How Sunderland-inspired production company Fulwell 73 became a success story

When they came up with the idea of setting up a production company 16 years ago little did brothers Gabe and Ben Tuner know it would become a Hollywood success story.

The Sunderland-inspired production company, Fulwell 73, set up along with cousin Leo Pearlman and life-long friend Ben Winston, first gained critical acclaim for the documentary ‘In The Hands of Gods’.

And they gained a North East after the documentary ‘Sunderland Til I Die’ – which followed their beloved Sunderland AFC during the side’s worst season.

But it was the recent production of the highly anticipated Friends: The Reunion that has turned the company into a household name after stars including Jennifer Aniston praised the team on social media.

Read more: Sunderland-inspired company behind Friends Reunion celebrates show’s release

The special, which was hosted by fifth partner and TV presenter James Corden, was an instant hit and smashed viewing figures around the globe.

Leo, who was born in Sunderland and raised in Newcastle, said: “The response has been mind-blowing, I think even though you think you realise how big an idea you are working with, until you actually put the content out there it does not hit you properly.

“My God, the numbers that have come back from Sky, HBO, the viewing figures are through the roof, the amount of attention and we had extra bits on the Late, Late show from the Friends and even that exploded.

“It is really amazing what an incredible cultural piece of content Friends was at the time and how much people thought of it.”

But, it hasn’t been an easy journey to the top for the filmmakers who were given a taste of success with 2007 documentary ‘In The Hands of Gods’.

Photo issued by HBO Max of the Friends reunion special
Photo issued by HBO Max of the Friends reunion special
(Image: PA)

The film follows five English freestyle footballers as they try to raise money by showcasing their skills, in order to fund a trip to Buenos Aires to meet their idol Diego Maradona.

Leo, who lived in Newcastle before moving to London, said: “I think standing in Leicester Square and seeing the film up in lights, standing on this green carpet which we insisted on because it looked like a football pitch.

“We definitely had a moment when we thought this could be a career and business we could build. I think the success and excitement and the interest in the Hands of the Gods surprised all of us.

“I remember standing there and looking up at the posters and looking at each other thinking this is pretty easy.

“We have done this without really knowing, we should make a career out of it.”

Ben Winston, Leo Pearlman, Gabe Turner and Ben Turner of Fulwell73
Ben Winston, Leo Pearlman, Gabe Turner and Ben Turner of Fulwell73
(Image: Getty Images Europe)

But after the success of the documentary, work failed to come flooding in and the group continued working on other jobs to keep the company afloat, with Leo using poker as an income stream.

Leo added: “After we made In the Hands of the Gods and assumed everyone would fall over themselves, hand us money and ask us to make content for them, when that didn’t work out quite the way we hoped, we would make a lot of charity films, adverts and commercials.

“We were doing digital content, online content before it was the cool thing to do, as it was what people were paying us to do.

“So more out of necessity than choice and while we were doing that we all had sidelines that we needed to do to make sure we could keep on running Fulwell and mine was I played poker a lot of the time.

“The others would give me money and I would go and play through the night and turn up the next morning for work and hand over the winnings.”

But it was Winston’s friendship with James Corden that proved to be another turning point for the company.

The pair met when Corden had a minor role on TV drama Teachers and Ben was a runner on the show and instantly clicked.

Leo said: “We first worked for James which would have been Comic Relief and doing the Smithy sketches and that got a lot of attention and definitely helped our profile. It led to James Corden’s World Cup Live on ITV which was the first kind of terrestrial TV show we made for the company which feels nicely circular as we are currently making Peter Crouch’s Late Euro Show.”

The company is heavily involved in the hugely popular Carpool Karaoke segment from James Corden’s show and will also run the spin-off Carpool show which was the first major commission of new channel Apple.

Leo Pearlman

Founded in 2005, the name Fulwell 73 comes from one of the old stands at Sunderland’s old Roker Park Stadium and then 73 for 1973, the year Sunderland famously beat Leeds to win the FA Cup.

It was while in LA meeting with Netflix executives that Leo pitched an idea about the club and a ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’ story but the tale pitched didn’t quite go to plan – the club went on to have their worst season in history.

Leo said: “I think it worked as a great counter programme to most of the sports documentaries being made at the time which were all hugely successful clubs.

“You had Man City, France winning the World Cup, and all you could see was success, success, success. Our attitude was when we were filming Sunderland and they were going to have a terrible year, this is the experience most sports fans have.”

It was also revealed last month that the company is in talks with the University of Sunderland to open a production centre in the city.

It would provide opportunities for new starters who struggle to find enough work experience or training to get them a foothold in a sector with an acknowledged skills shortage.

Leo said: “Nothing makes me happier than being able to open up in the North East and start to reinvigorate the media industry which has pretty much disappeared in the North East over the last decade.

“It has such a history of making incredible content, going back to the days of Auf Wiedersehen Pet and Byker Grove when I was at school, it is such a shame and travesty that the industry has collapsed.”

As the profile of the company increased, Leo said it would be easy to get swept away in the success but they have never forgotten their North East roots.

He said: “I think it is important to regularly pinch yourself and remind yourself where you come from.

“It gets very easy in this business, this industry and company to take it for granted when you get to make stuff with David Beckham, Harry Styles and Tom Cruise.

“We are lucky because we have each other, the five of us, because anyone who gets it gets a reminder.

“We are incredibly fortunate about what we are doing, we don’t complain and are really humble about it. I think that is also something about being from the North East.”

Chronicle Live – Sunderland