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Roll Britannia: Inside an indie empire

With low overhead and laid-back style, Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan have taken Working Title Films to Hollywood heights.

January 21, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

ONE bright day last fall, movie producer Tim Bevan, a strapping Brit in a down vest, barreled through the streets of Soho on a walking tour of some of the most hotly anticipated British films of the year.

It took just an hour.

That's because Bevan, 49, speed-marched. In the London film world, there are no golf carts to jet around on, so Bevan strode in and out of buildings, past fields of rabbit warren offices, through editing bays. This is the cobbled-together fiefdom of the once obscure, now powerful Working Title Films, which Bevan and his partner, Eric Fellner, 47, run. In the parlance of Hollywood, they're the Brian Grazers of England, the Jerry Bruckheimers of the British Empire, the producers at the top of the professional heap.

Located thousands of miles from film's epicenter, they operate with less bombast than some of their American counterparts, but that doesn't mean their heap isn't sizable. Their films range from the oeuvre of screenwriter Richard Curtis, perhaps the keenest practitioner of romantic comedy working today ("Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill"), to "Bean," starring the loopy klutz played by comedian Rowan Atkinson, to takes out of English history such as "Elizabeth," to films that seem to rise from the American psyche such as "Dead Man Walking," "United 93" and the upcoming blood-splatterer "Smokin' Aces." When the iconoclastic Coen brothers opt to write original scripts, it's Working Title that produces them.

Still the leitmotif for Working Title's long run is that the duo makes films primarily for the rest of the world. The United States is a big territory, but certainly not their most important one. "Bean," for instance, made $45 million here and $192 million abroad; Curtis' 2003 film "Love Actually" garnered $69 million here and an additional $185 million overseas. They have more than 80 films to their credit, with grosses topping $2.5 billion, and there's nary a Hollywood-style, action-laden blockbuster on the list.

International gross now accounts for 50% to 60% of the total box office take and is expected to grow in the next few years as multiplexes continue to rise in such cinematically underserved environs as China and Russia. While Hollywood continues to churn out blockbusters, there's increasing interest at all the studios in catering to the local tastes in the different markets around the globe. Sony and Warner Bros. have built operations in countries as diverse as France and China to make local language films, ones that can travel -- as the success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" has shown.

Last week, a grateful Universal re-upped the duo for an additional seven years, with plans for Working Title to expand its slate to five films a year. They're also to serve as talent scouts for the rest of the globe and help international filmmakers transition into Hollywood. The studio has been bankrolling their expanding empire since 1999 and releasing their films under Universal and its specialty label, Focus Features. The studio has granted them enviable autonomy: Bevan and Fellner can greenlight films under $30 million. That price tag might sound ludicrous to Bruckheimer, but it can perfectly accommodate a film such as 2005's swoony version of Jane Austen's "Pride & Prejudice," which cost $20 million and grossed $120 million worldwide.

"They have a uniquely worldwide perspective," says Universal Pictures Co-chairman David Linde. "To me, they've always been ahead of the curve. Everyone [is] talking about trying to become more involved with the international marketplace. Tim and Eric were talking about the global marketplace 20 years ago."

Indeed, the world is their oyster. "If you're looking for growth, it ain't going to be inside America," says Bevan. Even moviegoing tastes appear to have been affected by the political realignments triggered by 9/11.

The next day in their offices, a jet-lagged Fellner explains: "I think that European audiences would rather see a non-American film if they have the opportunity." Conversely, Americans have grown more resistant to British fare -- unless it's Harry Potter.

"To sell British films in America has been more difficult," says Bevan. He and Fellner are sensing a "glass ceiling" for British films -- meaning that a film can expect to top out at around $50 million at the U.S. box office. "It was certainly noticeable in '02, '03 and '04. Culturally, the world has changed, hasn't it?"

Elizabeth revisited

ON this brisk autumn day, Britannia rules as Bevan showcases Brit culture -- high and low.

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