The way Bryan Smiley sees it, it’s never been harder to make movies. Here’s how you do it.
It’s a story in itself. Smiley worked his way to the top of Sony Pictures—then left everything to run the production company of his dreams. Why?
First, to work with Kevin Hart. Second, he wanted to see more stories on screen that haven’t been seen before.
Using Hart’s comedic interpretation of a heartwarming, true story of a single Black father, Fatherhood does just that.
Premiering this Father’s Day weekend, the film will be one of the first films in the Netflix and HartBeat Productions huge multi-production deal.
What does it take to get here?
Smiley took off time from shooting with Hart on-location in Budapest to talk to No Film School about the business side of getting movies made, collaborating with Hart, and advice to filmmakers on getting a studio to bring your story to the big screen.
No Film School: You were the Vice President of Production at Sony Pictures, and then you decided to, basically, go rogue and join Kevin Hart to run HartBeat Productions. What made you do it?
Smiley: When you're in the room at Sony, or any other studio, there's a very short list of talent, whether they are actors or filmmakers, who can actually get a movie green-lit. Kevin Hart was very much on that shortlist.
Making movies today, I think, has never been harder. You need so many elements, so many boxes to check, especially for theatrical movies. So this was an opportunity to work with somebody who gets movies and TV going. Kevin and I met a few times before I officially agreed to come over. He’s just a genuinely great person. You've heard that from people. I'd heard that from people in town. But to see that for myself, and to sit down with him over hours over dinner and breakfasts, and visit him on-set, it became almost a no-brainer. I’ve got to say, I have not looked back since. All my former colleagues always say how lucky I am, how jealous they are. It truly is the greatest job I've ever had.
NFS: How does Fatherhood fit in with the goals of HartBeat Production in terms of what the story is about?
Smiley: A few things. I think we are determined and committed to making broad-audience movies. Comedy will always be the soul of those movies, whether it's an overt kind of physical comedy or something more subtle. Fatherhood, I think, has a lot of very strong comedic moments.
Then I think the other part of that is having strong representations of people of color on the big and the small screen. Certainly, I think, there are not enough representations of strong, positive, Black fathers that I have seen. I can think back to the fathers in some TV series, and maybe a few movies over time. But, for the most part, it's a rare thing.
I think part of our mission and mandate is a mixture of that. We're supporting people of color, all people of color, women filmmakers, women in front of the camera, behind the camera, and more. Fatherhood checks all the boxes. We can be smart about how we write, develop, and cast these movies.
NFS: So as the President of Film and Television at HartBeat Productions, what's the strategy to be a good partner while pulling off these bigger-picture goals of bringing different people and narratives to the landscape?
Smiley: I think the beautiful part about our Netflix deal, which is pretty new—we signed it at the start of January—is that they were supportive from day one. They were collaborative in the way we thought about how we would approach the film side of our business. We found complete alignment. If we had not, I don't think we would have moved our deal from Universal to Netflix.
Quite frankly, as far as business partners, they are the utmost supportive of it and encouraging, and go out of their way to make sure that we're aware of projects and that we're meeting talent behind the camera, in front of the camera, that they think could be great for HartBeat movies. I think with any partnership, you want to make sure that you see eye to eye when you start.
They say how you start is how you finish.
NFS: As a producing partner with Kevin Hart, how did you learn to be a good collaborator?
Smiley: With Kevin, it's easy. I am very vocal about the fact that I've had a lot of therapy in my life as an adult man. So one thing I've learned in my years of therapy is communication. The reality is, we just talk all the time, no matter where he is in the world, or where I am in the world. We probably touch base no less than twice a day. Through that exchange and that communication, we find what feels right.
For him, ultimately, it's his name on the door every day. We've been able to figure out, just through a little bit of trial and error, what we think ultimately best represents his brand and the name HartBeat.
NFS: To have this dream to start something like HartBeat Productions, and then make it a reality that it is now, is so big. Do you have any advice for filmmakers on what it takes?
Smiley: I got to say, I was very fortunate and blessed. When I came into HartBeat, the company had been up and running. It's been around for many years, but it really started when they signed their first big deal with Universal. When I came into the company, maybe about a year and a half after that deal, a lot of things had been ironed out from a business-structure perspective and there'd been a lot of great seeds planted that I just nurtured. Then when I came onto the company, it really was about expanding the company rapidly and figuring out our future.
I think for young filmmakers, it's really about just having a really clear point of view of what are you trying to say. You are spending so much time developing, ultimately making projects. They cost so much money, and you got to get other people to invest large amounts of money into making them happen.
I think you just have to have a really, really strong voice, vision, point of view, and a really undeniable spirit. It takes a lot of pressure, a lot of courage, and a lot of energy to get movies made. And it takes time.
The more you do it, the better you get at it. I have found that I am mostly drawn to filmmakers that have a clear idea of what they want to say. That type of energy is transcendent. People can feel it, and they support it.
NFS: On Fatherhood, which comes out this Father's Day weekend, as an executive producer, what were the challenges of making this film from your perspective?
Smiley: The biggest challenge I saw was more of the business perspective. It's public knowledge that Fatherhood was developed and made for distribution by Sony. And then COVID-19 happened, and shut down theaters. It delayed the film for a really long time. There was a decision made that I am very grateful to [Tom Rothman] at Sony, and obviously Scott Zuber and his team at Netflix, that saw a path to get the film out there for the broadest possible audience in the midst of this global pandemic when so many theaters are still not open.
That was a big decision to make, because obviously, Sony believed deeply in the film. They believed deeply enough in the film to distribute theatrically. However, they want to get the movie out there, and we wanted to make sure that it got a proper release with the broadest possible reach. So we were excited because our big deal at Netflix, and Sony being great partners with Netflix, and got it done. That was a lot of work, but I'm glad now it's going to be out on a global platform with hundreds of millions of eyeballs that can see it around the world.
NFS: For filmmakers who are reading this who have different backgrounds and different stories that are not being represented on screen, but want to change that, what’s your advice? And what do you think it takes to see more of those stories embraced by the industry?
Smiley: I do think the embrace is happening now. With that said, I tell people any movie can be made... for the right price. We are talking to these amazing filmmakers today, Asian American brothers, that have a story personal to them and it's a kind of movie that we can make well and tell their amazing story for $5 million. Part of my job as producer is to balance the creative endeavor and goal of my filmmaking partners with what I know is going to be the business calculus that goes into any distributor or platform deciding to pick up a movie.
So I'd just say that any story is possible, but be budget-conscious of your story as you're developing it. Figure that part out, because that's going to be a big hurdle for you if the costs are too high. I do think there are some stories that could be very much cultural but also very much extensive and still great stories. Then I think that's really about understanding, as the filmmakers, how the film can play and work globally in a way that can return an investment to the distributors.
The big studios and platforms are no longer as afraid of these films like they used to be. But they still need a little help understanding how they're going to make their money. I never tell anyone not to be ambitious. If you have a sci-fi set in the jungles of Brazil and it's a deeply ancestral story at the heart of it, that's fine. But be prepared to talk through the business side as well, because that is going to be, obviously, a big, huge part of the decision for the studio.
NFS: Is there anything else people should know when they watch Fatherhood?
Smiley: I think it's a deeply passionate story for Kevin, who now has four children. You can see a lot of that authenticity in his performance. I would just say, people should watch it together with their family. It's a great film to watch on Father's Day weekend. Hopefully, people enjoy it as much as I did.