the online furor raised the movie’s profile.
“What does one say?” says Fellner. “The reality is that 100 million people or more saw the trailer, and, yes, there were some people that didn’t like it, and as is the world we live in, those who didn’t like it were the most vociferous.”
Bevan has his own theory: “They were probably people who didn’t know ‘Cats,’ and the fact is they were either anticipating something animated or something that was on four legs. Among people who know ‘Cats,’ the reaction was pretty solid.”
Moreover, the cats themselves have changed in appearance. The versions that were shown in the initial trailer were not the finished renditions; they were the result of a mad scramble to get visual effects shots completed in time for the teaser, says Fellner. “You’re seeing subtle changes,” he says. “The characters have progressed and are progressing every day.”
Still, many view “Cats,” with a production budget of roughly $100 million, as a big gamble for backer Universal Pictures. Currently celebrating its more-than-20-year business partnership with Working Title, the studio views the company as an essential element in its overall strategy. Universal is in the process of renewing its first-look deal with the production entity and believes that the kinds of movies it makes — from biopics to musicals — play a vital role in helping to shape its slate and that of its indie label, Focus Features.
|Renée Zellweger stars in the “Bridget Jones” franchise.
Courtesy of Working Title
“Because of our shared history, there’s a great shorthand and a huge amount of trust,” says Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. “I talk to them two or three times a week. They may be in London, but I feel like I speak to them more than a lot of people on the lot.”
Ron Meyer, vice chairman of NBC Universal, has known the Working Title team for nearly their entire tenure at the studio. He ascribes the long relationship to something simple.
“They have a vision for projects and they present it very effectively,” says Meyer. “I find them strongly opinionated, but very collaborative. They know what they want to do and how to do it.”
A key ingredient to Working Title’s stature as one of Europe’s preeminent production operations is its long-standing relationships with talent.
It’s easy to understand the loyalty. It gave filmmakers such as Stephen Daldry and Joe Wright their first features, and has collaborated with Edgar Wright and the Coen brothers on many of their most notable offerings.
“I consider Working Title to be my home creatively,” says Daldry, who made “Billy Elliot” with the company. “I was once told, ‘Never work with anybody you couldn’t have dinner with,’ and one of the great joys about Tim and Eric is you always want to have dinner with them.”
Josie Rourke was primarily known for her work in theater as the artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse when she was tapped by Bevan to make her film-directing debut in last year’s “Mary Queen of Scots.”
“He did a huge amount of gentle shepherding,” says Rourke. “He would just tell me: ‘You’ll be fine. It’s just like what you’ve done in theater. You just need to put the right people around you.’”
The pair also inspires loyalty, in the words of Joe Wright, by treating filmmakers in a “gentlemanly fashion.” Wright was particularly struck by Bevan’s insistence that he shut down post-production on his war drama “Atonement” to recover from an illness. “He told me to take as long as I needed,” Wright remembers. “There’s amazing human compassion and understanding that you feel from them. You’re not just there to churn out another box office hit. They give a s— about you as an individual.”
Richard Curtis, who has made nearly every one of his films for Working Title, teaming with the company on such hits as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Love Actually,” praised Bevan and Fellner’s commercial and creative savvy.
“Some producers are more interested in cinema and don’t care how much money a movie makes, and some are more interested in money and don’t care about art,” Curtis says. “Tim and Eric exist beautifully on the line between an interest in commerce and a real devotion to cinema.”
It also helps that the duo eschews publicity, preferring to focus on the films. Bevan and Fellner approach the photo shoot that accompanies this story with an enthusiasm usually reserved for a tax audit. “The only thing we really hate is having our photo taken,” Fellner mutters at one point.
Even as it hopes to continue making four to six films a year, Working Title is branching out. It’s devoting more of its attention to television, having recently made “Tales of the City” for Netflix; the acclaimed HBO documentary “The Case Against Adnan Syed”; and “Hanna,” an Amazon-backed thriller renewed for a second season. In the theater realm, Working Title is following up its successful musical version of Broadway’s “Billy Elliot” with “Nanny McPhee,” an adaptation of the hit film series it helped create. Original star Emma Thompson is writing the book and may direct.
|Eddie Redmayne belts out a song as Marius in “Les Misérables.”
Courtesy of Working Title
“We want to be neutral when we look at a piece of material,” says Fellner. “We want to say, ‘What’s the best platform for it?’”
Bevan and Fellner are also excited about the emergence of subscription streaming offerings such as Disney Plus, WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and Universal’s own Netflix rival, Peacock.
“We have the opportunity, if Peacock decides to get aggressively into movies, to work with them and with some of the others,” says Fellner. “The bottom line is that for people like us and colleagues in directing and writing trades, it’s a fantastic time to be creating content because you have a choice. Until two years ago, we would be sitting here worrying about the fact that cinema is declining, DVD is dying, and oh, my God, woe is us.”
Fellner and Bevan didn’t join forces until 1992, but they share professional trajectories. Both broke into the business making music videos and then leveraged those connections to work with up-and-coming talent behind the camera. Bevan’s big break came with 1985’s “My Beautiful Laundrette.” Director Stephen Frears was introduced to the aspiring producer through a mutual friend, the filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, and decided to give Bevan his first feature gig. “He took to it effortlessly,” says Frears. “We shot it quickly and in a lively way, so there was no time to sit around worrying if he’d be up to it.”
Originally intended to be a television film, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” the story of a young Pakistani business owner’s love affair with a street punk, was so well received when it debuted at the Edinburgh Film Festival that it scored theatrical distribution in the U.K. and the U.S. The film’s frank depiction of homosexuality made it a cult favorite, as did a shape-shifting turn by a young Daniel Day-Lewis.
Fellner had his own brush with cinematic distinction, hustling to make “Sid and Nancy,” a look at the tortured relationship between Sex Pistols frontman Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. When it hit theaters in 1986, it drew strong reviews for Alex Cox’s directing and Gary Oldman’s lead performance.
Bevan and Fellner believe that they benefited not only from their entrepreneurial spirit, but also from timing. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s targeting of trade unions loosened labor restrictions, making the U.K. more attractive as a production hub. Concurrently, the country decided to make public investment in the arts a priority, pushing Channel 4, a publicly owned media company, to back movies from British filmmakers. Both “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “Sid and Nancy” received investments from the channel. They also discovered something invaluable in those early days, when they were operating without the security of a major studio behind them.
“You were risking everything, and then you were betting the bank on the next film,” says Bevan. “The world we live in now is so risk-averse that you can talk yourself out of doing anything. We learned that if you want to be a film producer, you’ve got to produce films. There’s no point in talking about it. Nothing’s ever going to be perfect.”
Fellner joined the company in 1992 after Polygram became its primary corporate backer. The business relationship with Universal began in 1998 when Seagram’s, the studio’s former parent company, bought Polygram.
Initially, Working Title struggled to make a name for itself. Its fortunes dramatically shifted, however, with 1994’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” the Curtis-penned romance that made Hugh Grant a star and served as a sort of proof of concept. It demonstrated that stories with a uniquely British DNA could still be embraced by audiences all over the world, riding the wave of a larger period of cultural globalization.
Indeed, the film made nearly 80% of its $245.7 million global haul from international audiences at a time when the U.S. market was responsible for the lion’s share of a film’s box office. That presaged modern movie-business economics — currently, most major films make roughly 70% of their ticket sales abroad. “Four Weddings” was followed in short order by date movies such as “Love Actually” and the “Bridget Jones” series as well as a fruitful partnership with comic Rowan Atkinson that led to the creation of the “Mr. Bean” and “Johnny English” film franchises.
Unlike other U.K. execs, Fellner and Bevan never decamped for Hollywood. Working Title maintains an office in Los Angeles, and the two often make the trip west, but London remains home. Edgar Wright, who worked with them on “Baby Driver,” “Shaun of the Dead” and several other films, believes that’s critical to the company’s continued success.
|Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell topline “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”
“It’s f—ing freezing here,” he says. “A blast of cold every now and then, and all that frigid winter in London is good for the brain. It keeps Tim and Eric grounded.”
Fellner and Bevan use a divide-and-conquer strategy to orchestrate the workflow on their movies. Though both are listed as producers on all of the company’s films, one will take the lead on an individual project. The other will then offer notes and advice during post-production — something they believe allows them to assess footage with a fresh set of eyes. It’s an approach born of necessity.
“We nearly killed each other, and then everybody nearly killed us,” says Bevan. Adds Fellner: “It was a situation on [the 1993 thriller] ‘Romeo Is Bleeding’ where the director asked me something and I went, ‘No, we’re not doing that; that’s not the right idea.’ Then, without my knowing it, the next day he asked Tim, and Tim hadn’t realized I’d said no — and he said yes.”
Given that Working Title isn’t in the business of making movies about toys or comic book heroes, it deploys a different model for finding compelling material. It bets on creative visions, often those of filmmakers with whom it has previously worked.
“It’s like creating a new business every time you go out on a film, which is why unless you’re in the sequel business like Disney is, you look to anything you can do to mitigate [risk],” Bevan says. “Ongoing creative relationships are for us the heart of that. So you know what Joe Wright is going to do on a film or what kind of film Edgar Wright or Richard Curtis are going to make.”
The two also aren’t motivated to scramble to meet predetermined release dates, preferring to wait until a script is finalized before agreeing to make the movie. For “Cats,” that meant waiting three years for the development of effects, dubbed “digital fur technology,” that would enable its stars to be covered in photo-realistic fur.
“They’re not going to push for a green light until they can deliver,” says Langley. “When we first started talking about ‘Cats,’ they were looking at putting prosthetics on the actors. There were all sorts of technical problems with dancers overheating and not being able to keep the fur on. It didn’t look good, so they went away and solved things.”
Throughout the process, one that Working Title acknowledges has been among the most challenging in its history, Bevan and Fellner believed in director Tom Hooper, who collaborated with them on the Oscar-winning smash “Les Misérables,” to crack the code on the musical.
“It’s a production that’s much loved around the globe, so it’s exciting to be able to bring the world of the show into cinema,” Fellner says.
Despite the social media backlash, Universal believes that “Cats” could become a holiday hit. The music, particularly the torch song “Memory,” sung by Jennifer Hudson, is beloved around the world, and the film is intended for a family audience. The holiday release date could put the movie in position to capitalize on consumers who are looking for something to do with their children between Christmas and New Year’s.
Even if “Cats” fails, Working Title is bullish on several future projects. February brings “Emma,” a wry take on the Jane Austen classic that features rising star Anya Taylor-Joy as the matchmaking title character. The company also hopes to turn “Billy Elliot: The Musical” into a film, completing an odd saga that would see the story of a boy ballet dancer unspool on screen, then stage, and back to cinemas again.
Working Title believes that after a fallow period at the box office, romantic comedies may be swinging back into vogue. That’s good news for a company that achieved its prominence as the world swooned for Hugh Grant’s meet-cute odysseys. In this case, the savior is an unlikely one: Netflix has profited from making romantic comedies, such as “The Kissing Booth” and “Always Be My Maybe,” that resonate with younger viewers who may not have grown up during Julia Roberts’ heyday. That, in turn, has helped drive an audience to theatrical love stories such as “Yesterday.”
“There’s a cross-fertilization going on,” says Bevan. “You sort of feel like the genre is being rediscovered.”
That may even portend the return of a Working Title staple, the perpetually harried-in-love-and-life Bridget Jones, so memorably portrayed by Renée Zellweger. The character’s metamorphosis from hard-living singleton to married mother of one has been charted in three films, culminating in 2016’s “Bridget Jones’s Baby.” The Working Title team thinks it may be time to revisit the character.
“There is something really rather gorgeous about that sequence of films,” Fellner says. “In terms of mainstream genre movies, I don’t think anyone’s done it before — the idea of taking Renée from her 20s, 30s, 40s and now into her 50s. I hope it gets done.”
As Fellner and Bevan discuss their role in bringing British film to the masses, a potential cataclysm is looming in the distance. Working Title’s movies have explored universal themes of love and loss, hope and despair, adversity and triumph. However, the country that birthed many of these stories and inspired many of their directors and writers is hurtling toward Brexit, the pending withdrawal of the U.K. from the European Union. Critics of the move argue it will engender a new period of seclusion that’s in contradiction to Working Title’s history of serving as a cinematic ambassador.
So what do Fellner and Bevan think?
“We hope it won’t limit our ability to cross borders in Europe practically and culturally,” Fellner says. “Or that the country becomes too isolationist,” interjects Bevan. These, of course, are knotty geopolitical issues that touch upon more than just the future of another “Bridget Jones” film. In the meantime, maybe the answer lies in something Fellner says earlier in the interview.
“We’ve got to continue to be optimists.”