Working Title re-ups with Universal

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Working Title Films co-chairmen Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner have pledged allegiance to the Universal Pictures flag for another seven years, studio co-chairmen Marc Shmuger and David Linde said over the weekend.

Shmuger and Linde described the veteran producing team as "one of our most valued producing partners and a unique voice in filmmaking throughout the world."

With their current contract due to expire at the end of 2007, the industry, on both sides of the Atlantic, had begun to speculate whether the duo would decide to take their talents -- and their relationships -- to another studio.

"They did what all smart producers on the lot do. They sniffed around to see what else might be out there before talking to Universal," according to one U.K. executive.

While Universal technically owns Working Title Films, Bevan and Fellner are widely recognized as being Working Title Films. Without them, several key talents might have walked from Universal because the label was founded on relationships with such filmmakers as Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Grant, Stephen Frears, Richard Curtis and, more recently, Joe Wright.

Bevan and Fellner completed the new deal with Universal on Friday morning, then flew back to London after attending the American Film Institute's awards luncheon that day honoring the 10 best films of 2006, which included their production of "United 93."

Bevan and Fellner had enjoyed a close working relationship with former Universal Pictures chairman Stacey Snider. Universal Studios president Ron Meyer considered an ongoing deal with Working Title so important that after Snider departed, he flew to London to discuss his plans for replacing her with the two producers, studio sources said.

According to industry insiders, Bevan and Fellner were wooed by DreamWorks, where Snider is co-chairman, and Sony Pictures. But Universal, which had a rocky 2006 at the boxoffice, made it worth their while to stay.

"We're being incredibly supportive," Linde said. "They've done well for our company; they deserve to be taken care of."

As the new Universal International launches in 2007, Working Title is a key factor in its future international distribution plans, Shmuger and Linde said, because they not only produce big-budget global pictures, but also local films for the British market, such as "Billy Elliot" and "Shaun of the Dead," which sometimes break out.

"It's like making three deals in one," Linde said. "They are our perfect global partners as we're more aggressively getting into the global business."

Many Working Title films do twice, even three times as much international boxoffice as domestic. "Bridget Jones's Diary" grossed more than $200 million overseas. "When it comes to commercial success internationally, there is no production company anywhere that holds a candle to them," Shmuger said. "Seven years is happily a long time."

But there have also been flops: The high-profile "Thunderbirds," which was Working Title's most expensive movie made to date, failed to ignite at either the U.K. or U.S. boxoffice. They also missed out on comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's second comedy creation after "Ali G Indahouse," which allowed 20th Century Fox to secure "Borat."

Shmuger and Linde expect Bevan and Fellner to continue to supply four to five international pictures a year. Keeping the duo "was a crucial focus and priority for us, because they fill a role in the global production picture that no other company does," Shmuger said, "in terms of the international flavor of their projects and their relationship with so many creative artists."

Working Title had so many projects in development and production at Universal, which bought Working Title and its library in 1999, that they opted to stay, studio sources said.

Among the projects due for 2007 release are Joe Carnahan's hardboiled "Smokin' Aces"; "The Golden Age," a sequel to "Elizabeth," starring Cate Blanchett and Clive Owen; "Bean 2," starring Atkinson; "Hot Fuzz," Edgar Wright's follow-up comedy to "Shaun of the Dead"; "Definitely Maybe," starring Rachel Weisz; and "Pride & Prejudice" director Wright's adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel "Atonement," starring Keira Knightley.

Among the projects in development are "The Queen" writer Peter Morgan's "Frost/Nixon," which Working Title is co-producing with Imagine Entertainment, and Joel and Ethan Coen's CIA thriller "Burn After Reading," starring George Clooney, for Universal's specialty arm, Focus Features.

Stuart Kemp reported from London and Anne Thompson reported from Los Angeles
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