Eric Fellner, cochairman of Working Title Films, first met his partner, Tim Bevan, in the mid-Eighties. At the time Fellner was, he recalls in his languid drawl, “very young and highly competitive. So I probably wanted—” Bevan leaps into the conversation like a king cobra, interjecting, “To kill me,” as Fellner sails sardonically on, his brown suede boots resting on a coffee table in his London office: “I probably wanted him off the f---ing planet so I could do my stuff. But we became friends, and it was because of that we teamed up in Working Title.”
It’s a partnership that started in 1992, and one that has seen the two British producers gross $4.3 billion since. More than $3 billion of that has come since 1999, when Working Title embarked on a deal with Universal Studios that has allowed them to make about five films a year under the company’s wing. And there’s plenty more to come. Fellner and Bevan have just released Frost/Nixon and, on Broadway, Billy Elliot to ecstatic reviews, while there’s a glittering slate of films in the pipeline: The Soloist, by Joe Wright (Atonement); Green Zone, by Paul Greengrass (United 93 and The Bourne Ultimatum); and The Boat That Rocked, by Richard Curtis (Love Actually). It’s no wonder that the mildly combative Bevan, sprawled on a couch in blue jeans and a sweater, boasts of being “the only big-label company with a big-studio relationship that’s based outside America.” Or that Peter Morgan, who wrote Frost/Nixon, calls the duo “fantastic navigators of the system.”
But theirs is not only “a financial quest,” says Fellner. As Bevan puts it, “There are also some really good, long-term creative relationships. Richard Curtis I’ve worked with for 20 years, and Joel and Ethan Coen, and Joe Wright, and Stephen Daldry [director of Billy Elliot].” He stops himself and reflects on the Daldry experience. “It’s a decade now, isn’t it? One f---ing movie and one stage show!” “In 10 years,” Fellner echoes with a laugh. “Yeah. But it’s still an enormous pleasure, spending time with him.”
They’re a wry pair, the 51-year-old Bevan and the 49-year-old Fellner—and they are also, according to twice-Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears, “the most powerful people, ever, in British film.” The source of that power is a simple one: Almost all the best talent in Britain (not to mention the Coen brothers) flock like moths to Working Title’s candle. Why? “It’s a trust thing,” says Joel Coen. “I trust their judgment, and they trust ours.” Then there’s the fact that, as Curtis says, “there they are, two handsome, tall, leisurely sophisticates, as interested in selling films as in making them.” Curtis should know: It was Four Weddings and a Funeral, which he wrote, that made Bevan and Fellner’s name when their marketing moxie turned the small British romantic comedy into a worldwide hit. Fearing that the critics might eviscerate the film in England, they opened it in America on a small number of screens. And, says Fellner, “we put a big marketing push behind it to make it feel like it was a big film.” It ultimately grossed almost $250 million.