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Producers said to stick with Universal

Working Title's Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner have struck a seven-year deal, sources say.

January 13, 2007|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Universal Pictures can breathe a sigh of relief.

Two of the studio's most prolific producers are expected to stay put at the studio, laying to rest speculation that they would find a new home. Working Title Films co-Chairmen Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner have not signed their new contracts, but the deal points were hammered out as of Friday, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because the negotiations were confidential.

The two British filmmakers, who live in London, have an impressive track record, with such films as "Pride and Prejudice," "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and the "Bridget Jones" movies.

Industry insiders had questioned whether the partners would end up at Paramount Pictures' DreamWorks SKG because of their close ties to Chairwoman Stacey Snider, the former movie chief at Universal.

Keeping the producers in the Universal family was a priority for the studio's president, Ron Meyer, who flew to London to assure them of their importance to the studio after Snider said she was leaving in early 2006.

Losing the duo would have been a major blow to Universal, which is grappling with Snider's departure and a string of disappointments.

Since Bevan and Fellner became partners in 1992, their films have collectively racked up more than $3 billion worldwide. Next to Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment, Working Title is Universal's most consistent supplier of films.

Working Title's "United 93," directed by Paul Greengrass, has given Universal its best shot this year for an Oscar nomination. Made under Snider's tenure for less than $20 million, the movie has grossed $76 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, an online tracking service.

For Bevan and Fellner, parting with Universal wouldn't have been easy. They would have had to leave the company they built and its valuable movie library, which were acquired by Universal in 1999. The producers have full creative autonomy and share in the profits of their films, which are financed by Universal. Working Title maintains its own marketing division.

Bevan's and Fellner's roles within Universal could expand under their new seven-year deal. Snider's successors, Universal Chairman Marc Shmuger and co-Chairman David Linde, had envisioned relying on the pair to scout out talent and shepherd projects in Europe as they built an international distribution and production operation, Universal Pictures International.

The pair's roots in the British film industry run deep. They began their careers separately as producers of music videos in the 1980s. Bevan moved on to produce edgy independent films such as "My Beautiful Laundrette," which brought international attention to actor Daniel Day-Lewis and director Stephen Frears.

Around the same time, Fellner produced "Sid and Nancy," an un-romanticized look at the life of punk rocker Sid Vicious, played by then-unknown Gary Oldman.

By 1993, Fellner had joined Bevan as co-chairman of Working Title, and the next year, "Four Weddings and a Funeral" catapulted their careers. By the late 1990s, Working Title was on its way to becoming a European version of Miramax Films, which was releasing such hits as "The English Patient" and "Shakespeare in Love."

"We thought if we put all the resources of Universal behind these guys, they would beat everyone -- and they did," said Chris McGurk, who as Universal's chief operating officer at the time was involved in the acquisition of Working Title and now heads a new movie subsidiary of Liberty Media.

Working Title is virtually unrivaled in Europe because of its financial resources, marketing savvy, distribution network and relationships with talent such as comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, actors Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson and directors Mike Newell and Shekhar Kapur. Bevan and Fellner have collaborated with American filmmakers such as Joel and Ethan Coen and Tim Robbins, backing such Oscar-nominated films as "Fargo" and "Dead Man Walking."

"They are a magnet for talent, particularly in the U.K.," said Kevin Misher, who produced the 2005 thriller "The Interpreter" for Working Title. "They have an international view at a time in the business when the international marketplace has become more valuable than the domestic marketplace."

Working Title films tend to fare better abroad than in the U.S. "Nanny McPhee," last year's children's fantasy tale, was considered a domestic disappointment, grossing only $47 million. But abroad, it brought in nearly $75 million. "Pride and Prejudice," which garnered an Academy Award nomination for Keira Knightley, grossed only $38 million here but $82 million abroad, according to Box Office Mojo.

Bevan and Fellner have learned to stick to what they know best, having stumbled when they attempted to make bigger-budget movies such as "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" and "Thunderbirds." Among their planned releases this year are "Atonement," based on Ian McEwan's bestselling novel, and "The Golden Age," the follow-up to 1998's acclaimed "Elizabeth."

"They don't get caught up in chasing material [in Hollywood] that is hot for two seconds," said producer Michael London, who has worked with the pair on three films. "They have the world to draw from."

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lorenza.munoz@latimes.com

Times staff writer Claudia Eller contributed to this report.

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