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Working Title: Why UK’s Most Successful Film Production Company Is Back In Its Wheelhouse

Over the past 16 years, Working Title has made Britain’s biggest-ever movies including Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Bean. The company headed by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner is responsible for 96 films grossing $4.8 billion worldwide, 60% of which came from Universal’s 46 Working Title releases. (Working Title started off indie until 1992 when it was acquired by Polygram until 1999 when Universal bought Polygram and with it, Working Title.) Its movies have won six Oscars, 26 Baftas and prizes at Cannes and Berlin. Forget Korda. Ignore Puttnam. Bevan and Fellner are easily Britain’s most successful cinema magnates. Yet something almost always goes wrong every time they veer away from Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, who are responsible for nine out of the top 10 highest-grossing Working Title films. There also has been a succession of political films and expensive thrillers. When it comes to deciding what to make, Bevan says everything starts with passion. So A Serious ManUnited 93, Elizabeth:The Golden Age, Burn After Reading, and The Interpreter put him in business with big stars or big directors or both. “These are A-list people that most producers would kill to work with. More than that, they feed your mind,” Bevan told me in a recent interview. It was Fellner and Bevan who gave Joe Wright a huge break and $28 million to direct Keira Knightley in 2005′s Pride and Prejudice, which made $121 million in worldwide box office gross and resulted in 4 Oscar nods for Focus Features/Universal. But Universal lost $50 million on Paul Greengrass directing Matt Damon in 2010′s underperforming Green Zone after its gross budget swelled from $80 million to $130 million (not including tax incentives).

“The last batch of movies represented them breaking free of the Working Title formula,” says one producer who’s worked with them. “In Hollywood, you’re judged by how you’ve just done, not what you’ve made over the years. So they’ve gone back to the formulaic stuff. It’s depressing.” Still, retreating “back in their wheelhouse”, as the American phrase goes, is also smart business. For now, Working Title is playing it safer. Indian Summer, a big budget movie about the last days of Britain’s colonial rule of India in 1947, has been dry-docked even though Joe Wright (Atonement) was set to direct Cate Blanchett as Lady Edwina Mountbatten. As Bevan says in an interview with me, “You don’t produce a misfire and then not take heed from it.” Fellner adds: “It’s a consolidation period for us. A retrenchment period.” To that end, Working Title made six staff redundant in July last year, reducing headcount to around 40, which is historically what it’s always been.

Working Title’s latest release is the sequel to Emma Thompson’s Nanny McPhee Returns which Universal releases August 20th. Upcoming projects include Johnny English Reborn starring Rowan Atkinson and Gillian Anderson, as well as the Richard Curtis comedy Lost For Words, and a third Bridget Jones movie. The first Johnny English, which cost $40 million to make, earned just $28 million in America but did enormous business internationally grossing $132 million overseas. That’s typical: Working Title movies routinely make 2/3s of their gross outside of North America. Bevan tells me, “The thing that always sets us apart is that we’ve always done so well in the international marketplace. If there’s going to be any growth in this business, it’s going to be outside of North America.” And yet, waiting for Bevan and Fellner in their office building, I realize that Working Title has always struck me as being intensely London — as much a part of the city as red double-decker buses, Trafalgar Square, and pigeons. Even its logo used to look like the symbol for London Underground.

When Bevan and Fellner first sat down with then Universal CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr in 1998, Read More »

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Working Title Plants Flag in Kurt Busiek’s Graphic Novel ‘Astro City’

Mike Fleming

AstroCity01EXCLUSIVE: Working Title Films partners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner have made a deal to turn Kurt Busiek’s graphic novel series Astro City into a live action feature. The deal gives the prolific comic book writer Busiek his first chance to write the script. Launched in 1995, the series has a Sin City anthology vibe, set in a world crammed with superheros and super-villains. Stories are told from the vantage point of those heroes and villains, as well as the humans who get caught between them. Heroes range from Samaritan, The Hanged Man, The Apollo Eleven–a group of astronauts mutated during a moon landing–to Winged Beauty, a feisty feminist who always saves women first. The series has won multiple Eisner and Harvey Awards for Busiek, who created the series with artists Brent Anderson and Alex Ross.

Aside from his own comic creations, Busiek has written for Marvel Comics staples like Iron Man, The Avengers and Spider-Man, and for DC Comics on Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and others. He continues writing new installments of Astro City, but is also working with Alex Ross on a revival of Jack Kirby’s concepts, and Busiek is launching his own urban fantasy series The Witchlands. The deal, brokered by Mosaic’s Nick Harris, is worth seven-figures if the film gets made. Bevan and Fellner will produce, with Ben Barenholtz, Busiek and Jonathan Alpers exec producing. The latter trio took a crack at a movie version in 2003, but … Read More »

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Working Title Boss Invests In Online Game

By | Thursday July 15, 2010 @ 4:16am PDT

We-R-logoEric Fellner, co-chairman of Working Title, is backing a new online game being created by the UK producers of Kate Modern. The game, which will launch in November, claims to blur the lines between film and gaming.

Tom Thirlwall, co-founder of We R Interactive, tells me: “We’re bringing together the worlds of the movies and online play.”

Investing with Fellner are ITV’s new commercial head Fru Hazlitt and Peter Mead, co-founder of one of London’s most respected ad agencies, Abbott Mead Vickers.

Founders include Thirlwall, CEO of Bigballs Films (Kate Modern), and ex-Eidos executive David Rose (Hitman). Other executives have been drawn from ITV and Ingenious Media.

Console games such as Red Dead Redemption or Bioshock increasingly use stories as part of the shoot ‘em up action. These games can cost $50 million each to produce over a three year period. We R Interctive’s new game will cost less than that because its makers plan to keep improving it over time. Rather than pay up to $60 upfront in a gaming store, online players will fund the game’s development using micro-payments. Players will play the game through social networking sites such as Facebook. Gamers must constantly upgrade if they’re to stay playing the game (groan, tell me about it. I’m losing track of the map-pack upgrades my teenagers keep pestering me for while playing Modern Warfare 2).

Thirlwall tells me, “We caught Eric’s eye one year ago. We showed him the demo, which shows how you … Read More »

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Working Title Remaking Little Mermaid

By | Thursday July 8, 2010 @ 3:04am PDT

Little_MermaidJoe Wright, who directed The Soloist for London-based Working Title, is developing a live-action feature of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale. This adaptation, written by Abi Morgan (Brick Lane), has been particularly inspired by a production staged by The Little Angel Theatre Company using puppets. Wright’s father John Wright founded the theatre company. The project brings Wright back into the Working Title fold. Co-chairmen Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner gave Wright his first big break directing Pride and Prejudice, which he followed with Atonement. His most recent film, Hanna, starring Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana, is currently in post-production.

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