Work­ing Ti­tle Films hits on a lu­cra­tive for­mula: Quirky scripts, tight bud­gets, and Ed­die Red­mayne

In an age of block­buster films, the U.K.’s Work­ing Ti­tle aims small Mak­ing cheaper films “to re­duce the risk to an ac­cept­able level”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - −Stephanie Baker

As film pitches go, The Dan­ish Girl— about a trans­gen­der artist in 1920s Copen­hagen—should have been a hard sell. In­stead, Bri­tish pro­duc­ers Eric Fell­ner and Tim Be­van, co-chair­men of Work­ing Ti­tle Films, thought they’d spot­ted a rare gem. They quickly green­lighted it in 2014, cast­ing Ed­die Red­mayne as a re­pressed hus­band dis­cov­er­ing his true self as a woman.

That was be­fore Cait­lyn Jen­ner thrust the trans­gen­der move­ment into the head­lines. It was also be­fore Fell­ner and Be­van knew their pre­vi­ous film with Red­mayne, The The­ory of Ev­ery­thing, would be a run­away suc­cess in 2015. Red­mayne won a best ac­tor Os­car for his por­trayal of physi­cist Stephen Hawk­ing in a film that cost $15 mil­lion to make and grossed $123 mil­lion at the box of­fice. Many crit­ics ex­pect Red­mayne to get an­other Os­car nom­i­na­tion for The Dan­ish Girl.

Churn­ing out hits whose ap­peal isn’t im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous has been Work­ing Ti­tle’s hall­mark, be­gin­ning with Four Wed­dings and a Fu­neral in 1994. Un­like Bri­tain’s Hey­day Films, pro­ducer of the Harry Pot­ter movies, or Eon Pro­duc­tions, the Lon­don-based out­fit be­hind the James Bond flicks, Work­ing Ti­tle has built its rep­u­ta­tion around of­ten-quirky smaller pro­duc­tions with rel­a­tively mod­est bud­gets. Still, its films, in­clud­ing Brid­get Jones’s Di­ary, Not­ting Hill, and Shaun of the Dead, have taken in more than $6.5 bil­lion at the box of­fice and won 11 Os­cars since Fell­ner and Be­van teamed up in 1992.

Work­ing Ti­tle is ba­si­cally a Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tion house in Lon­don. Tech­ni­cally, it’s a sub­sidiary of Com­cast’s Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures. Yet Fell­ner and Be­van aren’t em­ploy­ees of Uni­ver­sal and run the com­pany in­de­pen­dently. That gives Uni­ver­sal first look at fi­nanc­ing and dis­tribut­ing films they’re work­ing on. If it’s not in­ter­ested, the pair can take films else­where.

Fell­ner calls the ar­range­ment a “hy­brid model” that has al­lowed Work­ing Ti­tle to strike oc­ca­sional deals with Uni­ver­sal ri­vals, as it did with Vivendi’s Stu­dioCanal to fi­nance 2011’s Tin­ker Tai­lor Sol­dier Spy. It will take a sim­i­lar tack this year with Baby Driver, star­ring Kevin Spacey and Jon Hamm and writ­ten and di­rected by Edgar Wright, whose zom­bie farce Shaun of the Dead was a sur­prise hit in 2004. Work­ing Ti­tle teamed with Sony’s TriStar Pic­tures and in­die stu­dio Me­dia Rights Cap­i­tal on Baby Driver af­ter Uni­ver­sal took a pass.

Fell­ner says the $15 mil­lion bud­get for The Dan­ish Girl made it a tol­er­a­ble gam­ble when cou­pled with Uni­ver­sal’s dis­tri­bu­tion mus­cle. The film so far has grossed $14.5 mil­lion and will likely get a boost from the awards sea­son buzz. “If you make the film at a low enough en­try price, you can usu­ally find a way to re­duce the risk to an ac­cept­able level,” he says. “But the idea of ‘risk-free’ doesn’t re­ally ex­ist. The man or woman who thinks they’ve cracked it is

just on the verge of fail­ure.” In the past, to spread risk and sat­isfy their cre­ative souls, Fell­ner and Be­van would crank out four to five movies a year, a mix of main­stream fare such as Mr. Bean’s Hol­i­day and more in­de­pen­dent film­maker-driven sto­ries such as The The­ory of Ev­ery­thing. Fell­ner says grow­ing con­sumer in­ter­est in pay-per-view and stream­ing ser­vices such as Netflix may change that cal­cu­lus. “Maybe some of the more spe­cial­ist films we’ll make with dig­i­tal plat­forms,” he says.

Hav­ing smaller bud­gets doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean Work­ing Ti­tle’s films can be turned out more quickly than ri­vals’ pricey block­busters. Take Everest, the com­pany’s 2015 hit. Af­ter Work­ing Ti­tle spent more than a decade de­vel­op­ing the script, Fell­ner says Uni­ver­sal wanted the pair to bring in some out­side money to re­duce the risk. They turned to Walden Me­dia, owned by An­schutz En­ter­tain­ment Group, and Cross Creek Pic­tures for more fi­nanc­ing and used Uni­ver­sal as the dis­trib­u­tor. Everest cost $55 mil­lion and took in $202 mil­lion at the box of­fice.

One of Work­ing Ti­tle’s ad­van­tages is be­ing in the U.K., where film pro­duc­tion has soared thanks to gen­er­ous tax breaks. Film com­pa­nies can re­claim as much as 25 per­cent of any U.K. pro­duc­tion spend­ing back from the govern­ment. Such in­cen­tives helped film pro­duc­tion soar to a record £1.4 bil­lion ($2 bil­lion) for the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2015, a 39 per­cent jump vs. the same pe­riod three years ear­lier. “In­ter­na­tional film­mak­ers are com­ing to the U.K. be­cause of the sta­bil­ity and com­pet­i­tive­ness of the tax credit but also be­cause of the skills of the crews,” says Adrian Woot­ton, chief ex­ec­u­tive of film pro­mo­tion agency Film Lon­don and the Bri­tish Film Com­mis­sion. He says Work­ing Ti­tle’s steady pro­duc­tion stream has been a key driver of in­dus­try growth. “They’re pro­gen­i­tors,” he says. “They’ve helped foster the tal­ent pool ev­ery­one is now draw­ing on.”

The bot­tom line No ac­tion flicks needed: Work­ing Ti­tle’s off­beat films have grossed more than $6.5 bil­lion at the box of­fice and won 11 Os­cars.

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