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Kevin Hart doesn’t make small moves. So when the prolific 41-year-old — whose films have grossed $4.2 billion at the box office and whose salad days of stand-up sold out arenas — decided to make an earnest go of producing, he was determined that it not be just another vanity shingle.
Though HartBeat Productions launched in 2009, Hart doubled down on the venture when he poached executive Bryan Smiley from Sony 10 years later. With a new president of film and TV and ambitions to build a brand that eclipsed its namesake funnyman, the staff swelled to 12 at their Burbank headquarters. HartBeat projects include FXX breakout comedy Dave, upcoming STX feature American Sole, Netflix’s forthcoming miniseries True Story and a slate of at least four Hart vehicles under a massive new deal with the streamer. HartBeat collaborators include former first couple Barack and Michelle Obama, whose Higher Ground Productions is presenting Hart’s Fatherhood (out June 18 on Netflix). “We want to make sure we’re doing it right, so that each apple that falls off our tree is one that you want to eat,” says Hart. “We don’t want people to bite and go, ‘Ugh!’ and throw it on the ground.”
Hart and Smiley run the company in congress — Hart, a font of energy and ideas, and Smiley, a studio vet with an eye for dealmaking — though often from a distance. When the pair spoke to THR over Zoom in May, Smiley was at his home office in West Hollywood and Hart was in a Budapest hotel room during a break from a film shoot.
Bryan, let’s start with you. What was your first job in Hollywood?
BRYAN SMILEY My first real job was at New Regency, in 2006, doing product placement — like putting Mercedes and Jeeps in movies and shows. The dream, right? After maybe a year, I went to work for [Regency Enterprises founder] Arnon Milchan as one of his three assistants.
That had to be an interesting desk.
SMILEY He’s a fascinating figure. Part businessman, part producer, part secret spy. … I learned a lot from him. And, because he was constantly in the air, on Rupert Murdoch’s boat or somewhere crazy, he was always on the phone. So, I was in all of his meetings all the time — not the political stuff, the business stuff — and I learned so much from listening.
Did it feel like a gamble leaving a nice studio gig like Sony when Kevin came to you about going in-house?
SMILEY Most people work their entire careers to get the opportunity to partner with someone like Kevin, who greenlights movies and TV series. Sony was not happy, but what was I going to do?
KEVIN HART I’m lucky to have the relationship that I have with Sony, to get him out of the deal that he was in. It just goes to show how important relationships are in this business.
What was the goal in deciding to grow HartBeat?
HART It’s about positioning myself to be able to deliver on the things that I’m verbal about. It’s one thing to have eyesight, but if there is a plan and agenda behind what you see, then it just becomes about the execution. And I think it’s a really big deal, as men of color, to not only understand the business but to be respected as people who aren’t overly ambitious with their wants.
Kevin, you seemed to clue into the importance of ownership very early in your career.
HART In this town, you’ve got your “gatekeepers,” right? I think there is a void of people who truly understand how to be a partner to said individuals. You sell them something, they give you money for it. I put that money back in my company to keep selling. It’s about getting as many of those projects [going] as possible. So I just figured out ways to create on my own and to pitch on my own. I can do that shit in my sleep.
The Obamas’ company is presenting Fatherhood. How did they come on board?
SMILEY The message of the movie is so strong for fathers, particularly Black fathers, and it’s a message that they embrace as a company and at their foundation.
HART I talked to Barack on the phone and our conversation focused on what made the film so appealing to me in the first place. It’s an opportunity to shine a light of positivity on the role of a Black father. We’ve been shown in one light onscreen for quite some time. Whether it’s getting out of jail, addicted to drugs, or just not present, there’s a stereotype that became the image for all. I mean, we had [Bill] Cosby, but you see what that’s turned into …
Your Quibi series, Die Hart, just got a second season at Roku. Was that easily done?
HART [Jeffrey] Katzenberg is a great partner and business mind, but things didn’t work out how they wanted. But the deals really made sense for the talent — so with Die Hart, I can now partner with Roku and give it a new release. It goes back to the power of IP. Having the ability to repurpose it is where the value comes in.
You just signed a deal with Netflix. Any reservations about letting go of a wide theatrical release?
HART I care about this business in general, and it’s good to stay current. The pandemic was there, and the world of studio films was just kind of up in the air. I met with my team and said, “I think there’s an opportunity to make the movies we want and have them actually get made.” And I’ve been number one at the box office, but I’ve yet to partake in this world at the highest level. We’re getting to a place where people are going back to the theaters, so we’ll see what happens. But right now, the priority is Netflix.
Bryan, what’s your reaction when you see something like the Knives Out deal?
SMILEY All the traditional studios are launching their own platforms or closing distribution deals with existing platforms. I do believe theatrical is here to stay in some form, but streaming is what audiences want. What we care about, first and foremost, is to create film and TV that gets seen by the most people globally — and Netflix has that massive global audience.
Even in normal times, Kevin is on set a lot. What’s your communication style?
SMILEY A lot of people like to have this moniker of “hardest-working man in Hollywood,” but the reality is that we are on a nine-hour time difference right now — and whether it’s 8 a.m. or 9 p.m., we’re on the phone so many times during the day. And, more importantly, our senior executives have access to Kevin when they need it.
So when are you two in a room together next?
SMILEY Oh, I’m flying 14 hours to see Kevin this weekend.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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