Ben Winston’s Twitter profile picture is revealing. A tall, snappily dressed figure with designer stubble, he is captured strolling nonchalantly next to the Queen. It is the image of a man who appears at ease in the company of the rich and famous.
His CV only supports this theory. At 23, he co-founded British production company Fulwell 73 with three friends from a Jewish summer camp.
More than a decade later — and without a penny or dime of investment — he is making TV, films, music videos, and adverts with the likes of David Beckham, Justin Bieber, and Usain Bolt.
Fulwell has achieved this while keeping a reasonably low profile. The company prefers to let its work, and the stars it partners with, do the talking. But that is changing.
Business Insider meets Winston at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, where we discuss how he helped James Corden go from ridiculed to revered in America in the space of 18 months on CBS’s “The Late Late Show With James Corden.” In doing so, Winston has established himself among the world’s TV making elite.
He has been friends with Corden since they met while working on Channel 4 drama “Teachers” in the early 2000s. They moved to Los Angeles last year and Winston only took a six-month contract on a rented apartment for fear the CBS show would flop.
His concerns never materialised, but his vision for “The Late Late Show” still stands today. In a crowded market and with a 12.37 a.m. billing, he says Fulwell 73 needed to create a programme that had a life beyond television.
“We didn’t go out to make viral hits, we went out to make the best possible entertainment variety show and hoped people watched it in any form they wanted to,” Winston explains.
“James said the other day: ‘I’m James Corden’s biggest fan. I think he’s funny, quite good looking, and hilariously entertaining, but even I can’t stay awake that late to watch me, so why should any one else.’ That’s our mentality.”
The “Carpool” cash cow
“Carpool Karaoke” is the best example of this. The idea first appeared in a sketch Corden did with George Michael for the BBC in 2011 and was honed for a documentary he later presented on Take That singer Gary Barlow.
“It was a lovely bit where someone listening and singing to their own hits in their car was really funny. We also created huge intimacy because we left them alone with cameras,” Winston reflects.
It got off to a slow start in America, with Winston admitting that Fulwell struggled to convince music artists to take part. Winston says a chance encounter with Mariah Carey’s publicist changed that and her participation turned the segment into a viral sensation.
That original video has been viewed nearly 30 million times, while Winston claims that the video featuring Adele is now the “highest-viewed clip in the history of late night television” in America, with 125 million hits.
“Carpool Karaoke” regularly boosts music sales, Winston adds, and is now being made into its own series for Apple Music. He got the series away after striking up a friendship with influential Apple executive Jimmy Iovine and is one of the first producers to benefit from the tech giant’s much-anticipated move into TV.
Winston has done the same with “Drop The Mic,” another viral segment on “The Late Late Show,” which has now been sold to US network TBS as a show in its own right. Not that the “The Late Late Show” is alone in this regard: “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” gave the world “Lip Sync Battle.”
Winston says: “I don’t think you can ever say, ‘I want this to be a viral hit.’ You say ‘I want to make this bit really funny.’ With YouTube, there is no schedule, there is no lead-in, there is no timeslot. The best stuff rises to the top.”
Winston: The BBC’s behind Brit success in America.
The producer says Brits are enjoying notable success in America currently. Naming stars including John Oliver and Simon Cowell, he argues: “The Brits aren’t taking over, but it is remarkable that a country the size of New Jersey has as much success in film and television.”
Winston believes the BBC has played a big role in raising the standard of British television and has given companies like Fulwell 73 the platform to shine on the world stage.
He explains: “Partly because of the BBC, British television strives for creativity and originality, whereas elsewhere can be quite focused on business. People knocking the BBC, we should be careful what we wish for. The BBC gives all of the programme makers in Britain a real grounding in quality.”
As for Fulwell’s own approach, Winston, son of celebrated British professor Lord Robert Winston, says the company has built relationships with household names by being “very honest with people” and “being clear what will work with them at a certain time.” Being a jack of all trades has also helped.
“It was the fact we didn’t specialise in anything that has become our biggest strength. If you look at One Direction as an example, we can say, we’re going to make your music videos, we’re going to make your movie with Columbia Pictures, we’re going to do your eight-hour live stream for YouTube, we’re going to make your commercials, and we’re going to make your live gigs.”
He is more coy about Fulwell 73’s own plans to expand. The company has recently signed an output deal with CBS Studios and Business Insider asks if Winston has received takeover approaches. “I don’t think about it,” he replies enigmatically.
He adds: “We are associated closely with certain talents and we enjoy getting the best out of them. When you’re working with high-profile talent, they should take the public eye and the producers and directors shouldn’t.”
And with that, Winston disappears into the crowd of British TV royalty networking noisily outside of the main conference theatre at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. He greets many of them like they are old friends.
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