Bridget Jones vs The Producers

After months of planning and tens of thousands of pounds, two big productions opened in the West End of London last night. Terry Kirby peers through the flashbulbs at the cut-throat premiere industry
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The Independent Culture

As the Bridget Jones star Renee Zellweger posed and pouted on the red carpet outside the Odeon in London's Leicester Square last night, the flashbulbs popped, the fans cheered, and an aura of glitz and glamour prevailed. And behind the scenes, a small army of party planners, public relations gurus, security guards, dress designers and personnel stylists, all people on the edge of a nervous breakdown, held their collective breath.

As the Bridget Jones star Renee Zellweger posed and pouted on the red carpet outside the Odeon in London's Leicester Square last night, the flashbulbs popped, the fans cheered, and an aura of glitz and glamour prevailed. And behind the scenes, a small army of party planners, public relations gurus, security guards, dress designers and personnel stylists, all people on the edge of a nervous breakdown, held their collective breath.

On such a premiere or first night, almost anything can go wrong. A stiletto heel caught on a piece of chewing gum, a berserk fan lunging for a star or - horror of horrors - the failure of what is known as "a tit tape", feed the nightmares of the organisers for months beforehand. And that's without the potential disasters of the after-show parties: the cold canapés, the wrong wine, a drunken star decking a particularly intrusive paparazzi outside.

"What most people don't realise,'' said Toby Burnham, head of media management at Freud Communications, which was handling the public relations for the premiere of Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason, "is that while on the surface it all looks very nice and smooth and glossy, it is just the tip of the iceberg of weeks and weeks of planning and work to get it organised and that behind the scenes people like me are rushing round like crazy to make it work.''

Last night, London had two of the biggest such events to be staged recently happening simultaneously. At Leicester Square, Zellweger was joined on the red carpet by her co-stars Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, together with a usual selection of A-list types, like Elton John and Robbie Williams. Eagerly awaited, with a biggish budget, big stars, a British home-grown product (well, apart from Zellweger and she's a sort of an honorary Brit now), the film was a good excuse to push the boat out, to create an event which, in the words of one of those involved, would be the biggest thing this year after the Baftas. So months of planning went into the premiere and the after-show party - a BridgetJones-themed event near Tower Bridge, with invites for more than 1,500 people.

Meanwhile on the other side of Theatreland, a slightly different crowd was gathering at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, for the equally eagerly anticipated first night of the London staging of The Producers, the multi-Tony award-winning musical version of Mel Brook's comedy film, starring Nathan Lane and Lee Evans.

Treading this particular red carpet last night were Brooks and his wife, the actress Anne Bancroft, Sir Michael Gambon, Jonathan Pryce and other members of the theatrical great and good, all anxious to see whether Lane would be able to replicate his Broadway performance (after replacing Richard Dreyfuss at short notice) and whether Lee Evans really would be as good as rumoured. The after-show party for 750 was held round the corner at the Waldorf Hotel; the organisers are said to have resisted the idea of a Hitler theme.

Around these and the several dozen similar events staged in London each year revolves a small industry, funded almost entirely by the film companies and theatrical producers. The scale is simple: the bigger the film premiere or first night, the bigger the event and the planning that goes into it.

The main players in all this are the party planners, who also specialise in corporate launches and other similar events, who work together with the film company or producers, sponsors, their public relations people, like Freud, the venues - both for the film or show, and the party - and others, like police and local authority officials and private security teams who will work on crowd control, as well as the company that provides the red carpet. Hundreds of people are involved, everything is up for grabs and nothing is left to chance - whether it is the flowers or other decoration inside the theatre to who's on the guest list for the party. Success is measured by the gossip-column inches and Heat-style photospreads, as long as they are sympathetic.

One of London's legendary after-show parties was thrown in 2000 for The Beach, the film starring Leonardo Di Caprio, when an empty warehouse in Covent Garden was turned, in just two weeks, into a five-story themed nightclub in which 1400 people, including dozens of celebrities, partied most of the night and made the diary columns for days. Sara Blonstein, of Blonstein Associates, which staged it, believes such events have been more restrained in recent years: "There are a lot of grade-B premieres and the stars just avoid the after-show parties, which sometimes are just held in nightclubs. People don't have the budgets any more, except for blockbusters. It's been much quieter since 11 September.''

Amanda Davies, who runs AD Events, has been responsible for a number of London's most recent high-profile premieres, such as last Sunday's The Incredibles, Spiderman 11 and I Robot, (which involved Will Smith performing on a stage in Leicester Square). It was Ms Davies who broke with tradition to introduce a pink carpet for the Charley's Angels premiere.

"There is a huge amount of planning involved, going into incredible details, particularly if it's on a theme, like Star Wars and where there are going to be big crowds. It's a big operation.'' And the costs: "Well, I can't say. Sorry. The film company foots the bill.'' But it's not difficult to imagine such events costing up to £1m and the companies themselves consider that entirely justified, if a film is going to gross many times that amount.

Ms Davies also does the after-show party at the Grosvenor House Hotel for the Baftas, the biggest event on the London calendar. This is co-ordinated by Clare Brown, head of production for the academy. Ms Brown said: "I'm already planning now for that and it's not until next February. The first thing we do is conceive a 'look' which dictates all the other considerations.'' The Bafta's operation is huge, with whole hotels booked for the Hollywood A-list.

The night a few years ago that the red carpet in Leicester Square turned into a foamy, soggy quagmire after an unexpected downpour reacted with chemicals in the carpet still sends shivers down her spine. "It was a fiasco. I have to admit that was my carpet. But, contrary to reports, nobody's shoes were stained red. That would have been my worst nightmare - thousands of pounds worth of shoes being ruined. Most of the stars were British, so they knew about the weather.''

For their moment on that carpet, whether soggy or not, for the stars like Zellweger, another parallel army of personal stylists, dress designers and advisors come into play. As the Baftas and the Oscars have shown, what the female stars wear on the night, and whether the fashion editors and celebrity magazines like Heat deem it to be a hit or a miss, can be absolutely critical for their image and that of the designer, particularly the young and up-and-coming. And many of the more daring creations are held together, and to the star, by what is known to all as "tit tape". Last night, Zellweger's people were anxious to make it known that she was wearing a dress by one Marchesa, a young British designer.

What happens when they walk up the carpet can also be critical. Tom Cruise, needing some PR help after his messy divorce from Nicole Kidman, has taken to spending up to an hour talking to fans, allowing them to photograph him and speaking to their mothers on their mobiles. This can, of course backfire, such as the occasion when one woman kept referring to Tom Hanks and another who advised him to "get back with that nice Nicole".

Controlling this circus ring are people like Toby Burnham, who works with a team of 30 people to, as he puts it, "facilitate news". Last night, he was supervising interviews between the Bridget Jones stars and 32 film crews and making sure that almost 100 photographers did not step over the line, literally. Burnham is sanguine about the nights when the big stars don't turn up. "If it happens, it happens. But there is usually somebody for the papers to focus on for the next day. It's worse for the weekly magazines.''

He adds "Stars can't just walk up the red carpet and we have to make sure, by liasing with them and their people, that they stop to pose for the cameras and, where it has been arranged, to give interviews. But then there might be problems if the interviewers don't stick to the film and start asking about a star's private life for instance.'' Or when there are other disasters: "I could tell you about the times the tit tape has broken, but I won't,'' he said, ever the PR man.

TWO BLOCKBUSTERS GO HEAD TO HEAD

THE PRODUCERS

Stars: Nathan Lane, Lee Evans, Leigh Zimmerman, James Dreyfus.

Salaries: Lane reportedly will get nearly £500,000 for two months' work, Evans £7,000 a week.

Producers: Rocco Landesman and Harvey and Bob Weinstein among others.

Cost: £5.5m.

Screenplay: Mel Brooks.

The plot: Producer Max Bialystock (Lane) and accountant Leo Bloom (Evans) scheme to make money out of theatre investors by making a sure-fire flop.

Best song: "Springtime for Hitler".

Best scene : The extravagant finale to Franz Liebkind's musical.

Best line : "Don't be stupid, be a smartie, Come and join the Nazi Party."

BRIDGET JONES II

Stars : Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent.

Salaries : Zellweger reportedly got £12 million.

Producers : Miramax films, aka Harvey and Bob Weinstein.

Cost: Around £50m.

Screenplay: Helen Fielding, Richard Curtis, Andrew Davies.

The plot: Bridget Jones' relationship with lawyer boyfriend Mark Darcy (Firth) and her ex, Daniel Cleaver (Grant).

Best song: Barry White's "You're the first, my last, my everything".

Best scene: The fight.

Best line: Cleaver If you love her so much, Darcy, why don't you marry her? Darcy I'll bear that in mind. Cleaver [pause] She'd definitely sleep with me then.

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