A venerable film studio gets a new lease on life

Excitement is running high on Ealing Studios Sound Stage No. 3. The moment the cast and crew of the new Kevin Costner comedy, "The Upside of Anger," have been waiting for has arrived: The film's director is about to blow his top - literally.

Mike Binder doubles in the small role of a highly undesirable suitor in a single-parent household of daughters. Joan Allen, who plays the brood's mother, has a daydream that includes detonating the man's head. A wax dummy has been brought in for the do-or-die shot and now, after long anticipation, the moment has arrived.

"We get to watch the director's head explode," says Ms. Allen, huddled in front of a tiny monitor, a broad smile on her face. Laughter ripples through the otherwise silent crowd.

This is a moment that does these fabled studios proud: a major film comedy coming to life once again in the Western suburbs of London. Founded in 1902, Ealing Studios is considered not just the oldest operating studio in the world, but the dream factory that articulated for world audiences the essential British character in classic comedies such as "The Ladykillers" and "The Lavender Hill Mob." Equal parts courage and arrogance, resilience and stiff upper lip, the films put the British psyche on display in much the same way that John Ford westerns plumbed the American soul. When studio head Michael Balcon was knighted in 1949, he said, "It isn't me, old boy. It's the studios that have been knighted."

The studios were sold to the BBC for television production in 1956 and again to the National Film and Television School in 1994. But until this past year, no major film had been produced under the logo in more than 40 years. Now, with the help of a new team of filmmakers, the studios are poised to retake the stage.

Resurrecting a cherished piece of British history is culturally reassuring to British filmmakers, who have felt overshadowed by the mammoth Hollywood studios. But observers suggest that Ealing's new lease on life also could have important ramifications for the future of independent filmmaking around the globe.

"There are few enough independent voices as it is," says Timothy Shary, a film professor at Clark University in Massachusetts. "If Ealing succeeds in making films with a distinct voice, that will again remind us that private ownership can and will foster great quality." One of the great challenges of small studios is that success can become a liability. "It's a fundamental frustration," says Mr. Shary, "that as soon as something becomes successful, it gets bought up by the big companies and disappears as a distinct entity."

Maintaining a distinct identity is high on the producers' list. "[Ealing] represents a great period in British cinema and comedy," says investor Barnaby Thompson, producer of the "Wayne's World" films and an "An Ideal Husband." "It stands for a certain quality, but also a certain Britishness that hopefully we can reinvigorate." At the same time, he says, Ealing will only succeed to the degree that it attracts moviemakers from around the world.

The $100 million restoration plan (the first phase was completed this summer) includes two businesses: studio rental and studio productions. "Upside" is a US production using the facility, while next door, crews are prepping for the sequel to "Bridget Jones's Diary" under the Ealing logo. The site has added to the original sound stages from the 1930s, which are still in use and have history of their own. Sound Stage Two was hit by a bomb in World War II - and saved only by the fact that the bomb didn't ignite.

The complex also features the only computer graphics facility in Europe that's on a par with Hollywood houses such as Pixar and Disney - the latter of which is a partner on Ealing's debut animated feature. Currently in production, "Valiant" is a $40 million tale about a carrier pigeon during World War II.

With a facility of this magnitude, says Thompson, European filmmakers will be able to finish everything from an animated film to a high-tech thriller without leaving the hemisphere. In fact, he points out, "Star Wars: Episode 1" was filmed at the new Ealing Studios in 2001.

At the same time that he hopes to attract talent, Thompson says he also feels the responsibility of respecting the Ealing legacy. "I'm a happy endings kind of guy," he says. "I'm against violence and bad language. 'Kill Bill' would not be made at Ealing Studios."

That said, attracting US production has been important. "Upside" producers say that while the Ealing legacy was a bonus, practical considerations brought them to the modest set of studios nestled off the main drag of this leafy English town. "We get at least a 10 percent [overall cost] benefit in the cost of everything for being here," says Alex Gartner, an "Upside" producer from Los Angeles. That said, it's hard not to be inspired by the work that has gone before. "It's fun to be onstage where they filmed Alec Guinness," he says. "It's nice to be somewhere where there's real comedy history."

Everyone benefits from strong indigenous filmmaking. "It's encouraging to know that there are some people who have a sense of appreciation for history," says film historian Ed Robertson of Media Life magazine. "It sets a standard that raises the bar for everyone."

Ultimately, "the aim is to make as many of our own films as possible," says Mr. Thompson. "The dream is to [be] shooting all our own films on our stages." For now, the goal is three to four Ealing Studios films a year. The studio's first official comedy under new management, Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," starring Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, and Reese Witherspoon, was released in 2002 to lukewarm reviews and modest success.

Photographer Paul Chedlow, who shoots the publicity stills for films such as "Upside," says the studios will be a welcome home for British talent. "We're nomads," he says, as he strolls the soundstage behind Allen and Costner. "The industry here can't support its own talent. It would be absolutely great for the British film industry to have fully renovated studios in central London."

The hundreds of jobs created by the studios ("Valiant" employs nearly 100 animators) also give the local economy a boost. Ealing Studios joins West London's growing "creative corridor," an area that has grown nearly 200 percent over the past five years. "It's a great thing to see the studios come back to life," says Del Carlyle, technical manager for The Drama Studio, a graduate theater school located across a grassy commons from the studios.

Not everyone in Ealing is a cheerleader. At the bus stop in front of the studios, two lavender-haired ladies who could easily have walked off an Ealing comedy soundstage 50 years ago dismiss the hoopla. "Don't know, don't care," says one. "Don't go to the cinema, don't watch the telly," adds her friend.

Back on Sound Stage 3, feelings run high. It's hard not to feel the presence of the greats, says a stagehand huddled just behind Allen. A few crew members swear they can feel Sir Alec keeping watch. Allen says she's not superstitious, or even particularly conscious of history. But she says director Binder, an American with roots in standup comedy, feels the history all around him. "His enthusiasm about the studios is infectious," she says, adding that, exploded head notwithstanding, "he really is very excited about being here."

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