December 2, 2021
Words by Colin Young
Photography by Christopher Owens
They rub shoulders with Hollywood A-listers, red carpet royalty, and the pick of pop stars, footballers and world- renowned athletes.
And the big names are queueing up to be filmed by Leo Pearlman and his cousins, best friend, superstar partner, and their Sunderland Football Club- inspired company.
Indeed, only last month, national treasure Adele chose Fulwell 73 to produce ‘An Audience with…’ for ITV, adding ‘Friends: The Reunion’, a Christmas special of ‘Gavin and Stacey’, the Kardashians and many more to its impressive list.
You may now be more likely to find Newcastle Royal Grammar School- educated Leo in Beverly Hills, rather than Castlefields.
But even after all the awards, accolades and worldwide recognition, and working with music legends filming James Corden’s ‘Carpool Karaoke’, nothing will top producing the ‘Sunderland Till I Die’ Netflix documentary, even if it was the worst period in the club’s history.
“If someone had told me at 18 that I’d get a chance to make two seasons of a TV show about the football team I love, I’d have bitten their arm off,” says Leo.
“As it happens, getting to do so was pretty painful.
“We were lucky enough to pick the worst season in the club’s history – followed by the worst season in the club’s history, so it couldn’t have been more of a challenge.
“But I’ve been incredibly lucky and privileged to have had that opportunity. “I definitely pinch myself still that we got to do that, far more so than getting to work with the incredible talent we have worked with over the years.
“Why? Because there’s something more meaningful about making content on subject matters you truly care about.
“I never dreamt our company would get to produce ‘Friends: The Reunion’, for example. The fact we got to do it is mind-blowing and one of the great highs for Fulwell.
“But I had a dream to do something with Sunderland and we got to do it; and that is incredibly special.
“The two projects I’m most proud of are ‘In The Hands of Gods’, and ‘Sunderland Til I Die’, the latter because we managed to convince Netflix execs to give us that much money to make a show about Sunderland.”
The plan was to film the club’s return to the Premier League in the 2017-2018 season following relegation the previous year.
The result was a mind-boggling insight into its catastrophic fall in the other direction, as it was relegated to League One.
Granted continued access (somehow) during and after the Stewart Donald takeover, the plan for series two was
to film Sunderland’s return to the Championship in the 2018-2019 season.
The result was another heartbreaking chronicle of Sunderland’s demise since their ten-year grip, and reliance, on the Premier League’s riches slipped from their grasp.
Engrossing and entertaining, with moments of comedy gold and heartache, both series were agonising but must-see for Sunderland supporters, as well as fans of any club in any sport.
And they were even worse to make.
“We didn’t think there would be a second series,” says Leo.
“From our point of view, we told the story of the city and we saw that as the end point.
“If there hadn’t been a takeover, we wouldn’t have done the second season.
“I feel mostly for my partner Ben Turner – another Sunderland fan – as he was across the edit and creative.
“When we got relegated to League One, at least over that summer I got to put it behind me and not think about football.
“Ben had to watch that relegation 150 times and he still tells me he shed a tear every time he did.
“He was trying to pull out the pathos, the sympathy, the empathy and the pain, but every time he’d find another shot of a fan in pieces, and it would break him again.
“I’m not sure Ben has ever recovered. I don’t know if we will be able to wheel him out for a third series, but we’ll give it a go.”
Is a third series on the cards, then?
“When the club gets promoted at the end of the season – always about positivity,” pauses Leo.
And we both laugh. He changes his answer.
“If the club gets promoted – I’m a Sunderland fan, so I’m a realist – doing a final one in the Championship would be a good way to round out the story.”
Leo was a Roker Park regular with his father and grandfather from an early age. They’d often meet cousins Ben and Gabe when they came up from London – feeding their co-obsession during the Peter Reid/Kevin Phillips/Niall Quinn era in the first years of the Stadium of Light.
With the Turners’ friend Ben Winston (Arsenal fan), they set up Fulwell 73 in 2005 – named after the famous terrace at Roker Park which is now a housing estate, and the year of Sunderland’s FA Cup win, their last major trophy.
Their first film was ‘In the Hands of the Gods’, a documentary following five English freestyle footballers striving to meet hero Diego Maradona.
Receiving critical acclaim, it opened on more screens than any other UK-made documentary and was shown in cinemas across the globe. “We were stood on the green carpet for the premiere,” recalls Leo.
“Green, because like idiots and kids, we decided on an AstroTurf carpet over a red one because it was a football film.
“We looked up in Leicester Square, there was a big poster, we were at this premiere for a film we’d made for very little and suddenly it was happening.
“And we all turned to each other and went, ‘wow, we should set up a company and make more films’.
“As it turned out, we found out 48 hours later that no one had gone to see it and that it wasn’t anywhere near that easy.
“In fact, no one would give us a penny to make anything after that.
“We spent a number of years making short-form content before it was seen as anything of real value, and digital content before it was a thing.
“Over the years, that became quite popular and sticky, and people were looking to invest in that area.
“By coincidence, we were the ones who had been doing it for a few years, so opportunities started to arise.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do.
I knew I wanted to be in business; I’ve always been entrepreneurial and wanted to take risks and I fell into this crazy world of content and production.
“And I’m loving every second of it.”
Fulwell 73’s growth and impact on the world stage has been clear, but Leo insists the company has never forgotten its roots.
The opening of Fulwell North, on the University of Sunderland’s Sir Tom Cowie Campus, on the banks of the River Wear at St Peter’s, is surely proof of that too.
“We treat every day, every project, every opportunity as if it could be our last,” says Leo.
“When James and Ben moved out to the States to set up the ‘Late Late Show’ for the company, they only took a three- month rental on their houses, because they figured we’d make a couple of shows and people would realise we were kind of winging it.
“And we’ve always kept that attitude.
“You have to be incredibly grateful for what you have, and you cannot ever lose sight of how fortunate and lucky you are.
“We’re lucky that the five of us are close enough that if anyone ever did or does get a little bit too full of themselves, they have four partners who will quickly pull them down a peg or two.
“We’ve all grown up together, and we talk about the Fulwell family because it feels like a family business that we set up together which has built and grown.
“So many of our senior execs have been with us for up to ten years.
“We have a very low turnover of staff, especially in senior positions, which is pretty much unheard of in this industry, and I hope the biggest part of that is because of that family dynamic.”
James joined Fulwell 73 in 2017 as a fifth full partner and the company co- produces his ‘Late Late Show’ with CBS Television Studios. It holds the record for the highest viewed clip in the history of late night television with ‘Carpool Karaoke with Adele.’
The Emmy-award winning Corden, though, is not the only megastar to have worked with Fulwell 73.
It has made shows with, among many, Justin Bieber, Robbie Williams, One Direction, Jimmy Carr, Michael McIntyre and Jack Whitehall, and continues to produce a number of films and television programmes across different genres.
Its most recent film and TV releases include ‘Cinderella’ (Amazon Prime); ‘Hitsville: The Story of Motown’ (Showtime); ‘The Republic of Sarah’ (The CW); and the soon-to-be-released Mammals and Boundless (both Amazon Prime).
And now the award winners are coming home – or at least opening a new office in the David Puttnam Media Centre at the University of Sunderland.
Run by North East executive Melanie Rainbow, the company plans to create a hub and development centre for new talent to encourage students to stay and work in the region and build on increasing investment.
‘Sunderland Til I Die’ may be Fulwell 73’s lasting tribute to the city on film, but they want to leave a more fitting legacy.
We talked for 20 minutes over our Zoom calls on the Sunderland project and its potential – not just for Leo’s company but for his region and for his industry – enough to fill two pages of this magazine and a Netflix short film.
Leo says: “It would not be right to say there’s no element of nostalgia; if we’d seen an opportunity in Wales, we might not have jumped at it with the same enthusiasm perhaps, but it’s certainly a commercial decision.
“We see this as a real opportunity; between Leeds and Edinburgh, there’s this strange black hole.
“For the last two decades, the country seems to have forgotten there are hundreds of miles of amazing locations, and talented on-screen and off-screen individuals desperate for work and full of great content ideas.
and add fuel to the fire; the catalyst to try and get those North East voices talking again.
“I grew up with my dad showing me ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’ and ‘The Likely Lads’, ‘Jossy’s Giants’ and ‘Byker Grove’, all these iconic North East shows, and I’d love to be able to show my own children TV shows that celebrate the region – its storytellers, its on-screen talent and its beautiful landscapes.
“To be able to point to those shows and say, ‘that’s where we come from,’ would feel very special.”
He namechecks Graeme Thompson, the university’s pro vice-chancellor: “absolutely relentless; honestly, every five minutes, he has not let this go – but without that kind of dog-with-a-bone
“We saw an opportunity to reach out attitude, a refusal to accept no, and an inherent love for the region, nothing would get done” – plus Alison Gwynn, Northern Film + Media’s chief executive, and Sunderland MP Julie Elliott.
He continues: “They’re the ones who should get all of the credit – we’re just jumping on their bandwagon and hoping we can help.
“We’ve no interest in coming in and sucking whatever oxygen there is out of the region; it’s the exact opposite.
“We want to co-pro with local companies and producers, and help them develop as a business, so the next time they are competing with us for that same commission.
“There’s no one show that’s going to turn that around or change that perception; it’s about all the little elements, like the BBC announcing investment into the region – I’m hoping Channel 4 will be the next to announce their own investment.
“Hopefully, we’ll play a part by coming up and all of these little incremental steps will lead to a new boom in production for the region.”
Leo adds: “We’ve outlined two markers of success.
“The first is the percentage of students able to graduate and stay in the region and the industry.
“And the second one might sound a little strange, but it really is a great way to judge our success.
“If, in three to five years, we’re competing for every commission out of the region, winning some and losing others because there are so many production companies in the North East, that would be a true measure of success.”