From Babestation to 'Carpool Karaoke,' How Fulwell 73 Got to Co-Produce the 'Late Late Show'
The crazy, drunken and surprisingly successful rise of a little-known British production house.
From a half-baked TV show idea — billed as “Wayne’s World but shitter” — that aired on the idle daytime slots of a British porn network, to co-producing the hottest late night show in America with their best mate and “unofficial fifth partner” James Corden, it's been a pretty good decade for London-based banner Fulwell 73.
Founded in 2005 by brothers Gabe and Ben Turner, their cousin Leo Pearlman and Ben Winston (the only Brit on The Hollywood Reporter’s 2015 Next Gen list), and named after the part of Sunderland soccer club's old stadium they used to stand in as kids (and the year the team won the FA Cup), the company has leveraged an enviable and growing Rolodex of celebrity friends (hello David Beckham, right this way One Direction) and conquered both TV and film, turning out acclaimed sports documentaries and the occasional box office smash. Next up, they're chasing the fastest man on Earth for documentary feature I am Bolt, a sales hit at the European Film Market in Berlin earlier this year.
Speaking to THR, Pearlman discusses Fulwell’s humble, drunken origins, choosing to set up offices in L.A. and how it all could have turned out differently had their first feature only been called: My Balls Are My Passport.
Given that none of you had any major experience in the industry, how did it all start?
We’d never made a TV show, but had this idea called The Freestyle Show, which we described as “Wayne’s World but even shitter,” based around talented British teenagers — graffiti artists, football freestylers, DJs, etc — who would be the actual presenters. We were looking for a platform for this, but, unsurprisingly, nobody would give us one because nobody knew who the hell we were.
How did you eventually find a backer?
One night out in London after a few drinks we met a couple of guys who suggested that we meet their boss. We went that evening — it didn’t seem odd at the time, but having a meeting at midnight after the pubs have chucked you out is a bit odd. We went into a boardroom and this guy was basically saying ‘this idea is absolutely perfect — right here right now I can tell you we would commission a series to go on one of our channels.’ You’re a little drunk and everything seems like it’s perfectly reasonable. And then it turned out that the reason why this guy had the space to fill was because he owned and ran all of the [late night sex line] Babestation channels — they were showing porn in the evening and had nothing to put on during the day.
And so you had your first show on Babestation’s network?
Yeah. A Saturday and Sunday morning show. We had kids texting and phoning in to ask for tricks to be done — using the same technology that earlier in the day had been used to get women to take their clothes off. And that was the first TV show we made.
Was it a success?
We did two series – 16 episodes in each. And we had somewhere between 15-20 viewers for each show. Probably not more than that. Every time we ran a competition the same two or three people won, because they were the only people watching. It was full-on amateur hour. But a lot of fun.
So how did this show then become your first film, the doc In the Hands of the Gods?
Two of the presenters were football freestylers and had this idea to busk their way to meet their hero (legendary Argentine soccer star) Diego Maradona. And they wanted us to follow them with cameras. We basically said ‘ok, we’ll follow you around with cameras for a day in London and with whatever money you raise you go for dinner and we’ll make a pilot.’ We thought, if they’re really successful and end up eating in a nice little restaurant, we’ll have a think about. But chances are they’re going to end up in McDonalds.
Where did they eat?
That night the five of them that had been doing the tricks ate in the Savoy, and paid in coins. These were kids from absolutely nothing — one was living on the top of a supermarket. And we were like ‘fuck me, maybe they could do it.’ So we went away to find the money — it really was the blind leading the blind. It was a couple of hundred grand and we pulled out every contact, every stop and managed to get enough to just get on the road. It took seven weeks, and ended up with something like 200 hours of footage, which we edited in Ben Turner’s bedroom — we didn’t have an office. Our dream was basically to have it end up somewhere — on TV, DVD, whatever — so that we could at least tell everyone who said we were mental for doing it that it hadn’t been a total waste of time.
Who eventually picked it up?
We managed to get a sales agent and took the film to Cannes — and found ourselves on the Croisette signing a deal with Lionsgate. We were literally like ‘oh my god, this is the film industry and we’re doing the thing you dream about’. And then six months later, we’re stood in Leicester Square in front of the big Odeon on an AstroTurf green carpet, that we’d requested in a ridiculously childish way, and we’re stood there with celebrities and massive posters and the film is opening on 80 odd screens around the country. It was a pinch yourself movement.
What do you think it was about the film that grabbed the attention of a company like Lionsgate?
It was a really weird feeling for a short period of time, but I’ve worked it out now — the industry is so scared about missing the next big thing that it doesn’t take much for it to throw a bit at it in case it is the next big thing. So for a matter of weeks, everybody was all over us, because In The Hands of the Gods might be the next big thing. Let me make it absolutely clear — it was the furthest thing from the next big thing. It couldn’t have been less of a next big thing.
So where did you go from an AstroTurf carpet in Leicester Square?
We had nothing to back it up with, so when all the distributors and sales agents were calling us and saying ‘what are you doing next?’ it was a proper moment of ‘we have absolutely no idea, we don’t exist, we’re just four guys who made a film.’ We decided that we’d had a lot of fun doing it, it hadn’t been financially successful in the slightest, but it was something we loved doing and were going to give it a go. So I guess that was the real start of Fulwell 73.
What was next for the new company?
2007-2010 was very much about building a business. We made a lot of corporate videos and a lot of charity films. We pitched a lot of very bad ideas to people.
Any that stand out?
Well, talking of bad ideas, In the Hands of the Gods was originally called In Search of Diego. But literally three weeks before release Lionsgate said ‘actually we can’t call it that, you don’t have agreement from Diego Maradona, let’s come up with a new name.’ And I remember this terrible meeting with us brainstorming names. Some of the ideas we came up with… honestly, two stand out. Foreign Street Love, which just straight up sounds like gay porn, and My Balls Are My Passport. Genuinely. Those two were on a list that went out.
Amazing. So what was your next hit?
Ben Winston’s first job on TV was as a runner of a show called Teachers, where he’d become very good friends with a young actor called James Corden. The two of them were at the very start of their careers, and stayed in touch. And then James’ career began to take off. He’d been talking about doing various bits and pieces with us and was asked to do a film for Comic Relief with the England football team. He basically told them that he wouldn’t do it unless Ben directs and Fulwell produces. And that sketch was the absolute hit of the year — a viral hit before there were viral hits. It took off from there. We did James Corden’s World Cup Live on ITV — we had no track record in doing that kind of show but managed to sell ourselves and ended up making 18 one hours — our first big TV commission, which was pretty cool.
And now your co-producing Corden’s The Late Late Show in the U.S., which is also pretty cool.
Yeah, Ben Winston is the exec producer on the show, which Fulwell is co-producing with CBS. Gabe was in LA for a while, but Ben’s out there permanently.
Was this Corden again saying that he’d only do it if you guys were involved?
Effectively. James is the unofficial fifth partner and our biggest cheerleader. He’s been fantastic for us. Him and Ben have an incredible working and personal relationship. And they’re absolutely smashing it out there.
And you’re shopping the Carpool Karaoke segment as a standalone show. So you’re looking to expand over in the U.S.?
That is an unofficial leak! But yeah, that would be another Fulwell co-pro. We’ll have to wait and see. The intention is certainly to build on the platform we have in the States and plant our flag in LA at some point.
Alongside James, you’ve developed a strong relationship with the One Direction boys as well. How did this come about?
Ben Winston was working with Gary Barlow on the [British] X Factor and became very close with One Direction in particular. I guess the very first thing that they ever did coming out of X Factor was an ITV Special. We did that show and it just flowed from there. We produced the One Direction 3D movie [directed by Morgan Spurlock, grossing over $70 million globally], the follow up cinematic movie and the vast majority of their music videos.
In the Hands of the Gods may not have been the next big thing, but 2013’s Class of ’92, looking at the generation of Man United footballers led by David Beckham, in a way was. How did this differ?
I think Class of ’92 rewrote the rules for theatrical docs. We have a very good relationship with Beckham through Comic Relief and had done a number of bits and pieces with him. When we were approached about the film, they had in mind a one-off TV doc. But we saw it straight away as a theatrical feature — it’s far more than a story about six boys who played for Man Utd, it’s culturally and socially significant. And that’s our thing — we want big commercial successes, and to do that it needs to appeal to a broader audience. So I needed it be watched by a housewife who would never watch football, or by a Liverpool fan…
And how did the film do?
Thankfully, we found a great partner in Universal and it absolutely smashed it — it did about half a million DVDs in the first month and has gone on to become, in home entertainment terms, the most successful U.K. sports doc. Suddenly all the studios and distributors were going ‘you can make a doc that breaks out and does big business, and isn’t Michael Moore or Morgan Freeman talking about penguins.’ That’s the route when it comes to docs that we’re looking at — global icons, huge names that have a culturally significant story to tell around them. And now we’ve got the Usain Bolt film, being directed by Gabe and Ben Turner, which is going to be a big one.
Bolt must get a lot of offers. How did you approach him?
I came through the Doyen Group — one of the investors in Class of '92 — two guys Simon Oliveira and Matt Kay who are long-term friends of ours and have backed a couple of our projects. Usain luckily is a Man United fan. He wasn’t that interested in doing a film, but he’d seen Class of ‘92 and when he was told it was the people behind it he got much more interested. I must say here that the ability of my three partners — Gabe, Ben and Ben — to build genuine relationships with talent is our biggest advantage as a company. We always agree a minimum number of days with our talent, whether it’s David Beckham or Usain Bolt, and without any doubt I know I don’t need to negotiate very hard on that point, because the relationship the guys will build up will end up with them on WhatsApp together, phone calls every other day, constant back and forths.
In the U.K. you’ve got Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees, who after the Oscar-winning Amy have films on Maradona and Oasis lined up. Are you in competition for the same iconic figures?
I’m incredibly jealous about those two films. I will happily and openly say how jealous I am about those two subject matters. Diego Maradona would have been right at the top of our list.
With Maradona gone, who else is on Fulwell’s wishlist?
There’s an amazing film to be made about Roger Federer when he retires. I think there’s an amazing film to be made about Floyd Mayweather, and think there’s an amazing film to be made about [F1 boss] Bernie Ecclestone. There’s a few out there who are at the right point in their lives or careers where you can go: now’s the time.