British directors enjoy success in Hollywood

Reflection of larger, international nature of film business

LONDON -- When it comes to the current crop of successful British directors working in Hollywood, forget the new wave and try the third wave in as many decades.

British behind-the-lens-talent -- including Danny Boyle, Paul Greengrass, Kevin Macdonald, Christopher Nolan, Guy Ritchie, Matthew Vaughn, Joe Wright and Edgar Wright -- is shining brightly, with many poised to sparkle during the awards season.

But this latest gaggle is at least the third generation of talented helmers to cross the Atlantic and make Hollywood its home within the last 30 years.

Even since actor and writer Colin Welland's famous boast that "the British are coming" during his Oscar acceptance speech, when he won best original screenplay for "Chariots of Fire" in 1982, the debate has crackled on both sides of the pond about whether or not his prophecy held up.

Welland's script, directed by Hugh Hudson and produced by David Puttnam, certainly heralded a major wave of British voices in the director's chair.

Big names like Ridley Scott and his younger brother Tony, Adrian Lyne, and Alan Parker had already established reputations for packing visual punches by making dozens of award-winning commercials and promos before moving into moviemaking.

Those mavericks were soon joined by a second wave of talented Brits, this time largely coming from theater backgrounds, with Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Daldry, Nicholas Hytner, John Madden and Sam Mendes all making movies that attracted both critical and commercial acclaim.

Almost all of them continue to work in and around the studio system and affiliates. With their global distribution operations and a thirst for quality releases to feed audiences around the globe, the Brits in Hollywood have long benefited from studio attention.

David Parfitt, who won a best picture Oscar for 1998's "Shakespeare in Love" (directed by Madden) and has produced movies for Branagh and Hytner, among others, believes the latest group of upcoming talent is a reflection of studio system smarts.

"Hollywood has always been clever about importing talent," says Parfitt. "You get the feeling at the moment that talent doesn't go to Hollywood forever. What's changed is they come back and make films here (in the U.K.) too."

One reason for the enduring success of U.K. directorial talent in Hollywood is the untiring trawling by the studios for the next big thing and their myriad relationships with British producers and talent, such as Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich's DNA Films (Fox Searchlight) and Vaughn and Kris Thykier's MARV Films (Sony).

Most people working in the U.K. film industry agree that the idea of a British film industry has to be put in the context of the global film business.

Duncan Kenworthy, who is gearing up to produce Kevin Macdonald's sword-and-sandals drama "The Eagle of the Ninth" next year for Focus Features, says much of the kudos attached to British talent this time around comes from nurturing directing talent from documentaries and television.

"It's not about Brits in Hollywood, it's about Brits and Hollywood," Kenworthy says. "(The movie industry) is global and everyone in Hollywood is very aware of that. Hollywood is very aware that the U.K. isn't just an amazing talent pool but also a foothold on the way to the rest of the world."

A glance at boxoffice statistics puts this in perspective. Some 30 years ago, movies produced or co-produced by the studios made less than 50% of their boxoffice internationally, with the majority of the cash coming in from homegrown audiences. Now, international markets can often account for more than 65% of the take for any title. Take as an example Universal's roll-out of Joe Wright's $28 million directorial debut, "Pride & Prejudice" (2005). It made $38.4 million for Focus Features domestically and more than $50 million for Universal Pictures internationally, according to figures from Nielsen EDI's Film Source. Wright's sophomore effort, "Atonement" took in about $1.5 million more internationally than the $50 million it garnered domestically.

Both pictures were produced by Working Title Films, which has long been a serious player on both sides of the Atlantic. One national newspaper editor here said simply "Working Title is the British film industry." In 2007, co-chairmen Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan pledged allegiance to the Universal Pictures flag for another seven years. That pact with a studio gives the pair enormous pulling power for directors and talent alike.

Universal may effectively own Working Title with France's StudioCanal, but Bevan and Fellner are without doubt the company's heart and soul. Without them, several key talents might have walked from Universal, because the label was founded on relationships with filmmakers such as Daldry, Greengrass, Richard Curtis, Stephen Frears, Kevin Macdonald, Roger Michell, Edgar Wright and Joe Wright, among others.

Many Working Title films do twice, even three times as much international boxoffice as domestic. In 2001, "Bridget Jones's Diary" grossed more than $200 million outside the U.S. "When it comes to commercial success internationally, there is no production company anywhere that holds a candle to them," said Universal Pictures chairman Marc Shmuger at the time of the deal that kept them on the Universal lot. "Seven years is happily a long time."

Fellner and Bevan are part of a very small cadre of producers who have established an ability to move between independent production and the big-budget studio-backed projects on its development slate. Bevan says that part of the appeal in the deal with Universal is the level of trust the studio affords them when they bring new talent onto a film.

No one from Universal met Joe Wright on "Pride & Prejudice" until he had finished shooting. "(Universal) respects us enough and gives us a lot of rope in introducing new talent," Bevan says. "It's a matter of trust that the Working Title machine, with a good, decent script, will produce a decent movie to them." Famously, when Wright first read the script for "Pride," he had neither read the novel or watched an earlier very successful television adaptation that established Colin Firth as a star. But Working Title producer Paul Webster knew Wright's visual ability, television experience and fresh approach was what they were looking for in making the big-screen adaptation.

Universal Pictures Intl. president David Kosse, who runs the studio's overseas distribution operations, surprises himself with the sheer number of Brits involved in his studio's upcoming big-scale releases. "Hollywood is becoming a more and more global talent pool, and the U.K. is one of the biggest outside the U.S.," muses Kosse. "That's to do with the (English) language and the last 15 years or so of activities and investments made in the film community here."


17th annual
Britannia Awards

Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel
Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008
Red carpet: 5:30 p.m.
Reception: 6:30 p.m.
Dinner: 7:00 p.m.