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Working Title's Fellner Talks Slate, Oscar Bait Anna Karenina & Tinker Tailor, Bad Movies

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood April 1, 2011 at 7:48AM

What a difference an Oscar season makes. Back during the crash of 2008, when the indie market was in free fall, a new set of rules emerged: no dramas. That's how a little movie called The King's Speech was turned down by most Brit and U.S. backers, except UK's Momentum and Harvey Weinstein, who didn't need to get anyone's approval. He knew a likely Oscar contender when he saw one.
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Thompson on Hollywood


What a difference an Oscar season makes. Back during the crash of 2008, when the indie market was in free fall, a new set of rules emerged: no dramas. That's how a little movie called The King's Speech was turned down by most Brit and U.S. backers, except UK's Momentum and Harvey Weinstein, who didn't need to get anyone's approval. He knew a likely Oscar contender when he saw one.

Similarly, Scott Rudin has adapted to the new landscape (he's closing his LA office, but his overhead is still covered by Disney until he moves over to Sony) by pitching his wide range of projects at different budget levels to different studios--yielding two 2010 Oscar contenders, The Social Network and True Grit.

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The fact that these modest-budget dramas did gangbuster business at the box office means that quality producers like Working Title's Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner can go back to making the movies that they do best. The drama is back. "Now everybody wants The King's Speech," says Fellner during an interview at WT's Beverly Hills office. "The bigger problem is that the people who are able to get these films made aren't thinking about the long-term health of our industry. There's so much competition for leisure time, more than ever. If we don't make good films as opposed to short-term marketable ones, attendance will continue to go down. Somebody has to invest in creating the movies of the future."

Suddenly, post-King's Speech's Oscar wins, things are looking up. Three weeks ago Universal finally exercised its first-look option on StudioCanal's $18-million John LeCarre adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by Let the Right One In director Tomas Alfredson, with a top-flight cast including Oscar-winner Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, and Gary Oldman as George Smiley, which had been for sale at the Berlin Film Festival, after other distribs chased after it. Universal plans a December holiday release with a major Oscar campaign.

Now the studio is greenlighting Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard's Anna Karenina, which reunites Wright with Atonement's Keira Knightley and possibly Saoirse Ronan (Hanna), with Jude Law and Aaron Johnson as Vronsky. The film could start production by year's end, as well as WT's film adaptation of long-running musical Les Miserables with producer Cameron Mackintosh, which Bill Nicholson is writing, and King's Speech's Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper at the helm.

Based in London and Beverly Hills, Working Title, with a staff of 30 and a fancy new building, boasts an enviable track record that includes six Oscar and 26 BAFTA wins: keepers include Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette, Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliott, the Coen brothers' Barton Fink, Fargo, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man, Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth, Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking, Mike Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, the Weitz brothers' About a Boy and Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice and Atonement.

During the last few years of no-go economics, studios weren't making it easy for smart-movie producers like Fellner and Bevan, who luckily have been able to rely on their bread-and-butter franchises--Richard Curtis's Bridget Jones Diary, Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean and Johnny English, and Emma Thompson's Nanny McPhee--which tend to do better overseas than domestic. Working Title had to sideline their own period royalty drama, Joe Wright's Indian Summer, set to star Working Title regular Hugh Grant as the last viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, whose philandering wife Edwina (Cate Blanchett) was engaged in a long-term romance with India's Nehru. It was rich material for a movie.

Instead Universal, where Working Title is partnered for three more years, greenlit Kevin Macdonald's pricey remake of the hit Brit TV series State of Play, with Russell Crowe filling in at the last minute for Brad Pitt, as well as Paul Greengrass's over-budget $130 million Iraq War movie Green Zone, starring Matt Damon. Audiences stayed away from both in droves. They were well-made movies that were not produced on a budget, although Green Zone was backed by several hedge funds, which softened the blow. Lesson learned, Fellner says. Both could have been hits if they had cost far less.

Thompson on Hollywood

Working Title's solid-gold player, writer-director Richard Curtis (Love Actually), hit a road bump with 60s yak-fest Pirate Radio (aka The Boat That Rocked), which tanked. And Ron Howard and Peter Morgan's adaptation of the hit play Frost/Nixon was strictly a success d'estime, well-reviewed and Oscar-nominated: the drama cost a modest $21 million but grossed only $28-million worldwide, while Universal spent heavily on an awards campaign that came up empty-handed.

Working Title has fared best by crafting its own smaller-scale projects and putting them through Universal or Focus, such as Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost; the writer-actor duo teamed with Superbad's Gregg Mottola and Seth Rogen on the $35-million sci-fi comedy Paul, a genially entertaining takeoff on E.T. (with the cooperation of Steven Spieberg). Advance footage played well at Comic-Con in July to stoke the film's premiere at SXSW and recent launch in theaters; so far it has grossed $57 million worldwide, on track to an estimated $100 million total.

As Working Title collects the returns from the ongoing global run of the Billy Elliott musical (more than $400 million worldwide), they are developing a Bridget Jones stage musical with UK chanteuse Lily Allen, as well as another movie sequel (no script or conversation with Renee Zellweger as yet) and Richard and brother Jamie Curtis's romantic comedy Lost For Words, with director Tom Harper attached, about a star who falls for a Chinese director. In development are countless projects which may or may not get made, from Wright's live-action Little Mermaid, adapted by Abi Morgan from a recent stage play, to the comic book adaptation Astro City.

And Working Title has assembled an attractive slate for 2011/2012:

Atkinson returns with Bean: Johnny English Reborn (Universal, December).

Ken Kwapis's Everybody Loves Whales casts Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski in the true 1988 story of how a California freelance reporter's video of three grey whales trapped beneath the ice helped to spark a global effort to save the whales, culminating with President Reagan calling Russian premier Gorbachov to send an ice cutter (Universal, first quarter 2012).

Contraband, a remake of an Icelandic film, just wrapped in New Orleans with Mark Wahlberg and Kate Beckinsale starring along with Ben Foster, Diego Luna and Giovanni Ribisi; Wahlberg is partnered on the film as producer (Universal, March 16 2012).

Cinetic Media will follow its successful Through the Gift Shop model for the Sundance documentary Senna, about the famed Formula 1 sports racer who died at age 33 (trailer below), which Universal has done well with in Japan and Brazil; it will open in Europe this May, June and July. "He had cameras everywhere," Fellner says. "It plays like a three-act drama."

In the meantime, how about getting that Indian Summer movie back up and running? That's one I want to see. Besides, Hugh Grant needs something to do.


This article is related to: Awards, Directors, Headliners, Studios, In Production, Oscars, Coens, Paul Greengrass, Tom Hooper, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth, Universal/Focus Features


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.