The 21st Annual Hamptons Film Festival awarded UK’s Working Title Films the Golden Starfish Award for Lifetime Achievement. Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Richard Curtis and Edgar Wright were present for a discussion about Working Title films (currently owned by Universal) and how the British production company (WT2 is now the indie arm of Working Title films) evolved to bring the UK film industry, which was heading for a cliff, into the light of world wide status, garnering 35 BAFTA Awards, 10 Academy Awards, and films that have grossed more than $6 billion globally. Not too shabby.
However, when you recognize the films they’ve helped to create, you will understand why they’ve done so well. They have intuited the ethos of the minds and hearts of ordinary people and sensed that the larger principles of love, virtue, common sense, unity, family, forgiveness, courage and perseverance still mean something. Having a sense for surrounding themselves with the right team and sterling directors, they managed to produce many beloved films that can be watched over and over again, with audiences finding something new each time. Some of their greats include Bridget Jones Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, Elizabeth, Billy Elliot, Notting Hill, Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, Atonement, Frost/Nixon, Les Miserables, About a Boy, Nanny McPhee, Rush, Atonement, Pride and Prejudice (Kiera Knightly) About Time, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, to name a few.
Time Beven and Eric Fellner both began in the music industry producing music videos. Beven began the company with Sarah Radclyffe in 1983. Eventually they met Steven Frears and My Beautiful Launderette came into being; it stars a nascent Daniel Day-Lewis and the film holds up beautifully today because it was way ahead of its time and perhaps still is because it deals with sexual discrimination, ethnocentrism and racism, issues which are current and trending.
When Radclyffe left, Eric Fellner came on board as a Co-Chair. Liking the results of their creative teamwork they continued attempting to raise money and breaking into the Indie film scene which in the 1990s which was taking off in the US. Tim Beven joked about this saying no one who wants to make money goes into Indie films. The point being that such films are labors of love and time, and it’s exceptional when a film is commercially viable and artistically stellar, and it’s also hard work and that ineffable quality of luck.
As they began to hit their stride with other offerings, they moved to their first big hit Four Weddings and a Funeral. However, just before they took off, in 1992, they set up the basis of the company that is today and it seems to work for them. They do three to four films a year with a staff of 37-38 people. They use the same directors and writers who have become used to and know the parameters they’ve set up. They enjoy working with individuals like Richard Curtis and Tom Hooper (Les Miserables), with whom they have a solid relationship, understanding their innovation and vision. (i.e. live singing in Les Miserables)
Prior to Working Title productions success, many believed it was necessary to go to Hollywood to make films. The concept has been completely reversed. Even though they have cast Americans in their films (Renee Zellweger) and Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, it has been because they were the best actors for the job. That has been their MO in casting their films…the right actors in the right roles where others don’t work or are ghastly despite their celebrity status. Both Bevan and Fellner joked about this, affirming that with their biggest successes, the parts went to those who were the best, not necessarily big names. In the instance of Hugh Grant, it turned out that he became a big name after the phenomenal popularity of Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Bevan and Fellner discussed that they’ve developed a circle of trust with those on their team for example Richard Curtis, screenwriter of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary and Writer/Director, About Time. Indeed, whichever one said it, Bevan or Fellner, they speak for many when they state that making films is painful and growing more and more difficult. The benefit is when Indie films are supported and the mid-list films are applauded by film fans who appreciate artistry and superb film making with less commercial endeavors.
And if serendipity manages to work things out and there is a special alignment, then commercial and artistic brilliance can happen. Working Title has managed to have their share of the two combined putting the UK on the map globally as a place where great films outside of Hollywood can be made.