7:00am PT by Scott Feinberg
'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Dana Brunetti ('House of Cards')
"All the money is hitting and the wires are going," Dana Brunetti tells me as we sit down to record an episode of 'Awards Chatter' inside his spacious new office at Relativity Media in Beverly Hills. The mini-major, co-founded by Ryan Kavanaugh in 2004, had formally emerged from bankruptcy the previous night, thanks largely to the faith of a judge and financiers in Brunetti to turn around its fortunes as president of production. (At 42, he's one of the youngest people ever to run a studio.) Few in Hollywood can understand why Brunetti, who had a booming career as a producer — his credits include 2010's The Social Network, 2013's Captain Phillips, 2015's Fifty Shades of Grey and the game-changing Netflix drama series House of Cards — would want to trade in that for the chance to clean up someone else's mess. But based on his track record, it would be unwise to bet against him.
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Amy Schumer, Harvey Weinstein, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Kristen Stewart, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Ridley Scott, Michael Moore and Sarah Silverman.)
Raised poor in a dead-end Virginia paper-mill town, Brunetti clawed his way out. Inspired by Top Gun, he joined the Coast Guard. Then, titillated by Wall Street, he passed his series 7 and joined a brokerage firm like the one depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street. And then, sensing bigger possibilities, he joined a small startup digital wireless company that ended up building the first digital wireless network in the northeast before being sold to T-Mobile. At the time, he had an assistant of his own — but when, through mutual friends, he met the actor Kevin Spacey, and Spacey asked him to become his assistant, he hesitated but then said yes, sensing the prospect of his next great adventure. It proved to be "the best film school I could have ever had," he says now.
Over the ensuing two-plus years, Brunetti impressed Spacey to the extent that when he "burned out" and announced his intention to leave, his boss told him that he didn't want to lose him and that he could create his own new job at Spacey's Trigger Street Productions. Brunetti elected to stick around and focus on creating TriggerStreet.com, a website that would serve as "a platform for undiscovered screenwriters and filmmakers to upload their work and get feedback and get constructive criticism" — something Spacey wholeheartedly endorsed because first-time filmmakers had given him some of his biggest breaks. (This introduction to the streaming of content online would prove vital to future career choices by both men.)
In the meantime, Brunetti also ventured into the producing side of the company. He had worked on a few small documentaries and a long-gestating film called Fanboys, but his first major contribution to Trigger Street came when he brought to Spacey's attention the story of card counters at MIT, along with a Wired article about them and the partnership of that article's author, Ben Mezrich. This resulted in the hit film 21 (on which Brunetti formally became Spacey's producing partner), as well as several subsequent projects, the biggest of which was The Social Network. That film would not have been possible had relentless Brunetti not coaxed Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin into cooperating with Mezrich and the project — or sold Sony on the project through a drunken pitch. Three years later, Captain Phillips also would not have happened had Brunetti not aggressively pursued the captain to obtain the rights to his life story, even calling his home just hours after his violent rescue. "You have to be a hawk sometimes to get things like this," he says with a chuckle.
Brunetti is the first to admit that Spacey offered him an unusual leg up in Hollywood at the outset of his career. "That's been my main advantage in this business, is just being able to use him for the first few years until I kind of got on my own feet," he says. But there's also no denying that Brunetti has climbed the rest of the way to the top because of his own strength at what he does. During their years producing films together at Trigger Street, which will end now that Brunetti has taken the job at Relativity (Spacey briefly considered joining him as the studio's chairman), they figured out a formula for success that served both of them well, Brunetti says: "I always used Kevin as my arrow. If I wanted to get somebody, I fired him at them, and then he kind of opened the door, and I kicked it in and handled it."
Never was this more evident than with House of Cards. During the making of The Social Network, director David Fincher mentioned to Brunetti that he hoped to adapt the 1990 British TV series of the same name into an American TV series, and wondered if Spacey would ever consider doing television. "I had been pushing Kevin towards television for probably two or three years prior to that," Brunetti recalls, "much to the chagrin of his reps because 'movie stars don't do television.' But I could see that's where it was going and, more so, that the types of material and projects and characters that Kevin likes to be involved in and play were going more towards television, where they had a lot more depth than features, because studios were going more towards the bigger tentpole movies that lacked a lot of that."
Brunetti convinced Spacey to attach himself to the project, the pilot of which Fincher would direct, and, a year later, a script was being shopped around town. A deal with HBO seemed probable until the cable network agreed to commit only to a pilot, whereas Netflix, with whom there had been "a throwaway meeting," offered $100 million and a guarantee of two full seasons. When Fincher called Brunetti and Spacey to share that information with them, Brunetti recalls, "Kevin was like, 'Wait, so we're gonna do this straight-to-DVD?' I go, 'Kevin, just say yes and I'll explain it all to you when we hang up.' And he said, 'Dana's telling me to say yes, so let's do it.' So we hung up and then I go, 'Everything we've been talking about — about everything streaming online and how distribution will be in the future — we have the chance to do it now. It's going to happen in five or 10 years, but we have a chance to accelerate that, and if we do it and do it right then that will happen a lot sooner than anybody will ever expect.' Little did we know how much it would change it. It was a game-changer in every sense of the word."
The series, which premiered in February 2013, put streaming, generally, and Netflix, specifically, on the map; became the first streaming show ever to land a series Emmy nomination (it's been nominated for best drama series in all three years in which it's been eligible and looks like a slam dunk to extend that streak this year, and maybe even win); became the first streaming show ever to win a major Emmy (Fincher was recognized for his direction of the pilot); and, after a hiccup last season, earned raves for season four, which dropped — in its entirety, of course — March 4. "I think it's our best season since season one," Brunetti volunteers. "We're definitely doing season five — that's all we have a commitment to. Look, I'll keep doing it for as long as we can, as long as it's still good." (His Relativity deal allows him to remain involved with projects to which he was already committed, including the 50 Shades of Grey sequels 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed, which are now shooting back-to-back in Vancouver under the direction of James Foley, who's directed more episodes of House of Cards than anyone else.)
Over the course of our conversation, Brunetti also weighs in on a host of other topics, such as...
Working with Scott Rudin on The Social Network (a forced marriage) and Captain Phillips (a voluntary one)
"We did butt heads initially.... I was not gonna be steamrolled.... But he's a genius — he's very good at what he does."
The Sony hack and the resulting exposure of internal Hollywood communications
"Everybody is a little bit of an asshole at times."
His response to his agent suggesting he meet with E.L. James about producing 50 Shades of Grey, the ultimate example of "chick lit," after specializing in what he calls "dick lit"
"I said to them, I go, 'What of the movies I have done makes you think I'm the guy for this movie?' "
An 89-year-old woman — legendary Lawrence of Arabia cutter Anne V. Coates — co-editing 50 Shades of Grey
"I remember when we sat through the read-through and she was there, I was like, 'This is interesting.' I mean, I knew who she was, but I was like, 'This is incredible. This is absolutely incredible.' "
House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon's recent departure from the show
"I think he had had his run, and it's always good to bring in some fresh eyes on things. There wasn't like a battle or anything like that. It had run its course. But Beau — I mean, he is one of the most amazing writers out there, and for as young as he is we have a lot more material to come from him, and believe me I'm gonna be hitting him for some. And now that I'm doing this, I'm kind of glad that he's out of House of Cards because maybe I can get him on something of mine [at Relativity]!"
Sean Parker's idea for film distribution known as The Screening Room
"I've been preaching and saying that for years, that we need to go day-and-date. It's controlled too much by the movie theaters. The movie theater experience is not what it should be, and in the society that we live in now, where people are so used to time-shifting and DVR, being able to stop and start when they want to. They're saying $50 and people are going, 'Well, that's too expensive.' I disagree. I think it should be $80 or $100, and if it's a bigger and more in-demand movie, then have it be flexible pricing. The reality of it, though, is it ends up being cheaper for a lot of people — think where you go, you valet your car or park your car, you get popcorn, it's $20, you get a babysitter, you have to be there at 7:15 — just that aspect of it is a pain in the ass for a lot of people.... I can pause it when I need to get up and take a leak, I can pause it when I want to get up and get a beer, and I can sit on my couch in comfort, I don't have to have a babysitter, I don't have to drive anywhere, I don't have to park and if I want to start it at 8:23, I start it at 8:23 as opposed to having to be somewhere at a given time."
"It's going to come, and that's why something like Screening Room has a lot of industry players that are involved with it. The people that are involved with it — they can see the forest through the trees, whereas the theaters, they really need to get with it. It's an old model. They can make it beneficial to them, as well. How this industry has been for so long is, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' But you know what? Look at the taxi drivers? They're pissed off and they think Uber is the worst thing in the world, but you and I probably think Uber is the best thing in the world. I go to Vancouver and I think, 'What the hell is wrong with this place?' I don't think the oil industry is happy with Tesla. But guess what? Times change and things are changing and they change for the better. It goes back to, 'Give the people what they want, how they want it and they'll pay for it.' "
"It's not something that I'm gonna be able to change overnight, but as the opportunities make themselves available I'm definitely going to push that way whenever I can."