Superlatives come easy when describing Brit production powerhouse Working Title. By some measure the most successful production company in the UK, if not Europe, its co-chairmen Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner find themselves in the midst of their most productive burst of activity in a storied career spanning four decades. With four films premiering between the Toronto-Venice awards season axis- Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest opening Venice; Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl; Stephen Frears’ The Program and Brian Helgeland’s Legend– and another film released in recent weeks- Zak Efron-starrer We Are Your Friends. Not to mention the release next February of the Coen Brothers’ all-star cast Hail, Caesar and Sacha Baron Cohen comedy Grimsby. The company re-upped with Universal – itself enjoying quite the year- in June to run through 2020 to ensure they will continue to enjoy studio-supported overhead, development and global distribution.
Increasingly, however, Bevan and Fellner- or Tim and Eric as they are more commonly known- have also forged strong partnerships with the likes of Studio Canal – Tinker,Tailer, Soldier, Spy– and also done deals with the likes of MRC, Warner Bros and Sony. It gives them the unmatched ability to operate across both studio and indie playing fields and, predominantly- continue to make the kind of fare- intelligent mid-budgeted dramas and comedies- that is increasingly being taken over by premium TV.
And there’s no sign of any let-up. This week alone, news has broken of Michael Fassbender circling Jo Nesbo adaptation The Snowman; Jamie Foxx set to board Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver; Patrick Dempsey joining the Bridget Jones reunion alongside Renee Zellweger and Colin Firth as well as a major TV hire in Andrew Stearn. Deadline caught up with the dynamic duo in their expansive London offices to discuss everything from capturing the zeitgeist with transgender drama The Danish Girl to their thoughts on the likes of Netflix.
DEADLINE– You guys have been doing this for decades. Do you still get a kick out opening a festival like Venice?
BEVAN: Any additional spotlight you can put onto an opening of a film is a great thing to get. Atonement opened Venice and Elizabeth played there. Burn After Reading played Venice and Tinker Tailor was also there. That’s a handful of the films we’re most proud of that Working Title have made so Everest is sitting in amongst some nice titles. To have two films, with Danish Girl as well, is fantastic.
FELLNER: Plus Venice is such a beautiful city. Its hard not to be wowed by the whole event because it’s an amazing celebration of cinema.
DEADLINE: You re-upped with Universal. They’re having an incredible year. Does any of that trickle down to how you guys are able to operate within the studio structure . Other companies have found it challenging to be part of a bigger corporate structure
FELLNER: The mood within the organization is wonderfully positive, and quite rightly. We benefit from the power that they have in the market place with exhibition, TV deals, all of their output deals, and we also benefit from the fact that when they’re feeling positive it’s a much better environment to work in.
BEVAN: I think we’re also benefitting from the fact they have an excellent distribution and marketing team. With a film like Everest, which was challenging to get made, it’s really interesting seeing because they’ve had some confidence from the way that they go into nook and cranny in terms of possibilities of distribution.
FELLNER: The reason that they’re doing so well is that they’re forensic in the way they are going about it. The team there have pretty much been there forever. It’s a very stable, solid, executive group. And they’re all really good people and they’re all really good at what they do. So I think they’re just on fire because they’re good.
BEVAN: They don’t leave any stone unturned, and each movie as big of a challenge as the last one.
DEADLINE: That said, you are also working increasingly with other partners, whether StudioCanal, or now MRC, Sony, Warner Bros. How does that arrangement work?
FELLNER: Everything goes to Universal first but they do not have a limitless appetite. We’re learning the sorts of films that it does make sense to make with Universal and the more independenty ones that make sense to do elsewhere. Our home is Universal, and we’ve made fifty or sixty films with them. That’s our home but we have too big of an appetite. We want to make four a five films a year, and no studio can make 4 or 5 films a year, especially as diverse as the ones we make, and especially as a lot of them are often more challenging than main studio fare. So I think given the world today, the way that studios are operating and what they’re doing, we are never going to be able to make all our films at one place. Our preference is to make films at Universal. And then if we can’t, we’re fortunate to be able to work with others. We have made a number of films with StudioCanal. We’ve just worked on Grimsby, the Sacha Baron Cohen film with Sony, We Are Your Friends was bought by Warner’s. So there are new opportunities presenting themselves we’re only just starting to explore. I think what’s happened is that when you remain standing as long as Tim and I have, ultimately you find that there are more opportunities, as you get more mature within the industry.
BEVAN: For instance at Sony we’ve known Tom Rothman for 30 years. He was working for Samuel Goldman when he first met him. So you just know people. That’s the way these things work. And that’s the amazing thing with this industry is that Eric and I were lucky enough when we were youngsters, to go to LA a lot through us both working on music videos. The people we got to know then were people just like us who were starting out. Those who are still standing are now running agencies, running studios and companies.
DEADLINE: We have seen the rise of premium TV in the last few years. How big a part will that play in the company moving forward and will film always be the core of what you do?
BEVAN Film is Eric’s and my first love.
FELLNER: TV has to become a part because there are so many ideas that we generate, so many relationships that we have that can’t all become films. Maybe they are great ideas and great books that are better to premium TV. So it’s mad not having the option to do both. Prior to this, or where we’ve been over the last few years, we were just going, ‘Oh well, that’s not a film and forgetting about it.’
BEVAN: The other thing that has really changed is big talent wanting to, being happy to work in TV.
FELLNER: Directors and actors are ready to go there, and I think everyone is excited to test the world of the Netflix and the Amazons. Whether there is an upside in it for them or not remains to be seen.
DEADLINE: You mention Netflix and Amazon. You have been sheltered by those new models to some degree by your studio backing, yet you still have one foot very much in the independent space. What’s your take on the so-called great disrupters?
FELLNER: The truth is that when you make a film you want it to be seen by as many people as possible and, ultimately, in success you want everybody involved to get paid as well. Currently the best way to do that is to that is to release your film theatrically through the studio system because it’s single source finance, single source distribution. If it works you can get it out there brilliantly because of the power that each studio has in the market place. So for producers to change and move, there have to be some very real reasons to do that. I think at the moment those reasons are starting to become clear but they’re not fully clear yet. The question of generating upfront revenue for the participants, which is how I think they’re structuring their deals, is still not fully tested. You can do it if you’ve got huge talent, but beyond that I don’t know. How many people actually see your film? Nobody knows that because you don’t know how many screens they’re going to be able to get when they do their limited theatrical release, you don’t know how many people are going to watch it when it goes onto the platform. So I think there is still a little way to go. For somebody like us, which has the access and the opportunity to make films the traditional way, I think right now you’d probably still choose that route. But we are only too aware that convergence is coming.
BEVAN: There is a convergence going on because if Amazon and Netflix are starting over there in a windowless world in their opinion, and the studios are starting over here in their fully fledged windowed world, there has to be a convergence. They are going to test it out. There is going to be some sort of reconfiguration of the way windows and the way the consumer receives these things in the course of the next –not months- but years.
FELLNER: Also, if we’re going to talk about recent events – the idea that the market discounts media stocks as a result of it is just insane. The idea that the studios with their God knows how many thousands of titles in their library ,and the power of marketing- these guys spend billions every year on marketing- so the idea of they’re not going to adapt into whatever Netflix and Amazon adapt into is crazy. So why you’d discount them and say that Netflix and Amazon are the only way to go? It’s just short-term stupidity.
BEVAN: The thing about the change is nobody has tested it properly from the studio side of things because nobody has spent a full marketing budget on it. The companies that are in the VOD business, they’re spending chicken shit on marketing. They’re spending a million dollars. So let’s say you have Project X a Working Title movie, and you spent $20 million dollars on marketing it and it was going to do between $25 and $30 million dollars domestically and it has the quality of one of our movies, there’s a strong argument to say don’t do that. Let’s try the VOD route, with a premium price, let’s say 25 bucks or whatever. Let’s say it only does $20 million dollars domestically but you also sell a million lots of $25 on transactional VOD, that becomes a very interesting business model. But you have to spend the marketing money. You have to go into it with conviction.
FELLNER: What we like is the idea that the IP owner or producer have the choice. So if you have a huge tentpole movie and you want to go the traditional route with long windows, you should be able to choose to do that. If you have a smaller Working Title film and you want to go VOD with a full marketing budget, you should be able to choose to do that. And that’s where ultimately the industry will probably end up. It’s just a question of making sure exhibition are comfortable with that because the last thing we want to do is go to war with exhibition and find that everybody becomes a loser. We just have an opinion that people who want to go to the cinema will always go to the cinema.
DEADLINE: Did you engineer Caitlyn Jenner’s transformation to coincide with the release of The Danish Girl?
BEVAN: Eric has been working on that for ages!
FELLNER: The people who are really responsible for the zeitgeist being perfect are Gail Mutrux and Anne Harrison, our producing partners on it. Gail has been working on this film for 13 years. If there was any prescience, they are the ones who have it. It’s just extraordinary how society is changing so fast that so many things that have been taboo over the generations are now suddenly subjects you can talk about, make films about, and discuss openly.
DEADLINE: You already have a full slate for next year and beyond. What does the future hold for the company?
FELLNER: The priority for the next six months are The Snowman, The Little Mermaid, Baby Driver and Bridget Jones. Once those are up and running we’ll then start focusing on the next slate. Theatre is an area too. Billy Elliot is about to go on tour in the UK after 10 years, which we’re very excited about. We’re opening in Japan, we’re opening in South Korea. It just keeps on going. We’re looking at a couple of new projects which we’re very excited about. Musical theatre will be a big piece of our business moving forward.
BEVAN: We’re also very interested in musicals for movie. It would be great to have another show up within the next 2 years. It would be great to have 3 or 4 films next year and the following year as well and also have one or two long-running TV shows in America going.
FELLNER: In terms of percentage, I would hope that film stays the same for us and the other two areas- TV and theatre- grow. I would hate to see the pie remaining the same size. I would like the pie to grow.