Wednesday, April 25, 2012
WT's Impact on UK Film Biz
Working Title films was founded in 1984 by Sarah Radclyffe (Who would later leave the company to be replaced by Eric Fellner in 1992) and Tim Bevan. The company’s first notable success was the 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette, a story of a young Asian man’s battle to ‘make it’ in London during the Thatcher years. The film stars Saeed Jaffrey and features a breakthrough performance by Daniel Day Lewis and was both a critical and commercial success for the fledgling studio, picking up two BAFTA nominations, and an academy award nomination for best screenplay. The success of My Beautiful Laundrette enabled Working Title to establish themselves as a serious production company and attract the attention of backers Polygram in 1992, and also the attention of the major American studios who were interested in distributing Working Title’s projects internationally.
Working Title Followed up My Beautiful Laundrette with a number of successful films during the late 80’s and early nineties, films such as: the BAFTA award winning A World Apart (1988), Drop Dead Fred (1991) and most notably, the Coen brothers’ 1991 film Barton Fink. This film is especially interesting as it is the first high profile example of Working Title’s ability to strike deals with the large American studios (in this case Twentieth Century Fox) in order to secure international distribution for its products, and in this essay I intend to assess the success of Working Title in relation to its collaboration with the major American studios, and the effect which this collaboration has had on not only Working Title, but the British film industry in general since 1980. In addition to this I also plan to discuss the effect which Working Title’s policy of hiring international stars to play roles in their films has on the national identity of the company’s output.
It has always been a great ambition of the British film industry to build itself to a level at which it can compete with the likes of Universal and Warner Brothers, this ambition is evidenced by the rise and eventual fall of the Rank Organisation, which attempted to vertically integrate itself in the style of the American majors by purchasing the Odeon cinema chain (1938), Amalgamated studios of borehamwood (1939) and the Gaumont-British picture corporation in 1941. This formula was extremely successful for a period, but eventually even the Rank organisation could not stand up to the American majors. Working Title has perhaps come closer even than Arthur Rank’s massively funded corporation to achieving the same amount of financial and critical success as the American studios, by not competing with them but collaborating with them. This policy has enabled many British filmmakers such as Richard Curtis to secure the funding necessary for their projects, (after many years spent writing Working Title’s most successful films, Curtis was rewarded with a £30 million budget to make his debut as a director, Love Actually in 2003) through the high profile status the company has enjoyed as a result. This system however, has also had some negative effects. In particular on the way British films are distributed, because of the success of Working Title’s formula of distribution, other similar companies have followed suit, meaning that there are no fully integrated British companies, this calls into question the true Britishness of Working Title films such as Notting Hill (1999) which was distributed by Working Title’s parent company Universal Studios. The presence of Universal Studios as a distributer is somewhat problematic because of its obvious ties to the American film industry, and although it is not fair to say that the distribution of a film does not determine its national credentials, the sight of a Universal logo at the start of a film immediately brings associations of Americana.
Although this system has attracted criticism, its success and its necessity cannot be denied, given the lack of British distribution companies with a global reach. In an April 2005 interview, Tim Bevan explains the financial difficulties of being an independent producer: “It was very hand to mouth. We would develop a script that would take about 5% of our time; we’d find a director, that’d take about 5% of the time and we’d spend 90% of the time trying to juggle together deals from different sources to finance those films. The films were suffering because there was no real structure and, speaking for myself, my company was always virtually bankrupt.”2 With this in mind it is clear that in order to achieve the kind of success Bevan wanted to in the British film industry, pursuing funding from abroad (particularly America) was the only feasible option for the company if they were to gain any kind of financial success. This need for outside funding lead to Working Title becoming a subsidiary of the American Giant, Universal Studios; Despite having such a high profile and powerful parent company, Bevan and Fellner have managed to successfully maintain a high degree of autonomy over Working Title, this is demonstrated by the fact that the pair have “The power to commission films with a budget up to $35 million without even consulting their pay masters.”3 This is a testament not only to the faith which Universal have placed in both Bevan and Fellner but also to the impact which Working Title has had on the contemporary British film industry. This kind of access to funds (although American) is difficult to see as anything other than a great thing for the British film industry at large.
However, it is important to note that Working Title is not just a home for big budget British films such as Notting Hill; the company also has a strong commitment to funding low budget British films featuring up and coming talent. In 1999 the company set up WT2, in order to support these lower budget projects. The secondary company, run by Natascha Wharton and Lucy Guard has enjoyed some success stories of its own, most notably Billy Elliot (2000), and Ali G In Da House (2002). However, the company has also had its fair share of failures, most notably The Calcium Kid (2004) starring Orlando Bloom. In addition to funding low budget British cinema, WT2 has also made a commitment to developing and harnessing young British talent with initiatives such as the New Writers Scheme. This commitment is underlined by Lucy Guard in a 2004 interview with Film Four online:
“When I was at Working Title we set up a New Writers Scheme to develop new talent. Normally we do not accept unsolicited material (scripts that do not come from an agent or producer) but for the scheme we had to relax a bit and open the doors. The problem was that at Working Title, smaller films would inevitably get less attention than the bigger budget projects so we decided to set up WT2 to give proper attention to those smaller films. Quite a few of the writers we were developing on the Scheme we are now working with us at WT2 while others have set up their projects with other companies, which is great.”4
The schemes discussed by Guard, which were set up in order to help low budget British cinema would not have been possible had Working Title not entered into an arrangement with Universal Studios. Working Title has made great use of the idea of importing American stars in order to make the films more marketable to a global audience, as evidenced by Phillip Seymour Hoffman being given top billing in The Boat That Rocked (2009), despite the fact that he played only a supporting role and the film’s lead, Will Adamsdale was not so much as mentioned in the film’s promotion. The presence of such international stars as these certainly makes the films more marketable internationally, particularly in the United States. It is easy to criticise Working Title for this policy, to accuse the company of courting the American audience too much and compromising the national identity of the films which they produce, and to an extent this argument is reasonably valid, as the presence of big name actors such as Julia Roberts, does to an extent bring associations of Americana into the film. The presence of these American actors however, does not weaken the British identity of Working Title’s output to the point that it compromises the British film industry as a whole with its big budgets and high production values. In fact in many ways the opposite is true, as the success of films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral has provided Working Title with the financial clout and respect within the international film industry to really allow British cinema to produce at the level of their American counterparts, albeit with funding and support from Universal. In addition to this, Working Title’s success using American stars has allowed the company to commit more finances to up and coming British filmmakers and writers through WT2. Surely securing solid funding for up and coming filmmakers and writers to make their projects come to life is more important than some kind of misplaced sense of national pride and misty eyed romantic vision of what a purely British film could and should be. It is also important to note that the presence of American stars is not a new development within British cinema, this fact is accurately pointed out by Robert Murphy; “British producers, for reasons both commercial and cultural, have always been tempted to bring American stars across the Atlantic: As far back as 1922 Michael Balcon persuaded the Hollywood actress Betty Compson to star in his first production, Woman To Woman, to ensure its commercial success.”5
In many ways Notting Hill is the quintessential example of what Working Title offers the British and international film industries, almost all of the elements inherent within the companies output are present in the film. From the romanticised vision of British life, on this occasion represented by the Notting Hill area of London, which is given an extremely favourable treatment, to the presence of an a-list Hollywood star in order to make it easier to promote the film in the international market. In this case Julia Roberts. The romanticised vision of Britain depicted in the film is commented on by Nick James in May 1999. With regard to the closing sequence in the secret garden, James comments: “Anyone versed in the iconography of the English immediately thinks of The Secret Garden with its ‘little bit of earth’, of The House At Pooh Corner, of Peter Pan, of Kipling and all the other literary touchstones of Empire contentedness – things we all enjoy, but keep the inhabitants of these islands half in love with their now distant past.”6 This notion of Working Title presenting a rose tinted view of Britain, which is marketable to the international (particularly American) audience is countered to a certain degree by Robert Murphy; “It’s plot premise – what would happen if a beautiful Hollywood movie star began a romance with a very ordinary Englishman? – might look like a cynical attempt to produce a sugary romance designed to flatter American sensibilities, but in practice the film makes cheekily few concessions to Hollywood. It is not just the way in which the film industry is represented as crass, cynical and superficial – this counts as affectionate mockery in comparison to the venomous expose of Robert Altman’s ‘The Player’.”7 This notion of the film poking fun at the industry which is in part designed to be sold to, is an extremely interesting one and is best represented by the character of Anna’s boyfriend Jeff, played by Alec Baldwin in the way he behaves and treats her, sympathy for Anna is also elicited by this representation of Hollywood. The subversion of the Hollywood studio system which is represented in the film could also be seen as a retort by Curtis and Working Title to those who have criticised the national identity depicted, and the concessions made to appeal to an international audience in the company’s output. With this in mind perhaps it is fair to say that Notting Hill is not as much of an attempt to pander to an American audience as it appears to be, but perhaps it is at least in part a tongue in cheek parody of the very industry and audience which it is attempting to reach. However, this argument is still somewhat floored as it does not explain or indeed account for other apparent compromises made in order to appeal to an American audience. The most notable compromise being the way in which the Notting Hill area itself is represented. This idealistic, romantic depiction of an area of London which, in reality is somewhat run down, is extremely problematic and does call into question the legitimacy of the film with respect to its national identity and integrity. Perhaps the depiction of Notting Hill is also a sly mockery of the expectations of the American audience, and of the expectations of the British cinema purists who rail against Working Title’s style of cinema.
The success of Working Title’s formula (Notting Hill grossed $374,089,678 worldwide) of using slightly romanticised depictions of Britain and British life coupled with the use of international stars such as Julia Roberts and Renee Zellweger to appeal to an international audience has, in some ways both being of great benefit and great detriment to the British film industry. The company’s success has lead to Working Title being able to invest more money into British film production, at both high and low budget level with the creation of WT2. This has lead to young British talent such as Lee Hall (writer of Billy Elliot) being able to get more of their projects off the ground. However, the success of the Working Title formula has distorted the amount of revenue coming into the British film industry at large. Far too much money is making its way to Working Title, and many other British production companies are struggling to survive as a result. Working Title’s commitment to funding larger scale projects has had an effect on the company’s commitment to its lower budget productions, WT2 in particular has suffered greatly as a result of its parent company’s funding policy, to the extent that WT2 has produced only one film since 2004’s ‘Inside I’m Dancing’. However, other factors, such as Britain’s economic downturn have also had a negative effect on WT2’s funding. The fact that in the last five years Working Title has only produced one film through the production arm which the company claims gives the British film industries finest young talent the opportunity to bring their visions to life, is a terrifying situation for the British film industry’s largest production company to find itself in, and is an extremely worrying state of affairs for any young British talent trying to get a project off the ground, without the presence of an international star attached to the project. This is supported by the fact that WT2’s last project Gone, had no recognisable names attached to it, and the film was barely even noticed. Working Title’s lack of commitment to WT2 in recent years has worrying implications for the British film industry in general. Given Working Title’s size and influence on the British film industry it is perfectly plausible that other major British film producers such as BBC Films and Film Four may also cut back on their output, especially in the low budget production area, and given the current gloomy economic climate in Britain it is perfectly plausible that these cutbacks could have a catastrophic effect on the funding of projects involving young, British talent. Although this situation is clearly not all Working Title’s fault they, as Britain’s biggest film production company, have to take their fair share of the blame, and have to help spearhead the recovery of the British film industry at the base level, and help the filmmakers and writers of the future make their dream projects become a reality.
Since its formation in 1984, Working Title has enjoyed unprecedented success in Britain, and particularly abroad. A feat which has very rarely been achieved by a British production company. Working Title has achieved this level of success by developing an extremely marketable formula of depicting a romanticised vision of Britishness and casting recognisable international stars. This success has both benefited and damaged the British film industry in various ways. Working Title’s success has benefited the British film industry by making large amounts of money which have been re-invested in young British talent through WT2. Other benefits include the exposure and international attention which this success has brought to the British film industry at large; because of the success of films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral the eyes of the filmmaking world were on Britain, especially in the 1990’s. However, Working Title’s success has also brought problems for the British film industry. Because of the success of the Working Title formula, it is now more difficult than ever for a low budget British film, without star names in the cast, to make any kind of impression in the international market, and indeed the British market. The gulf in spending power between Working Title and the rest of the British film industry is also becoming a greater problem in the current economic climate in Britain, with less and less money available to British producers, Working Title in particular, are playing more and more safely with their money and as a result of this are much less likely to invest in projects by less experienced filmmakers as they were in the mid-1990’s.
Working Title’s success since its formation has, in many ways been of great benefit to British cinema, but the company’s success has also started a worrying trend within the British film industry of attempting to squeeze as much profit as possible out of the American market by making a number of filmic concessions aimed at this audience. Although this approach has made record profits for the British film industry, it has also diluted the national identity of its product, and alienated many young filmmakers and writers with its increasing reluctance to fund their projects. In 2010, the British film industry appears to be on a knife edge because of the ongoing recession, and its direction in the next five years will certainly have a profound effect on the young filmmaking talent of this country.
1. Lukett. M. “Image and Nation” British Cinema of the 90’s p90.
2. Higgins. C. The Guardian. April 2005
3. BBC news online, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/film/2821801.stm
4. Film Four online, http://www.channel4.com/film/reviews/feature.jsp?id=112521&page=1.
5. Murphy. R. The British Cinema Book. p278.
6. James. N. “Farewell to Napoli”, Sight & Sound, May 1999.
7. Murphy. R. British Cinema of the 90’s. P9.
Ashby, Justine and Higson, Andrew (Eds). British Cinema, Past and Present (Routledge, 2000).
Barton Fink (1991) [Film], Working Title Films [U.K], Dir. Joel Coen.
Billy Elliot (2000) [Film], WT2 [U.K], Dir. Stephen Daldry.
Bridget Jones Diary (2001) [Film], Working Title Films [U.K], Dir. Sharon Maguire.
Boat That Rocked, The (2009) [Film], Working Title Films [U.K], Dir. Richard Curtis.
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) [Film], Working Title Films [U.K], Dir. Mike Newell
Johnson, Lucy (Ed). Talking Pictures: Interviews With Contemporary British Filmmakers. (British Film Institute, 1997).
James, Nick. Farewell to Napoli. (Sight & Sound, May 1999).
Leach, Jim. British Film. (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
McFarlane, Brian. The Encyclopedia of British Film. (British Film Institute, 2003).
Murphy, Robert (Ed). British Cinema of the 90’s. (British Film Institute, 2000).
Murphy, Robert (Ed). The British Cinema Book. (British Film Institute, 2001).
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) [Film], Working Title Films [U.K], Dir. Stephen Frears.
Notting Hill (1999) [Film], Working Title Films [U.K], Dir. Roger Michell.
O’Sullivan, Charlotte. Notting Hill. (Sight & Sound, June 1999)
Sargeant, Amy. British Cinema. (British Film Institute, 2005).
Thigh Society. Film of the Month: Bridget Jones Diary. (Sight & Sound, April 2001)