'Demolition' Producers Talk Indie Film Strategy, 'Sicario 2' Plans and Move to TV
Molly Smith, co-founder of Black Label Media, and her twin partners Trent and Thad Luckinbill are making waves in the mid-budget film space.
This story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
As the major studios have all but abandoned midbudget, adult-skewing dramas, upstarts like Black Label Media gladly are stepping in to fill the void. Launched in 2013 by Molly Smith — daughter of FedEx founder Frederick Smith — and identical twins Trent and Thad Luckinbill, the company has backed seven movies to date, including Denis Villeneuve's Sicario ($81 million worldwide) and Jean-Marc Vallee's Jake Gyllenhaal drama Demolition (out April 8 from Fox Searchlight).
After 13 years with Alcon Entertainment, Smith, 35, left the fold (her father continues to be Alcon's primary backer) and teamed with former Justice Department attorney Trent and onetime soap opera actor Thad, both 40, to pursue their shared interest in auteur-driven projects. With a staff of seven and backing from investors including her father and billionaire Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, the company recently signed on to co-finance Damien Chazelle's Emma Stone-Ryan Gosling musical La La Land (Dec. 2) as well as the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Horse Soldiers (both at Lionsgate, which released Sicario). In April, Black Label will begin production on Danny Strong's J.D. Salinger biopic Rebel in the Rye, followed in the summer by Joseph Kosinski's No Exit (Lorenzo di Bonaventura is producing the film, about a deadly Arizona wildfire). In addition to making three to four movies a year, the company now is moving into TV, teaming with director Craig Brewer on a period music-themed drama that will be shopped. Smith and the Luckinbills invited THR to the company's Beverly Hills offices to discuss Black Label's billionaire investors, who greenlights projects and plans for a Sicario sequel.
Molly, how did you get into this business?
SMITH I went to NYU, but I always say I got my Ph.D. at Alcon because I got to really grow up under Andrew [Kosove] and Broderick [Johnson] and watch them build their company. I started as a P.A. on their sets — The Affair of the Necklace, Chris Nolan's Insomnia. Andrew and Broderick were young guys, but they were getting married and having babies and so they knew that my bags were packed and I would go anywhere. Then I got the rights to P.S. I Love You (2007), which was the first movie I produced, from Warner Bros. in turnaround, and got Alcon to option it back for me. It did $157 million worldwide, and we had made it for a pretty low budget. After that, they gave me a first-look producing deal. I partnered with Hilary Swank for two years. We optioned Something Borrowed (2011), which we ended up making at Alcon. Then I got slipped the script to The Blind Side (2009), and I knew the Tuohy family very well [Sandra Bullock played Leigh Anne Tuohy]. We grew up in Memphis together. My youngest brother is marrying Collins Tuohy in three weeks. I brought that to Andrew and Broderick. We got really lucky in that everyone in town passed on that script [the film grossed $309 million].
How did the three of you come together?
SMITH We all met and became friends, like in 2009, 2010. Trent had just moved from D.C. Thad brought me projects, which we actually set up in development at Alcon. It was an interesting transition period at Alcon. Thad and I creatively connected. Trent has knowledge and background as an attorney but also in the private equity world. The three of us started talking and went to Alcon and said, "What if we opened a specialty division?" Ultimately, it felt complicated to do it within Alcon. So we went out and raised a film fund and started Black Label.
Why did you decide against doing it at Alcon?
TRENT They have a fixed number of outputs per year, so it looked like a lot clearer path for us to just step aside and do our own business. We still have a great relationship with them.
THAD The Good Lie (2014) went through them. But we have a little more flexibility to do different sizes and scopes of movies at different studios to tailor-fit a particular project.
SMITH We're calling those midtier movies, which are tougher for the studios to finance and make. We can make them for a much more nimble price just purely producing and financing them independently, then deliver them [to a studio partner] and still get the best of both worlds.
Molly, your father is a backer of Alcon. Is he also invested in Black Label?
SMITH He's one of several investors. Daniel Snyder is a minority investor. The way our company is structured, there's a small silent investor group [that also includes former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale], and then our company is separate from that fund, meaning they don't fund our overhead and our development. That's all us. [Editor's note: Smith declined to discuss other backers.]
Alcon has had a tough run of late with the Point Break remake and The 33. Any thoughts on its current situation?
SMITH Andrew and Broderick are really smart business guys, and there are so many variables you can't control in this business. The fact is that they're still around 20 years later and have seen Warner Bros. through four regimes. Their television department is killing it with The Expanse at Syfy, and they've got their management company, Madhouse, and they've got a huge opportunity with Blade Runner (2017), which is going to be a game-changer over there.
Who do you see as your competition?
SMITH There are at least 20 or so companies like us in the space, but the interesting thing is we all talk. We're very close with [producer] Sidney Kimmel. His company partnered with us on Demolition. We're all getting the scripts at the same time. It's a super-collaborative environment in this independent space, more than I ever would have thought. Having said that, we understand it's about being able to react quickly, and the nice thing about us is that we're the three who can make a decision; it's not like we have to go to a board. We're also conscious of not getting into the hype or bidding wars that drive prices up.
Do you have plans to move into TV like your peers?
SMITH Yes. Jon Schumacher is running our television department. We've been developing books and IP that we own and pairing them with our filmmaker relationships. We're taking a couple out now. We have Craig Brewer attached to a book called Beale Street Dynasty, which I'm excited about. I know [Brewer] from Memphis. It's a really epic book almost in the vein of a Boardwalk Empire, about the birth of [the blues].
What is the status of Sicario 2? Happening or not happening?
SMITH We're in full development with the studio. I just got a draft [of a script from writer Taylor Sheridan], and we're really excited.
THAD We've circulated it to the reps, and everybody [from the cast of the original is] on board.
TRENT Taylor's a really great world-builder. He's got that kind of modern Western voice, which is in vogue right now. And he did it again [with the sequel]. It's a great big world. We can't reveal the plot, but you'll see [Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin] all come back. You have such a great character with Benicio, who was as dark as he was and still so loved. That character resonates so well with audiences. People want to know what happened to him, so it's a perfect foray for us to explore. Obviously we would love it if Denis could [direct]. He's a busy man, but he's certainly part of the process with us right now.
How do you divvy up the workload, and who is responsible for greenlighting?
SMITH You're looking at it. And it doesn't matter which one of us you get on the phone. You get the same answer.
TRENT The amount we do [plus] TV requires the three of us to be fully interchangeable.
How would you describe the Black Label brand?
THAD The one common theme is these are filmmakers that we want to bet on or who have already proved themselves in a great way.
Which directors are you dying to work with?
THAD Alejandro Inarritu.
SMITH We'd love to work with [Blind Side's] John Lee Hancock again. Steve McQueen and Paul Greengrass. Ryan Coogler. I remember being in that Fruitvale Station screening at Sundance [in 2014] and watching that Q&A and I thought, "What a sophisticated filmmaker at 27 years old." Scott Cooper (Black Mass) is somebody we love and want to work with.
You were recently in Sundance. Is part of your business plan to buy into finished films?
SMITH Yeah. Our first acquisition was taking a small piece of Begin Again. Unfortunately, we were such a small owner of that movie, so we didn’t have much to do with the marketing. Weinstein Company bought it after our involvement. That was getting our feet wet in the acquisition space, and then the second acquisition we did was 71, Yann Demange’s movie. We acquired for the U.S. and Canada. We knew it was not a huge domestic play, but we just loved the film so much and we were big fans of Yann’s work, and knew he was going to be like a Denis. Our third will be La La Land, which we came in as a partner just off of seeing footage. We’re certainly looking to be more active as buyers at the festivals.
Is there a mandate here to promote diversity in terms of storytelling?
THAD No. We are first and foremost filmmaker-driven. And those are the types of movies that move us.
SMITH The thing about movies like The Good Lie and The Blind Side is they can transcend being more than just a movie. With Good Lie, we realized very quickly the movie wasn’t working theatrically, and we actually went to Warner Bros. and said, “Can we reduce the window?” We made the tough decision, but smart decision, to not go wide and get it on VOD before the holidays, because families will love this movie. Because of that, the film has been discovered in such a big way in the ancillary markets.