“Art people are the good rich people”… That’s something my brother said to me whenever we bemoaned the state of things. In a world where The Donald is poised to manage this country like a giant hotel/casino development opportunity, it’s not hard to toy with the idea of giving up all worldly possessions and getting your kicks by endlessly raking sand.
But there is hope, oh human race, and Black Label Media is its beacon.
Molly Smith and twins Trent and Thad Luckinbill came together as Black Label Media in 2013 and instantly asserted themselves in Hollywood as aficionados of artistically ambitious, storytelling-driven cinema.
Smith got her start on set as a PA for Alcon Entertainment, Thad as cold hearted ladies-man J.T. Hellstrom on long-running soap opera The Young and the Restless and Trent in the Justice Department, of all places. Today they have a small staff of seven, a stable of billionaire investors (including Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale and Smith’s father Fred, the founder, chairman, president and CEO of FedEx) and close relationships with fellow producers and companies.
The elements were put in motion toward the end of 2009, when Trent moved west from Washington D.C. Thad had brought Smith their first projects, which the two developed at Alcon, where Smith still worked as a production executive. Initially the plan was to set up a specialty division under an established umbrella, but due in part to Alcon’s fixed yearly outputs, the trio decided they could forge a clearer path on their own. So they raised a film fund and Black Label Media was born.
Black Label’s relationship with Alcon remains strong, but with their own staff, backers and vision, the company is able to push forward the kind of filmmaker-driven films too often ignored by the big studios. The two companies partnered in 2014 to make The Good Lie, a true story of a young Sudanese refugee coming to America, starring Reese Witherspoon and written by Emmy nominee Margaret Nagle.
The relationships with Alcon and companies like it are crucial to Black Label’s success. Since Black Label doesn’t distribute, getting their films into theaters and homes always requires collaboration. Right now they’re partnered with Lionsgate on La La Land, a musical comedy-drama starring Hollywood dreamboats Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and written and directed by Whiplash wunderkind Damien Chazelle. All it took was seeing some footage from Chazelle’s homage to classic silver screen fare for the three to jump on board. It’s that kind of bold choice that defines the Black Label Media brand.
In their ability to supervise a given production, Smith and the Luckinbills consider themselves interchangeable. But in their strategic planning, all three voices are indispensible. All Black Label Media decisions are joint; there is no one creative mind, nor is there one financial whiz. The three work together on everything. They’re able to achieve this unlikely mind-meld thanks to their singular goal, which is always front and center:to produce the types of films that have a hard time getting traction at the bigger studios. So when a unique story-telling opportunity comes along like La La Land or the 2015 documentary Breaking a Monster,about teenaged speed-metal band Unlocking the Truth, Black Label is primed and ready to help them over the towering Hollywood Hills and into a theater near you.
On the surface, Black Label’s filmography may appear to have little in the way of common ground. The producers are only too happy to ricochet between fiction and non-fiction, between tear-jerkers and toe-tappers and edge-of-your-seat thrillers like Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated (and $81 million grossing) masterpiece Sicario. But all their work shares one important characteristic—they belong to the family of films without representation at Comic-Con but with loftier ambitions than can be captured on an iPhone. They’re the films that would otherwise languish in mid-tier limbo: too small for wide release, too big for Vimeo.
Black Label acquires films in addition to developing them. It’s not important where the film comes from or how it ends up on their doorstep. What matters is the content and the artistry. They find films that they’re passionate about and go after them. Black Label’s first acquisition was John Carney’s Begin Again,the romantic drama starring Keira Knightley and Adam Levine, that they found at Sundance in 2013. Next they got their hands (all six of them) on‘71 and helped tell the story of a British soldier (played by Jack O’Connell) abandoned by his unit in Belfast, written by Gregory Burke and directed by Yann Demange.
The types of movies they buy are the ones they feel they would have made, though in the past two years, they’ve been making more. Black Label only produces three or four films a year. Being creative producers in addition to financiers requires Smith and the Luckinbill twins to live with their projects 24/7. So although we may not be able to look forward to an entire multiplex full of Black Label’s progeny, we can be sure that each one we come across will be powerful, relevant and just plain old entertaining works of art.
So with all these projects coming in, with different needs and at different stages, how does the team turn them from ink on paper to flickers on the screen?
It begins with a fundamental orientation: they take an honest look at the needs of the story with the goal of making important art on the same level as making money. The team’s creative and financial goals live in the same space. “It’s not about a number,” Smith insists. “It’s about looking at the whole thing and asking where does it live?”
These producers have real love and respect for the needs of the narrative. When putting a film together they first look at what they call “the economics of the story.” Black Label is here to make art, but they never forget that they’re also running a business. Consequently, they look for films with commercial potential, but commercial potential overlooked by the big studios.
Sicario, they explain, could have taken any number of shapes. It could have been a Michael Bay-style explosion romp starring a bunch of jacked 20-somethings. Or it could have been a quietly sociological study of Mexican-American relations with a documentary feel. The truth, as they say, proved to be somewhere in the middle. Smith and the Luckinbills fought for the truth that they saw in Taylor Sheridan’s script and Villenueve’s vision. The result was an Oscar-worthy prestige piece that delivers both edge-of-your-seat entertainment and a poignant, unflinching study of humanity on both sides of the border.
Inside producers, writers, directors and actors burns a need to create something worthwhile. Though the worthwhile stories aren’t always the obvious choices from a marketing point of view, these bold stories are what the essential artists in this industry want to be a part of. Sicario attracted Roger Deakins, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Emily Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya, not because they knew it would be nominated for an Oscar or Producers Guild Award, but because it fulfilled their need to be a part of a story that matters.
Talented artists who want to make powerful and relevant cinema are often ready to sacrifice the colossal bucks for creative fulfillment. Meanwhile, the ability to finance and produce independently means that nimble, director-driven Black Label is able to make projects like Sicario for less money than the machinery of a large studio would require. With a completed film handed over to a partner for widespread distribution, Smith and the Luckinbills can have their cake and eat it too.
The most recent of Black Label Media’s works of art to hit the cinema was Jean-Marc Vallee’s Demolition,about an investment banker who loses his wife, goes off the rails and pulls himself back together, starring our current master of the passionate understatement, Jake Gyllenhaal. There’s plenty more coming out of Black Label’s gourmet movie oven.A Sicario sequel, also written by Sheridan with the same cast of heavy hitters, is currently in development. We can also look forward to Jerry Bruckheimer’s Horse Soldiers, which they’re producing with Lionsgate (evidently happy with the gamble they took in releasing Sicario). It’s a story of special forces soldiers in Afghanistan after 9/11, riding into battle against the Taliban. Last month the company began production on J.D. Salinger biopic Rebel in the Rye and this summer they’ll start on Joseph Kosinski’s No Exit, teaming with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura to tell the story of a deadly wildfire in Arizona. Next comes 105 and Rising, an ensemble piece written by Andrew Cypiot and directed by Antoine Fuqua, set in the nightmare chaos of the fall of Saigon as the Vietnam War lurched to an end.
For those who want top-notch entertainment without leaving home, we can be excited for the first-look deal Black Label has with ABC. Jon Schumacher heads up their television department, which for its first foray into small-screen storytelling, has teamed up with director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan), who Smith knew from her hometown Memphis, on music-themed period drama Beale Street Dynasty,about the birth of the blues.
Meanwhile Black Label owns stacks of books and other IP, which they’re pairing with filmmakers and preparing to hit our screens. But whether their next hit is watched in movie theaters or living rooms, Smith and the Luckinbills’ track record has already established them not only as the people with the checkbook, but as artists in their own right. Just as audience members seek out a movie or TV series based on their attachment to stars, directors and writers, Black Label Media is attracting a loyal audience of cinephiles who know where to go for art they can talk about at the water cooler.
So when you look around and worry that capitalism is ruining the world, see what Black Label Media is up to, and remember all the good money can do.