London-based Working Title has optioned The History Keepers, a new children’s novel due to be published by Random House Children’s Books in the UK this fall. It’s being pitched as “Harry Potter meets Doctor Who.” Actor-turned-screenwriter Damian Dibben’s debut novel follows a boy whose parents have been kidnapped not only to another part of the world but another time completely. Fourteen-year-old Jake Djones must travel backwards and forwards in time from present-day London to 19th century France and 16th century Venice trying to find his mum and dad. Dibben’s agent Jo Unwin of Conville & Walsh tells me U.S. rights publishing rights are still under auction. Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner will produce for Working Title, the UK’s most successful film company (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary). Rachel Holroyd of Casarotto Ramsay Associates negotiated the film deal. Random House bought The History Keepers — the first in a three book series — in a “substantial six-figure deal” according to Conville & Walsh. Holroyd said that there’s been a great deal of anticipation and interest around these books. “Everyone wants to have the next successful franchise and a family film that is educational and entertaining involving time travel ticks all the boxes,” she said.
EXCLUSIVE: As his new film Unknown gets its international premiere in Berlin today and rolls out in U.S. theaters, director Jaume Collet-Serra is making a deal to direct Red Circle, the remake of the 1970 Jean-Pierre Melville-directed Le Cercle Rouge. The film is being written by Eastern Promises scribe Steven Knight for Working Title Films partners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, who’ll produce with Arthur Sarkissian.
Collet-Serra was just at the center of a Warner Bros deal for Harker, a potential franchise he’ll direct that focuses on vampire hunter Jonathan Harker character from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with Leonardo DiCaprio among its producers. The director’s stock is up because with Unknown, he delivered a thriller in the $30 million range that, like Liam Neeson’s Taken, was shot outside the U.S. and is geared to do strong business overseas in addition to its domestic gross. The heist film Red Circle has similar potential, as it will be set in Hong Kong. Collet-Serra hasn’t fixed on his next feature assignment. When he returns from Berlin, he will go right to work directing The River, the ABC series thriller pilot hatched by Paranormal Activity‘s Oren Peli. Collet-Serra’s repped by CAA.
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 Man, United 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,
EXCLUSIVE: 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 …