Produced By: 'Stranger Things,' 'Arrival' Producers on Giving Voice to Talent

Courtesy of PGA
Shawn Levy (left) and Dan Levine

Director-producer Shawn Levy and his fellow execs at 21 Laps describe a landmark year that redefined their company.

The year 2016 was a breakthrough one for the Fox-based production company 21 Laps Entertainment, which saw Arrival, a thinking-man’s science-fiction tale, earn eight Oscar nominations, including a best picture mention, while grossing $202 million worldwide, and its eight-episode TV series Stranger Things, which pays homage to the 1970s work of both Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, become a breakout hit on Netflix.

At the Produced By conference, presented by the Producers Guild of America on the 20th Century Fox lot, the company’s principals — its head, director-producer Shawn Levy; president Dan Levine; and executive vp Dan Cohen — came together Sunday morning to look back at the factors that have contributed to their current hot streak.

In the wake of the success of 2006’s Night at the Museum, which Levy produced and directed, Fox offered 21 Laps a first-look film deal (it is free to go anywhere with the TV projects it develops). Recalled Levy, “The initial impetus was to continue to develop and create family or comedic franchises, but I knew, even then, that my taste was broader than that and I like different kind of movies and shows. I always dreamed that 21 Laps would end up having a broader range of tone or genre. It’s just been a process of assembling the right team, with all of us working our asses off to achieve that. Year by year we’ve made progress, but now what you’re seeing is what I always wanted, a production company that is not just a vanity deal or developing for me to direct, but actually giving us the opportunity to tell different kinds of stories with a range of different filmmakers.”

While Levy went on to helm movies like Date Night for Fox and Real Steel for DreamWorks, he cited the low-budget film The Spectacular Now, which James Ponsoldt based on the young adult novel by Tim Tharp, as a turning point for the company, even though the pic grossed just $6.9 million domestically. “It was not just us saying we’re doing a broader range of storytelling. It was us doing it,” Levy said. And, in turn, a poster for the film in the 21 Laps offices has helped convince visiting filmmakers, like Arrival’s Denise Villeneuve, of the seriousness of the company’s intentions.

Levine recounted how when they all first read Ted Chiang’s short story, Story of Her Life, which would eventually become Arrival, at the recommendation of screenwriter Eric Heisserer, “Our hearts started racing, because this is the thing we thought could really redefine the company.” Even before they had tracked down the rights to the story, when in another meeting Villeneuve said he was interested in finding a sci-fi project, they pitched the idea to him. “It taught us an important lesson about asking people, the talent who comes into our office, about what they want to do,” Levine said.

Heisserer went on to write the screenplay on spec, even before 21 Laps set it up at FilmNation and Paramount. ”We’ve had a number of things at 21 Laps written on spec,” said Levy. “Increasingly, if someone is going to give you the money to make things, they need to be sure, they need to see it. And so we’ve done a lot of homegrown, internal development. If you don’t do the work as if it’s going to become real, it will never become real.”

As for Stranger Things’ beginnings, Cohen said, ”Shawn is someone who gives us complete autonomy to pursue what we want to pursue and then complete support when we think we’ve found it. We had been talking a lot about finding something in the Amblin headspace, mainly in features.” Convinced that Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer were “insanely talented,” even though their first feature, 2015’s Hidden had gotten no exposure, the 21 Laps execs decided “they essentially had the show within them and decided they wanted to write this show.”

Having developed a pitch with the filmmakers, they then took the project over the course of two weeks to about 20 buyers. “People responded to it, but there were a lot of rejections, too,” Cohen said — in some cases, because the Duffer Brothers weren’t yet established showrunners. They also ran up against conventional wisdom that insisted, “You can’t make something starring kids that isn’t for kids.” But a meeting with Netflix turned it all around. “It was our last pitch,” said Cohen. “Once we were at Netflix, they asked us, ‘Who are we marketing this towards?’ And the answer was, ‘Everyone.’”

The one-two success of Arrival and Stranger Things hasn’t only raised their company’s profile, but, said Levy, has also made him reassess the types of movies he’s likely to direct in the future. As he explained, “I now turn down a lot of family comedies in the quest to keep using these newer muscles.”

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