From a cramped attic space in London’s legendary 1960s music capital of Denmark Street to a bustling office just around the corner from the U.K.’s cinemic heart, Leicester Square, already “bursting at the seams” with staff, management and production company 42 has come a long way in less than four years of operation.
Launched in January of 2013 when long-time producers Rory Aitken and Ben Pugh joined forces with Josh Varney and Kate Buckley, veterans of U.K. powerhouse Independent Talent, the company has swiftly made a name for itself, recently launching its own financing arm (which, in keeping with the number theme, is called Six Four Eight).
42’s roster of names across the full TV and filmmaking spectrum includes icons old and emerging, including the likes of Michael Caine, Nicholas Hoult and Ed Skrein, while the production side is beginning to bare sizeable fruit, with Andre Ovredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe generating rave reviews since its debut at Fantastic Fest.
In Darkness, a psychological thriller written Game of Thrones favorite Natalie Dormer and 42’s Anthony Byrne is now in production, with Skrein and Emily Ratajkowski starring, while Collide, the Felicity Jones action vehicle that fell foul of the Relativity implosion, has been given a new lease on life with Open Road. And then there’s Watership Down, the upcoming TV animation series based on the classic book being produced by Netflix and the BBC and featuring the voice talents of Hoult, James McAvoy, John Boyega and Ben Kingsley.
Aitken and Varney sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss breaking the mold in the U.K. with the firm’s two-pronged approach, proving the naysayers wrong, taking inspiration from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and why those left traumatized by the 1978 animated adaptation of Watership Down shouldn’t be afraid to try their new retelling.
With management and production, 42 seems like quite a unique model here in the U.K.
Rory Aitken: We were the first people to do it here. But in a way it didn’t strike us that way; we feel like it’s a model that’s been used a lot, it’s just that most happen to be geographically located in L.A. and we happen to be geographically located in London. But it is kind of unique here. We’re surprised that more people haven’t done it, because it seems to have worked very effectively. We’re shooting our eighth film in four years right now and they’re already starting to come out. And I think a large part of that has been the model of the company and it’s not just that we’re working with all of our own talent, it’s not inward looking. It’s actually incredibly outward looking, but there are just so many lucky coincidences within this office every single day. A huge amount of information comes through. It’s a very fertile place to produce projects.
Was the initial idea to cross-pollinate your projects with your talent?
Josh Varney: Very much so. We’ve always grown up in the business admiring those companies like Anonymous Content and Management 360, and Ben, Rory, Kate and I sat down four-and-a-half years ago and thought about what we wanted to replicate, which were the business models we admired. It very much came from that seed in thinking what are the inefficiencies in the UK/International film and TV production and representation business. Well, actually, it’s that people don’t find a way to collaborate in a very meaningful and integrated way, so it very much came from that. Let’s start with the intention that we will work together.
RA: But the trick to it is not closing our shoulders and not working with others, trying to just work with our clients. There’s no sense of exclusivity. And our clients work with other producers. We’ll often sit down with our clients on the production side about ideas and if we think that idea is best suited at another production company we’ll be the first to say it.
Is it ever a difficult balancing act if you’ve got both the best interests of the project and talent to consider?
RA: We’ve never had a moment where we’ve had a conflict of interest. Initially we wondered if we might. But you always have to put the project first, or put the client first. But there are very few times when those have actually clashed. We’ve pitched on projects from our clients against other production companies.
JV: And lost!
RA: And won as well! But we’re happy to lose in a way, because if that client has made that decision, then that’s the best thing for that project. Fine, we’re not the right people. And if we were trying to shoehorn ourselves into things down the line it would fall apart and we’d make a bad project and lose a client.
You seemed to hit the ground running with the James McAvoy-starring Welcome to the Punch in 2013.
JV: It didn’t feel like that internally! Thank you. It felt like a real struggle.
RA: Welcome to the Punch was before 42 actually. It came out just after we’d started the company. Ben and I had a production company together – we’d been producing partners for just over 10 years. So we had a slate of projects, but it accelerated significantly when we started 42. In Darkness, which is shooting now with Natalie Dormer and directed by Josh’s client Anthony Byrne, is something that Josh brought in and developed. Projects have come to us from the management side. Suddenly we’re making two, three films a year. We wouldn’t have done that just as producers.
And you’ve now got a new financing company, Six Four Eight. How did that come about?
RA: A couple of years ago we raised a significant amount of money for our development slate through Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) financing, with a partner, a financier called Josh Horsfield. A lot of those investors backed us so that we could fully finance In Darkness, which is not an inconsiderate amount of money. The company that we’ve now established, we’re growing into a finance company that can finance films, and not just ours. So eventually it will compete with the likes of Ingenious and Great Point. It’ll be a separate company.
What’s the scope for the new financing arm?
RA: That’ll grow eventually, but initially I think it’ll be probably two a year for the first couple of years.
42, Six Four Eight… what is it with you guys and numbers?
RA: 42, well, there’s various reasons for that, one of which is that in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy it’s the answer to life, the universe and everything.
JV: But actually there are four of us and two sides of the business. We actually thought we just didn’t want another generic name, and it’s an auspicious number.
So are you specifically focused on using U.K. talent?
JV: We’re based here, so of course we’ve invested in building a British company. We’ve all spent a lot of time in L.A. and New York, but we feel very proud to build a sustainable UK film and TV company and we all know how difficult it is. So that feels like one of our key achievements. But working with British talent is a global business. We’ve got the best actors in the world, we’ve got the best directors in the world, the best production facilities in the world, and some of the best writers in the world. I think by nature of our location we’ll always lean into working with local talent, but we’re very much an international business. On the management side, we’re rep American writers, directors and actors, we’ve got clients who live in Berlin in Sydney, in Rome and Paris.
RA: We’ve also shot films in Jordan, India, South Africa…
JV: The irony is that In Darkness is the first British film we’ve shot in the U.K.
And now you have the British classic Watership Down in the works with Netflix and the BBC as a 4 x 1 hour animated miniseries. When did that start?
RA: It was actually round about the start of 42.
JV: We optioned the rights within the first six months of setting the business up. As an animation, it’s obviously a lengthy process.
Is the world ready for that sort of trauma again?
JV: Ha, good question!
RA: We’re actually adapting the book, not remaking the film. That film was particularly traumatic. The book has super dark themes, but I don’t think is any scarier than Harry Potter. It’s a kind of epic adventure. I think a lot of that trauma is of the first film being mis-sold as a cute film with bunnies whereas it was actually was really brutal.
JV: Some bright spark just programmed it at 3 p.m. on Easter Sunday on Channel 5. It was all over the papers and got thousands of complaints.
Getting Netflix on board is a great move. Were then on right from the start?
RA: It was commissioned by the BBC, and then we went out to international broadcasters. Netflix were massively enthusiastic and partnered with the BBC.
And the cast is pretty stellar… James McAvoy, John Boyega, Nicholas Hoult.
JV: We pretty much got out first choices across the board. James McAvoy was such a fan of the book from his childhood, so he was in before we really had to push hard to get him.
RA: I think this might be John Boyega’s first project post-Star Wars. He just fits Big Wig so well.
So is TV now a serious push for 42?
JV: Two years ago we hired Eleanor Moran who was a commissioner at the BBC for 10 years and who’s brilliant and also, as it happens, a novelist in her own right. She’s just published her sixth novel. She’s incredible creative force.
We have about nine or 10 projects in active development with broadcasters both in the U.K. and US. And we’ve got a first look deal here with ITV Studios Global Entertainment on the distribution side and also a first-look deal with ITV Studios America to develop U.S. projects and already have a couple in development there. One is pretty well developed with a big show runner. So it’s progressing well.
Is the plan for the TV side of the business to match film?
RA: Yes, that’s the aim. Obviously development takes time and when we began the company it was a standing start in TV, but the addition of Eleanor and others on the TV side … we’ve put in a lot of resources.
JV: Yeah, TV is a key focus for us both here and the U.S. and there we’re looking hire a TV exec based out of L.A. We’ve been interviewing and will have someone to build that business and feed the deal that we have with ITV Studios.
With the Felicity Jones and Nicolas Hoult actioner Collide, you were dragged into the Relativity mess. The film was due to launch earlier this year. What’s the latest?
JV: Yeah, it was well documented. We weren’t the only producers in the business who suffered because of what happened with Relativity. It’s been tough, but the movie is great and we have a great partner in Stuart at IM Global who held his nerve when perhaps others wouldn’t. And he really delivered for us. Open Road replaced Relativity and we’ve got a date now set for Feb.
[Collide director] Eran Creevy is actually how we all started working with each other. Ben and Rory produced his film Shifty. I signed Eran off the back of that movie at Independent. We all became pals and worked together in a similar way to how we work now, where my client list was open to them.
RA: Josh was a big part in getting Welcome to the Punch financed because he was repping Eran. We saw in Josh someone who isn’t just an agent but really gets the industry in a wider sense. So that was the seed of the business. And we’ve since made everything else with Eran; Shifty, Welcome to the Punch and we’re making his next project. That relationship is incredibly strong.
In four years, what’s been your proudest moment?
JV: Keeping the lights on! A lot of people, as is often the way in this business, told us that the model would never work. And it does. And not only does it work, but we’ve built a great company that we believe has a phenomenal culture, and now seeing the next generation coming through that are aspiring producers, great reps across talent and lit. We’ve done it and have proven the model.