Kevin Spacey’s Jump to Studio Chief: PR Move or Relativity’s Savior?

Ryan Kavanaugh, Dana Brunetti and Kevin Spacey - H 2015
Michael Kovac/WireImage; Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic; Michael Tran/FilmMagic

The hiring is a coup for Ryan Kavanaugh, but industry players met the news with skepticism, questioning whether the 'House of Cards' star will have the bandwidth to turn around the embattled studio.

When producer Dana Brunetti was asked by The Hollywood Reporter last March what it would take for him to sign on for a studio job, he said, “I would have to be able to come and go as I please. … They wouldn't be able to keep a leash on me.”

Then again, Relativity Media isn’t just any studio.

After all, the embattled studio led by Ryan Kavanaugh filed for Chapter 11 in July and has been embroiled in one of the most contentious and closely watched bankruptcies in Hollywood history.

But late Wednesday, Kavanaugh made the stunning announcement that he had struck a deal for Brunetti and his Trigger Street Productions partner Kevin Spacey to run Relativity. As of mid-February, Spacey will be chairman of Relativity Studios and Brunetti will serve as president. Together, they will oversee all creative content and film production for the company.

The move is a PR coup for Kavanaugh, who is poised to emerge from bankruptcy in the coming months with much of his original studio intact, pending a judge’s approval (he lost the lucrative TV division to a group led by creditor Anchorage Capital). Spacey and Brunetti have turned their 19-year-old Trigger Street into one of the most envied talent-led production companies in film and TV, spawning such hits as The Social NetworkCaptain Phillips and Netflix’s groundbreaking series House of Cards. In addition, Spacey, a two-time Oscar winner, also brings star power to the equation.

But industryites met the news with skepticism, questioning whether Spacey, whose grueling acting schedule sees him starring in 13 episodes of House of Cards a year and typically a film or two as well, will have the bandwidth to turn around a studio that racked up more than $1 billion in debt to its roughly $500 million in assets before the bankruptcy filing.

“It’s impossible to run a studio working one day a month,” said one top producer, who is dubious of the hires. “So, the difference now at Relativity is you can take a meeting with Kevin, but he’s only there every now and then? This company would have to do so much damage control in terms of showing to the Hollywood community that they are financially viable before I would take a project there.”

The move hearkens to one made by Tom Cruise a decade ago when he and his then-producing partner Paula Wagner inked a deal to run United Artists (though that deal differed in that Cruise and Wagner retained an ownership stake in the studio). But there are parallels in that Cruise was a movie star who could leverage his A-list status to lure top talent to an undesirable studio. However, during his reign at UA, he and Wagner made just two films, Lions for Lambs and Valkyrie, both poorly received Cruise-starring vehicles. And similar to Spacey’s expected role at Relativity, Cruise was never hands on at UA.

Insiders say one of the biggest problems for pre-bankruptcy Relativity was the lack of visibility among its staff at the company’s Beverly Hills offices — a situation that won’t necessarily change with Spacey and Brunetti’s arrival. Former top executives like Matt Alvarez, who departed for a post at Broad Green, was said to have a deal that allowed him to work three days a week. Kavanaugh himself works off-site in Santa Monica.

“It was like a country club,” said one top agent of the Relativity atmosphere.

But a Relativity spokesperson disputed that Kavanaugh works primarily out of Santa Monica and said that he is there only one or two days a week.

“Ryan maintains a personal office in Santa Monica but spends the majority of his time at Relativity’s corporate headquarters in Beverly Hills when he’s not traveling globally on business,” the spokesperson said.

Insiders say Brunetti will be the day-to-day force, similar to his current role in the Trigger Street partnership, but even he has a busy schedule outside of his banner's projects as one of the lead producers on the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise.

In his March interview with THR, Brunetti also said that they only way he’d settle down for a studio job was “you'd have to pay me a f—ing lot of money.”

Ironically, money remains the biggest question mark for Relativity moving forward. Though Kavanaugh likely will be starting the new incarnation with a clean balance sheet, it is unclear how much money he will be able to access given the studio’s track record and the plethora of lawsuits pending over its finished films. There also is still the possibility that Kavanaugh will not emerge from bankruptcy with control of the studio. Creditors haven't voted yet on the reorganization plan.

One Wall Street analyst shrugged at the news, noting that CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves started as an actor before morphing into one of most successful entertainment industry bosses. But the analyst also pointed out that Moonves has spent a long time building his business reputation. Furthermore, Spacey's chairman role would seem to signal he will be used mostly as a well-known public face for the company with strong relationships in the creative community. “The symbolic message: Relativity is open for business with talent,” the analyst said.

The biggest upside for Relativity is they now have two executives in the fold who are known for having good taste. In a statement, Kavanaugh lauded Spacey’s creative success and Brunetti’s instincts and impressive track record. “Both men share my passion for film and Relativity’s unique 360-degree content engine, and I could not be more excited to partner with such talented professionals,” the Relativity CEO said.

But Relativity would not comment on who will ultimately have green-light authority under the new executive configuration, a question being asked by industry players.

“A lot of studios make movies that don’t make money, and that can be forgiven,” said another top agent. “Relativity’s problem was that it made terrible movies that don’t make money.”

Georg Szalai contributed to this report.