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When Nicole Brown took the reins of iconic Sony label TriStar Pictures in 2019, she became the first Black woman to run a film label at a major studio. It so happens she was treading familiar ground. The Culver City native grew up a block away from her current office in the Poitier Building and used to roller skate around the Sony lot. “My mother would let me venture off, and I’d ask the security guards if there were famous people in there,” she recalls. “I was always enamored with the studio. And that’s how it all began.”
She set her sights on acting, landing childhood roles in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood and Kids Incorporated. As she got older, she became more curious about what went on behind the camera. So she headed to Columbia University and interned at Miramax before taking her first Hollywood job at Marc Platt Productions. Now, after plenty of pandemic pauses, Brown is finding her rhythm and putting her imprint on an eclectic slate. The married mother of two toddlers talked to THR from her home office about staying grounded amid industry shifts, comparing streamers to Postmates and feeling franchise envy for Knives Out.
What’s on TriStar’s slate?
We’re in production on Matilda, which TriStar is co-producing with Netflix. That’s a gorgeous spectacle from Matthew Warchus, who directed the [West End] stage show. In August, we will be starting I Wanna Dance With Somebody, our Whitney Houston biopic. It’s written by the writer of Bohemian Rhapsody, and I think those are the aspirations — a big, loud, fun ride through a legend’s music and life. Stella Meghie is directing that. Then we’re looking at mounting The Woman King, which Gina Prince-Bythewood is attached to direct and Viola Davis is attached to star. I call that my Black female Braveheart. It’s a cool epic, historical action piece. [Then there’s] Nightingale, which is close to my heart, a huge best-selling novel. The Fanning sisters are attached. My hope is to do that in the beginning of ’22. We’re in active development on Baby Driver 2 and The Rosie Project. I’m developing Guys and Dolls and a remake of Troop Beverly Hills, and I’ve got a piece with [Phil] Lord and [Christopher] Miller based on the graphic novel The Last Human.
What’s the common denominator?
Original, elevated, director-driven content that’s noisy and/or culturally relevant, fresh and fun.
What were the conversations like when holiday rom-com Happiest Season migrated from theatrical to Hulu because of COVID?
Our target was a Thanksgiving release, and we continued to work. We’re like, “The world will open back up. We can do this!” Very close to release, we realized the world hadn’t changed. It was a hard decision. Ultimately, we decided it would be selfish to hold it. So we pivoted to streaming, and it actually became Hulu’s biggest film they’d ever released.
In development, does the possibility that a project could go straight to streaming change the calculus?
We are dedicated to the experience of seeing our content in the theaters, but I acknowledge the bar for what the consumer wants to see in a theater has been raised. Habits have been affected by having extraordinary content available at home. I compare it to Postmates and restaurants. I love Postmates. I need Postmates, and I will use it, but I also want to go to a restaurant. On a Friday night, I want to go with my girlfriends and enjoy a different type of meal. Like Postmates and restaurants, I believe there’s room for both wonderful streaming experiences and meaningful theatrical experiences. As theatrical executives, we have to really come with the A-game. There’s certain content we bought in the past that doesn’t quite hit that bar now. While we are dedicated to theatrical, we are figuring out entrepreneurial ways to shift so great material will always see the light of day.
What’s your take on the WarnerMedia-Discovery deal and Amazon buying MGM?
We’re watching earthquakes in this business. We’re watching real, huge shifts in the way our business works and who the players are. I’m grateful to be at Sony. I feel this calm and long-term vision. I feel good I can say to the talent I’m working with, “This is who we are.” I can be transparent; they know if there is a shift in strategy, everybody will be included. There’s not as many surprises at Sony. I’m grateful for the stability and the clear position we’re taking in the marketplace.
Whose vision is that?
It comes from the top down. It starts in Japan with a steady hand on their short- and long-term vision, and they have like-minded leadership in [Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO] Tony Vinciquerra and [Motion Picture Group chair] Tom Rothman, who are committed to the business plan and what Sony set out to do.
Did you take comfort that Searchlight won best picture at the Oscars with Nomadland?
It’s very telling. I admire streamers, so this isn’t about the work that’s done there. The level of excellence it takes when a team is creating a theatrical release is so high, to prove yourself in the marketplace and create something compelling that people have to go see. That rigor is very unique to the people creating theatrical content. When you know it’s not just about a subscription, but it’s about opening week, second weekend, third weekend. How long are your movie’s legs? You have to strive for excellence, and that was what was rewarded.
What’s the one franchise that you wish was TriStar’s?
Knives Out. A brilliant filmmaker refreshed and elevated a familiar genre, allowing it to feel contemporary and hip while creating endless opportunity for subsequent storylines and spinoffs. A perfect example of the inspired filmmaker-driven content we’re looking for. And Crazy Rich Asians. I love how in its specificity this story became so universal and relatable for everyone. That is what audiences are craving — authenticity, joy and fresh ideas.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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