"We Wanted a Studio to Buy Into It, And No One Did": Why Dwayne Johnson Went Indie for His New Movie

THR Team Rock_DSC1234 - THR - H 2019
Austin Hargrave

Johnson's Seven Bucks Productions — accustomed to spearheading the actor's own massive blockbusters — tries its hand at lower-budget filmmaking with the wrestling comedy 'Fighting With My Family,' which was a surprise hit at Sundance.

Producers making their first trip to the Sundance Film Festival often arrive with small movies financed on credit cards and loans from friends and family. Their entire production budgets would barely cover the catering tab for a typical studio film made by Seven Bucks Productions, the busy company run by Dwayne Johnson, his ex-wife, Dany Garcia, and former brother-in-law Hiram Garcia.

But on Jan. 28 the big personalities behind Seven Bucks were crammed into the tiny bedroom of a condo on Main Street in Park City during the height of the festival to premiere Fighting With My Family. It's a project that is smaller and quirkier than what the industry has come to expect from The Rock and his producing team, currently making big-budget films with nearly every major Hollywood studio and Netflix.

A comedy based on the life of WWE wrestler Paige, Fighting With My Family is written and directed by Stephen Merchant, best known for co-creating the British version of The Office. Like other Seven Bucks projects, such as the $962 million-grossing Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle or the NBC reality series The Titan Games, Fighting With My Family has an onscreen role for Johnson and an uplifting underdog story. But the movie, which opens in limited release Feb. 14 and stars Florence Pugh as Paige, expands Seven Bucks into the indie space. It was shot for about $11 million, including U.K. tax incentives, and sold to MGM in 2017 for $17 million. And while the Seven Bucks team plans most of its business decisions with the meticulousness of a WWE match, the events that brought Johnson and the Garcias to the pre-eminent showcase of independent cinema happened by accident.

"We wanted a studio to buy into it, and no one did," says Johnson, 46. "We got passed on everywhere. It was a small British comedy about a crazy wrestling family that wasn't famous." One stumbling block for studios that looked at the film was the very same issue that had dogged Johnson earlier in his career. "Wrestling is the conduit for Paige's journey," says Dany Garcia, 50, who is Seven Bucks' co-CEO, with Johnson. "And that has a certain stigma."

Dany and Hiram sprawled on the bed, while Johnson pulled up a chair to tell their story. They met when all three were students at the University of Miami in the early 1990s, and the trio enjoy the comfort of a shared history. They have certain catchphrases in common — "Audience first" is a key one, inherited from Johnson's WWE days — and a fondness for physical fitness. (Dany is a competitive bodybuilder.) "We have similar tastes in what we respond to," says Hiram, 42, who serves as Seven Bucks' president of production, "which is generally some heart, some humor, some soul."

Johnson and Dany married in 1997, and as he built a career in wrestling, she rose in the finance world, becoming a vp at Merrill Lynch before running a wealth management firm. When Johnson's acting career began to take off, he relied on Dany for business advice and brought Hiram with him to film sets as an ally and eventual producing partner. Johnson and Dany, who have a 17-year-old daughter together, divorced in 2007 but decided to strengthen their business partnership as they were dissolving their romantic one, ultimately forming Seven Bucks in 2012. The company takes its name from a moment in Johnson's life when he was cut from the Canadian Football League with just $7 in his pocket, and its founding marked the turning point in Johnson's career — when he determined to surround himself with people who saw his wrestling roots and massive size as assets rather than liabilities.

"It was at a time where I stopped conforming to what I was told Hollywood needed me to be," Johnson says, describing a period when he also switched agencies from CAA to WME. "Couldn't look the way I look, couldn't talk about wrestling, couldn't work out as much, had to slim down, couldn't make it about masculinity. … Finally, I said, 'Well, I'm not that, and I can't be that.' I did a full, clean sweep, everybody out. In that restructuring, I started to think, who can I place around me who knows me well and who has really good business acumen and can help me through this?" Dany and Hiram became key players on the new team Johnson assembled. While many exes would have trouble working together on something as simple as a bathroom renovation, never mind a company, Johnson and Dany resolved their differences long ago, they say, and both have benefited from relationships with understanding new partners — "and therapy," Johnson adds.

Seven Bucks, which has offices in Los Angeles and New York, doesn't finance films itself but rather finds partners for projects that fit Johnson's distinct — and typically big-budget — tastes. The company has a full film slate, including tentpole movies like Universal's Hobbs & Shaw, a spinoff of the Fast & Furious franchise, due in August; Sony's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle sequel (December); Disney's Jungle Cruise (July 2020); Warner Bros.' The King; and Netflix's John Henry and the Statesmen. In TV, the company is shepherding Titan Games, HBO's Ballers, renewed for a fifth season, and a BET true-crime docuseries called Finding Justice.

While Seven Bucks is attached to Johnson's studio acting projects, the company also is entering new terrain, launching a digital channel for original content like the 14-minute Millennials the Musical Johnson made with Lin-Manuel Miranda and developing material outside the studios, like Fighting With My Family and the John Henry film at Netflix. The streaming project about the African-American folk hero, Johnson says, has the potential to expand beyond a single film. "A lot of cultures have their own version, male and female, of John Henry," Johnson says. "We'll tell the John Henry story, then we're creating this universe around him of all these folklore characters from around the world."

In Fighting With My Family, Johnson plays only a small role, a version of the mentor he played in Pugh's real life. He first sparked to the idea for the film during a sleepless night while shooting Fast & Furious 6 in London in 2012, when he saw a documentary on English television about Paige's multigenerational wrestling family. Her story resonated — Johnson's father and grandfather were wrestlers, and his grandmother was a rare female wrestling promoter. Working with producer Kevin Misher, Seven Bucks set the film up at the English company Film4 (which also co-financed the Oscar-nominated The Favourite).

Seven Bucks enlisted Film4's cultural opposite, the WWE, as co-financiers, a partner that proved crucial to capture the movie's big arena scenes. Before their movie's festival premiere, Seven Bucks test-screened the film for both wrestling fans and nonwrestling fans. "The wrestling fans floated out of the theaters," Johnson says. "And the nonwrestling fans, the ones who have a bit more heightened taste in terms of their movies, they were just pleasantly surprised."

This story also appears in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.