EXCLUSIVE: It does seem strange. Ralph and Joseph FiennesJames McAvoyDaniel Day-LewisEmily Watson, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, and many other famous UK thesps don’t run their own production companies or have cushy vanity deals at homegrown studios like their U.S. counterparts. “Since Britain doesn’t have a studio system, we don’t have room for vanity shingles. And when they do get set up, they tend to languish because actors then go to Hollywood for the big money,” says London-based United Agents’ Lindy King. That, in a nutshell, is why so many famous UK stars are still only actors for hire.

By contrast, Hollywood studios have lots of vanity deals with actors, though few with British talent behind them. Out of the roughly 150+ total first-look deals which the major Hollywood studios maintain, only 7 are with UK-based production companies and none are run by British stars  — Working Title (Universal Picture), Sam Mendes’s Neal Street Productions (Focus Features), Harry Potter-producer Heyday (Warner Bros), Wallace and Gromit-maker Aardman Animations (Sony Pictures Entertainment), Elton John’s Rocket Pictures (Walt Disney Studios), Ridley and Tony Scott’s Scott Free (Twentieth Century Fox), and James Bond factory Danjaq Productions (what’s left of MGM). British producers such as Harbour Pictures (Calendar Girls), DNA Films (Never Let Me Go) and Marv Films (Kick-Ass) once had first-look deals with Disney/Miramax, Fox Searchlight, and Sony respectively but no longer. “A lot of these U.S. vanity deals are expiring or not being renewed. [But] Hollywood [should] look at the UK in terms of it’s being a sweet spot. I mean, we punch above our weight in terms of talent.” Thykier used to run the Marv Films production company with Matthew Vaughn — but their deal foundered after Sony passed on many of their projects like Kick-Ass, The Debt, and Harry Brown.

Back in 1997, actors Jude Law, Ewan McGregor, Sadie Frost, Jonny Lee Miller, and Sean Pertwee together launched the UK production company called Natural Nylon. The idea was to form a British version of the original United Artists and put the thesps in charge of their own destinies. It made 6 non-blockbuster films, including Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, eXistenZ, and Nora. But McGregor and Law both quit the venture in 2003 because of their mounting Hollywood film commitments. Not everybody has the patience for independent production. But few vanity deals are successful, either. As the British producer who ran Natural Nylon, Kevin Loader (currently on location with Wuthering Heights) tells me: “Most actors’ first-look deals aren’t around anymore. And, of those that are, how many of those deals are really functioning?”

For one, British actor Noel Clarke. Best known as Doctor Who companion Mickey, he has managed to set up his own film company, Unstoppable Entertainment. In June, Universal/The Works released the company’s debut feature which was written, directed and produced by Clarke. Also, Icon Film Distribution UK has signed Unstoppable Entertainment to an exclusive deal with the option to finance, sell and distribute everything Clarke is in as an actor, director, or producer. It’s also taken a small equity stake in Clarke’s company which is expected to put one or two films in the $5M-$10M range into production through the deal. A project also is underway with BBC Films. As Clarke tells me, “The idea of setting up my own production company came out of writing films and creating my own stuff. I would then take the projects to a producer, giving so much of the profit away. I thought to myself, ‘If I’m doing all the work, why am I then handing it to a producer? Why don’t I just hire a line producer in once I’ve got the film green-lit?’ I have no regrets at all. I’ve been fortunate to take control of your projects is something that all actors should do.”

Another success story? Simon Pegg, the English actor and comedian who’s also a writer, film producer and director best known for his starring roles in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. His Big Talk production company has a development and financing deal with UK distributor Optimum Releasing and Film4.

Want still another? Ray Winstone who started his Size 9 production company in 2000. “Ray wanted to take control and develop roles that’s a bit different from the usual gangster stuff that he’s offered,” Size 9 co-founder Joshua St Johnston tells me. The company has produced mostly for TV but recently completed a short film, Jerusalem, starring Winstone as poet William Blake, written by Philippa Goslett and directed by Ryan Andrews. It’s now developing a feature that Andrews will direct starring Winstone’s actress daughter Jaime (Dagenham Girls). Johnston says: “Ray’s got a really good gut instinct for writing. He should be a role model for other actors in terms of supporting talent. That’s the reason why he does it and so few other actors do.”

British actors have had the most success running their own TV companies. Though even broadcasters — the nearest thing in Britain to studios — don’t want vanity deals, and the BBC isn’t allowed to play favourites.

Most British production companies start out in TV and then move up to film production. But Stephen Fry’s Sprout Pictures has gone the other way. Fry, host of BBC’s panel game QI, launched Sprout to make his first feature Bright Young Things (2007). It then moved into TV. BBC Worldwide, the broadcaster’s distribution arm, owns 25% of Fry’s Sprout and distributes its ITV legal drama Kingdom, and the BBC1 travelogue Stephen Fry In America, for the BBC. “Stephen set up his own production company partly because he generates so much of his own intellectual property,” Fry’s partner Gina Carter tells me. “A lot of the stuff he does he generates himself.” Fry himself will play Sherlock Holmes’s brother Mycroft in the Guy Ritchie-directed film sequel.

In 2008, BBC Worldwide also bought a 25% stake in British comedian Steve Coogan’s Baby Cow, which produces 2 of the BBC’s most successful shows: gentle Welsh comedy Gavin and Stacy and the surreal The Mighty Boosh. Coogan leaves the day-to-day running of Baby Cow to his business partner Henry Normal. “Steve drops in and out of the office,” Normal tells me. “But he’s very good in terms of maintaining quality control. He doesn’t want to compromise. Some actors don’t want to commit the hours you need to keep a business running. Running a business is hard work – it’s harder than writing gags,” Normal adds. “In the early days, you have to plough everything you earn into the company. That said, if you are at the right level, then you should have your own production company. There are two great benefits: controlling what you do and making more money, which are both laudable aims.”

Here is a list of British actors who have their own UK-based production companies. As you can see, most are TV-related, and missing are Britain’s most famous film stars:

Ant and Dec/Gallowgate
Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, known as TV presenters Ant and Dec, founded Gallowgate in 2004. ITV plans for them to star in a new peak-time show in summer 2011 targeting the 16- to 34-year-old demographic so coveted by advertisers. They currently present Britain’s Got Talent, also for ITV. Gallowgate mostly produces TV shows starring the duo, although it piloted The Wish List for ITV.

Noel Clarke/Unstoppable Entertainment
Clarke wrote the urban movie Kidulthood about life on an inner city estate, and then directed and wrote its Adulthood sequel. He co-produced Adulthood through his Unstoppable Entertainment, which then made, which Universal/The Works released this summer. He’s now developing various projects through his first-look deal with Icon UK. These include Fast Girls, a sports film set during London’s 2012 Olympics; and Reign of Death, a science-fiction film noir about a gumshoe investigating murder by android. The company has a handful of other projects in development, including one with the BBC.

Martin Clunes/Buffalo
Clunes, a popular TV actor, and his producer partner Philippa Braithwaite make Cornwall-set comedy drama series Doc Martin for ITV. The broadcaster has commissioned a 5th series of the show, which will start filming in 2011.

Steve Coogan/Baby Cow
A Mighty Boosh feature film being developed with BBC Films may shoot in 2011. Baby Cow is currently re-cutting a series of internet shorts it made for Australian beer company Fosters as a new TV comedy series starring Coogan. IFC has taken U.S. rights to another Baby Cow production, The Trip, starring Coogan and fellow comic Rob Brydon as they tour eateries in northern England. Director Michael Winterbottom turned the results into a 6-part BBC miniseries, which he’s boiled down for the new movie. Baby Cow is about to go into production on the 7th series of sitcom Ideal, starring comedian Johnny Vegas, for BBC3. BSkyB’s Sky Arts has commissioned a season of four Chekhov plays starring Mackenzie Crook, Coogan, Vegas and others. And Baby Cow hopes to make a Gavin and Stacey Christmas special for the BBC in 2011.

Trevor Eve/Projector
Eve’s production company has just co-produced its first drama Kidnap and Random with Talkback Thames. The actor stars with John Hannah and Helen Baxendale in the 3-part ITV thriller, which filmed in South Africa in spring 2010.

Stephen Fry/Sprout
Sprout is currently developing for Sky1 the Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, a crime series based on the bestselling books by Gyles Brandreth. Fry starred in Wilde (1997) but stays behind the camera on this one. In development at the BBC is George, a miniseries about the four King Georges who have ruled Britain. Sprout is currently shooting a documentary series about language, Planet Word, for the BBC, as well as a documentary with House star Hugh Laurie in search of a Blues song. (Laurie and Fry used to make TV comedy sketch shows together.) Sprout is still making films: it hopes to shoot Ponte for Optimum Releasing in the spring with director Jonathan Jakubowicz. UK Film Council and BBC Films have co-developed. The BBC is also developing Sprout’s adaptation of Patrick Gale’s novel Notes From an Exhibition, about a mother with bipolar disorder (which Fry suffers from). Iain Softley is directing In Lucia’ Eyes, based on Dutch novelist Arthur Japin’s bestselling novel about Casanova’s early life. And Stephan Elliott (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) will direct A Dandy In the Underworld, based on the autobiography of artist and wit Sebastian Horley.

Robson Green/Coastal Productions
Green used to be a big ITV star for years, but ITV pulled the plug on Coastal’s long-running crime drama series Wire In the Blood last year. Coastal produced its first feature earlier this year, Gustavo Ron’s $3 million UK/Spanish co-production Ways To Live Forever, which Intandem is selling internationally.

John Hannah/Clerkenwell Films
The Mummy star’s production company won a Best Drama Series BAFTA earlier this year for Misfits. Clerkenwell is currently filming a second series for E4, Channel 4’s digital channel.

Ruth Jones/Tidy Productions
Jones, co-writer and co-star of multi-award winning BBC TV comedy series Gavin and Stacey, is making a 10-episode comedy series for Sky1 called Stella which is scheduled to start production in March 2011 and will launch early 2012.

Graham Norton/So Television
Norton is a presenter and the BBC’s star chat show host. His So Productions signed a new 2-year deal worth £4 million with the BBC last year. The company also produces children’s TV shows for CBBC, including comedy sketch show Sorry I’ve Got No Head and sitcom Game Over.

Simon Pegg/Big Talk
Big Talk, the company behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, was founded in 1995 as a TV comedy production company making Spaced for Channel 4. Edgar Wright directed the show, which co-starred Simon Pegg. Big Talk is currently in post on Paul, Pegg’s latest Working Title project, which Universal will release in February. It also co-produced Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World with Relativity Media for Universal. Because of Big Talk’s deals with Optimum Releasing and Film4, it is developing its first feature from scratch based on Britain’s most successful cheerleading squad, the Ascension Eagles. Meanwhile, BBC2 has commissioned a 2nd series of sitcom Rev, starring Tom Hollander.

Jonathan Ross/Hotsauce TV
His production company Hotsauce made Friday Night With Jonathan Ross for the BBC until he resigned in January. Now the famous UK chat show host is expected to start his new 18-part ITV chat show in Fall 2011. Hotsauce has also made various one-off documentaries for the BBC including a profile of Marvel comic book artist Steve Dikto.

Andy Serkis/Caveman Films
Serkis has formed his production company, Caveman Films, with Bridget Jones producer Jonathan Cavendish. Serkis tells me he’s developing a psychological thriller that may shoot in 2011. Caveman’s first co-production, Alicia Duffy’s All the Good Children, played in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar at Cannes in May.

Ray Winstone/Size 9
Size 9 produced She’s Gone in 2004 for ITV starring Winstone as a father whose daughter goes missing in Turkey. Winstone then starred as Sweeney Todd, which premiered on BBC1 in January 2006. Another Size 9 production for ITV, Compulsion, aired in May 2009 with Winstone playing a chauffeur who messes with his employer’s daughter. Size 9 is currently developing three TV series for the BBC, only one of which Winstone will star in. The production company is now pursuing film projects as well.