'Black Mass' Producers on Johnny Depp's Awards Plans, Tom Cruise's Power and Why Relativity Failed

Scott Witter
“Trying to apply the Moneyball approach to filmmaking is ridiculous,” says Oliver (left) of the Relativity Media bankruptcy. “It doesn’t matter how good a deal you have, it’s about the quality of movies you make.” He and Thompson were photographed July 31 in Oliver’s West Hollywood office.

With three pictures releasing in three weeks, Brian Oliver and Tyler Thompson of Cross Creek Pictures take a breath to talk about handpicking their films, how 'American Hustle' got away and why producing with your own money is tougher: "We have to tiptoe along that razor's edge."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

They say good things come in threes. Brian Oliver and Tyler Thompson, co-founders of Cross Creek Pictures, sure hope so. The West Hollywood-based film financier and production company has a trio of movies hitting theaters over three consecutive weeks this fall. Johnny Depp's Black Mass (Sept. 18 via Warner Bros.) and the 3D adventure Everest (Sept. 25 via Universal) will premiere in early September at Venice. Legend (Oct. 2 via Universal), which stars Tom Hardy as gangster twins, will join Black Mass at Toronto.

It's a busy time for Cross Creek, founded in 2009 by CEO Timmy Thompson (who started out in the oil business), his son Tyler and Oliver, a veteran producer. With a first-look distribution deal at Universal, the company (which has around 50 employees across LA, New York and Louisiana) is making two to four midbudget films a year (Everest cost about $42 million, Black Mass about $60 million and Legend much less). While the company will have trouble matching its first film, Black Swan, which grossed $329 million worldwide on a $13 million budget, the execs will be happy with more modest hits like George Clooney's The Ides of March and fewer misses like Ron Howard's Rush. Next year, Cross Creek's president Oliver, 44, and senior vp Thompson, 28, have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and, for 2017, Tom Cruise's drug thriller Mena. Plus, they're in prep on Mel Gibson's directorial effort Hacksaw Ridge, starring Vince Vaughn and Andrew Garfield. Oliver, a newly wed father of four, and Thompson, who has a 16-month-old and is getting hitched in October, sat down with THR ahead of their hectic fall.

Thompson keeps a poster in his office for 'Black Mass' — which stars Depp as mob boss Whitey Bulger — that was signed by director Scott Cooper.

Indie film is a tough business. Why did you get into it?

TYLER THOMPSON My family is primarily in the oil field business, so I wanted to try something different. I convinced my dad to do this movie with me called Burning Palms that turned out to be the movie with the most mistakes on the planet. I don't think it's come out yet; it was a complete disaster. Through that process, I met Brian. After all those mistakes, my father and I wanted to start our company with someone who knew the business better than anyone else. And all three of us had a vision.

The Formula One model cars, now in Oliver’s office, were used during the filming of 'Rush.'

How would you describe your role as producer when you're bringing your own money?

BRIAN OLIVER We have to tiptoe along that razor's edge. We are still creatively involved in choosing the material, but we also have the added job of managing a production and putting together the financing. Tyler and I say the hardest thing about doing a movie is done when you start shooting. Getting the movie into production is 90 percent of the job.

THOMPSON And sometimes we're the bad guy when we have to be. Sometimes it's about saying no.

OLIVER When you're a creative producer, you're best buddies with the talent, you're fighting for talent. We can't do that. We try to be as talent-friendly as we can, but we have a fiduciary duty to our fund.

How did you end up with three movies coming out in three weeks?

OLIVER We're averaging three to four movies a year, but in this instance, all three are awards- centric. It's not optimal to have three movies in theaters at the same time. Even though our studio distribution partners say it's not a big deal, they don't release two movies on the same day.

What were the budget challenges with Everest?

OLIVER Every aspect of it. To go and make a movie that involves a very large visual-effects budget and shooting on location in snow and also having to shoot in Asia, London and Italy for a net $42 million budget is crazy. Luckily, we had a great tax deal.

Director Ron Howard sent Oliver a note when they wrapped production on 2013’s 'Rush': “Thanks again for a great ride with Rush. I’ve loved it beginning to end."

Johnny Depp reportedly dropped out of Black Mass, the Whitey Bulger biopic, for a while. What happened?

OLIVER It wasn't really a Johnny Depp issue at all, it was more of a budget issue. We had a different understanding of what the gross and net budget was with our line producer and partners to where we couldn't make it work with the budget that was provided to us. It wasn't an issue of what Johnny was getting paid. It was more about the budget of the movie. We had to stop and regroup. Johnny always thought that he was still doing it, even when it fell apart. When it came around in its second iteration with Warner Bros., then it was a pretty easy process.

THOMPSON Black Mass is something we've been developing for 10 years. We owned the rights to the book.

OLIVER It didn't really have a third act, then Whitey got caught [in Santa Monica in 2011]. Then it became a race to beat Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's [competing] project and a couple of other projects around town. Luckily, we sped to production.

Has Depp committed to doing awards-season promotion?

THOMPSON Yes. He said this is his favorite movie he's ever worked on.

OLIVER He's going to Venice and Toronto, and we'll push him to do as much awards promotion as we can.

He's had a few recent flops with The Lone Ranger and Transcendence. Are you worried?

THOMPSON It's a return to form for him, and it's the type of role you haven't seen him in in a long time. He and [director] Scott Cooper had amazing chemistry.

OLIVER He's playing a real-life scary sociopath, and he nailed it. With the past movies he's done, people were probably questioning, "Were you scared to do a Johnny Depp movie?" But it's been the opposite. Everyone wants to really see Johnny Depp do this role.

The international poster for 'Black Swan' hangs in Cross Creek’s conference room.

On Mena, how much power does Tom Cruise have on a Tom Cruise movie?

OLIVER He's the hardest-working actor I've ever seen. When he dives into something, he goes all in. He has typical approvals for an actor of his stature, but he acts like a producer and helps a lot more than any actor I've seen.

THOMPSON One day on set, he was helping this guy push the camera cart up the hill so we could get the last shot of the day.

OLIVER I was super skeptical when we were going in, but looking back on it, it was the best thing that could have happened.

How do you pick the films you back?

THOMPSON We're director-driven.

OLIVER I ask, "Is it worthwhile to spend a year to two years of your life on it?" And then it turns to, "Financially, does it make sense? Can we make it work?" And then, "Is there an audience for this movie?" You have to know who you are making the movie for.

Is there a "one that got away" project?

THOMPSON American Hustle. We really wanted that one.

OLIVER We tried to get involved on Flight. It was creatively and financially a good movie. And we tried to get involved on Imitation Game.

Motorcycle memorabilia, including this Norton gas tank, peppers the office of enthusiast Oliver, who owns a 1975 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead.

Is there a lesson to be learned from Relativity's recent bankruptcy?

THOMPSON It's about making good decisions. It's about the money. That's how we're able to keep doing what we're doing. It's about the bottom line.

OLIVER We're making art, and trying to apply the Moneyball approach to filmmaking is ridiculous. It doesn't matter how good a deal you have, it's about the quality of movies you make and making sure they have an audience. And have the right distributor to market them. If people think they're going to come up with a new science to finance and distribute films, good luck with that. It's been done the way it's been done for a long time, and there's a reason.

What's the one thing you would change about the industry?

OLIVER One of my pet peeves is to figure out how to not sell off all the foreign rights. The reality is that foreign sales has been the independent film model for a long time. I think that will someday be different because, as we know, the fastest-emerging market is not the U.S., it's outside the U.S. The most frustrating thing about foreign sales is the system of determining an actor's foreign value. There are a lot of times we put movies together, and they'll say, "You can't make it with that actor." It turns into a numbers game, and it shouldn't.