In spite of its largely unknown cast, a promiscuous leading female character, a tragic death and a miniscule budget, Four Weddings and a Funeral is still one of the most successful British films ever made.
It is now 20 years since it opened in Britain - making household names of its stars, and taking an estimated $250 million worldwide. Not bad for a budget of less than £3 million.
The project was on the back burner for years as the determined and committed production team tried desperately to raise enough money to make it work. The script went through more than 17 re-writes and dozens of actors were auditioned and rejected until exactly the right people were found to play the leading roles.
During filming, actors were collected in groups across London to save money on individual cars. Aristocrats (who owned their own morning suits) were asked to be extras for the wedding scenes and US movie star Andie MacDowell was convinced into accepting a small fee, all to ensure that the film came in on budget.
The actor Hugh Grant who ended up in many respects being made by the film, was almost a casualty before filming began. There were 2 problems with Grant. The first was that Richard Curtis, the writer, thought him too handsome to have problems with women. How right can you, in hindsight, be?
The second was that Grant’s agent insisted on a fee of £40,000 for the then largely unknown actor. He was 33 at the time and had just 1 Merchant Ivory movie, Maurice, under his belt. That was £5,000 over the budget the team had allocated.
Michael Foster, Grant’s agent, said, “£40,000 and he is yours.”
Duncan Kenworthy, the producer said, “Sorry, you just don’t understand. It’s £35,000 and if you don’t accept that then obviously we lose him.”?’
A number of lessons scream out of this for the negotiator. The first is to know your limit position. Kenworthy clearly meant it. He was clearly prepared to walk away from Grant. I wonder who was waiting in the wings.
The second is to make sure you are able to trade movement rather than simply give in. Have variables that allow the movement to be made for value in other areas. Did Grant trade the fee down to £35,000 in return for top billing on the poster, a bigger trailer, first serving at lunch. We will probably never know. Certainly a long and varied list of variables that allow value to be created and then traded for is essential for any negotiation.
And of course the third is that sometimes in negotiations you have to play the long game.
Grant was able to command a fee of £7 million for his next movie.
Wonder where he would be if he had held out for £40 K?