EXCLUSIVE: In a bombshell development that will raise optimism for the future of Relativity Media as Ryan Kavanaugh steers it out of Chapter 11, the company has acquired Trigger Street Productions. Most importantly, Kavanaugh has installed as new heads of his studio that production company’s owners. Two-time Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey will become chairman of Relativity Studios and producer Dana Brunetti will become president. Together, they will steer Relativity’s resurgence in feature films and scripted television, and they expect to take the reins in February when Relativity is back on its feet.
This is an unexpected turn but an intriguing one because of the varied and successful track record of the Trigger Street principals. They’ve produced the kind of quality films Relativity needs, and have done it consistently. Those films include Best Picture-nominated films the Paul Greengrass-directed Captain Phillips and the David Fincher-directed The Social Network, as well as the Emmy-nominated House Of Cards, Bernard And Doris and Recount. Their other credits include 21, Shrink, Fanboys, and the stage production The Iceman Cometh. Brunetti also produced Fifty Shades Of Grey.
And last but hardly least, Spacey spent the last decade in London, reviving the Old Vic Theatre to its former luster.
They confirmed the move to Deadline and because it’s such a disruptive development, agreed to an interview. As for Kavanaugh, he told Deadline in a statement: “I am thrilled to welcome Kevin and Dana to Relativity. Kevin’s incredible creative success as a two-time Academy Award winner and star and producer of the critically acclaimed House Of Cards speaks for itself. Dana has remarkable instincts and an impressive track record of producing films such as Fifty Shades Of Grey and Captain Phillips. 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.”
DEADLINE: You guys have success in pretty much everything you’ve done. Now you are essentially going to run a studio. Why was this so appealing to you?
BRUNETTI: I can answer that, and I’m sure that Kevin will agree. We’re both f*cking crazy. Ryan initially reached out to me and I went in and met with him. Kevin and I have known him for years, and when he reached out and I talked to Kevin, we saw it as an exciting opportunity to come in and reinvigorate a company that is basically doing a reset. It was a good opportunity for us to come in and shake things up a bit.
SPACEY: Also, Dana and I have had such an extraordinary time as partners in the movies we’ve done, and the stuff we’ve done on TV, and it has been incredible to be able to run an independent production company. The notion that we can come into a company like Relativity, which has a remarkable structure, an incredible output deal to so many places around the world, a great relationship with Netflix. The idea we can do what we’ve always done…look, there’s going to be a lot of talk about the restructuring and the money and the financing, but what Dana and I are excited about are the artists and the filmmakers, and the idea we can find ourselves in a position where we can get movies going in that range of budget that most studios have abandoned. Character-driven, really great storytelling. This is such an exciting evolution for us as a team and to go from what we’ve been doing to then step into this arena where the challenges are so exciting, the future is so bright, and where we’re going to be basically running the film and television studio.
Every time I talk to you, Mike, it seems like I’m doing something new and crazy and I’ve made a left turn where people thought I was going right. To me, that’s part of the excitement. I’ve always liked Ryan, and the structure they have there already and the way they put films together. The kind of movies that Dana and I have been attracted to and have had success in, are the very kind of films that Ryan wants to do. It seemed that as he went through this last year to recapture his company, Dana and I coming in at this moment hopefully will bring a credibility, a righting of the ship. I hope it is going to excite a community and a town that the kind of works we’re known for, is what we’ll do here, and in a position we’ve never been in, before. It’s a very exciting position to be in, where we can greenlight a film.
DEADLINE: Even as Ryan Kavanaugh has gone through these woes, there has been a collective sentiment of sadness because there is room for a company like this that can make the kind of thoughtful projects that have found the two of you in the middle of the awards circuit in recent years. So much depends on how the company is being steered and who is picking the pictures, but you are putting your track record on the line. What was the feeling from confidantes as you weighed this option to jump in and take the reins of a company that has had nothing but bad press the past year?
BRUNETTI: We’ve kept it pretty close to the vest. But you’re right about the feeling that people lament the prospect of one less buyer when a place like Relativity is suffering. I certainly viewed it that way, as a producer. The fact that Ryan is recapturing the company and it’s being restructured and we’re getting the opportunity to run it and, as Kevin said, have the ability to be on the other side of the table, greenlighting pictures. One person I did speak to early on for advice, because he’s been there, is Mike De Luca, and he was very excited about us doing this. He thinks it’s a fantastic thing, for those reasons, but also because he knows our sensibilities because he’s done movies with us. And those are movies that other studios aren’t making as they focus on franchise pictures and tentpole movies. If you look at the films we’ve had the most success with, they’re not those films. They’re made for reasonable budgets and they’ve made a lot of money and that’s what we are going to focus on. Character-driven, great storytelling that will fill a void that is not being catered to, right now.
SPACEY: That doesn’t mean we won’t do higher budget movies as well. The truth is, yeah, Relativity has gotten bad ink, but that’s basically about financing, restructuring and bankruptcy. It hasn’t been about the work, or artistry and telling stories. That’s what we’re about. All of that other stuff will settle itself out and I think it will all go forward. But this is a remarkable and exciting opportunity for us. Look, they thought we were nuts when we decided to do a series with an online streaming service. Everybody thought I was out of my mind when I went to London to try to run the Old Vic Theater when nobody thought it could be saved. You find yourselves in situations sometimes, where you see something that maybe nobody else sees. You can look at something and say, I think I can make this work. I think this is an extraordinary opportunity. And where everybody else might be looking at the negative, if you just shift your perspective and your p0int of view, you can see what the future can be if you’re in for the long game and not the short one. And Dana and I are in for the long game.
BRUNETTI: Don’t forget, Kevin, when we went to CES right after the dotcom bubble burst, to launch a website. Everyone thought we were crazy. It ended up being very successful.
DEADLINE: Is there a wheelhouse, in terms of film budgets, that you are targeting?
BRUNETTI: It will be like the films we’ve gravitated toward, from 21 to Social Network or Captain Phillips, the types of stories they are the budgets they are. We understand that as a studio we will have to widen our scope and look at films that are a little bit outside our wheelhouse at Trigger Street but are in the wheelhouse of a studio like Relativity. While we say other studios are focused on franchises, that doesn’t mean we won’t do them. I would do Fifty Shades, at Relativity, as anyone would. I’d do a film like that, when they come along and we have the chance to get them. That might not be something that Trigger Street would have gravitated towards before; it’s something we will look at now. But the key is that the quality and type of storytelling in films like Captain Phillips and Social Network, that will continue to be our benchmark.
SPACEY: And those films were made for below $50 million, and those are the kind of films studios aren’t doing anymore in that $20 million to $40 million range. They’re just not doing them and that’s what we’re known for. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t make one with a much higher budget, if it makes sense creatively and when we run the numbers.
DEADLINE: Kevin, when you took over the Old Vic, everybody saw the history and tradition, but it was regarded as a dusty old theater in London. What did that experience do to help you prepare to run a film studio?
SPACEY: When I began at the Old Vic, I did a lot of studying and research into theatrical beginnings. So I was somewhat prepared for the reception I was going to get, which was, “Get out of town!” There was a lot of cynicism, a tremendous amount of people thought it could never work. My belief is that it can, if you have a vision. I had a 10-year vision. I knew it would take a long time to build that company and anybody who was going to judge us in 18 months didn’t know what it meant to build that kind of company. My belief was, keep your head high, stay on your vision, don’t take the bait and that, in a couple of years, they will realize I’m still showing up to work every day. And as I leave the Old Vic — this past August was my last as artistic director — the thing I felt I had to do, beyond anything was, it wasn’t as important for the Old Vic to succeed while I was there; I wanted it to be a success after I left. Matthew Warchus signed on for six seasons and it’s a flourishing, revived destination theater. That to me is the great story. I started out in a dressing room with a phone and a producer 12 years ago, and now, the Old Vic has returned to its old glory. That was an incredible experience and I learned a tremendous amount about running a company and what it’s like to run a staff that got up to about 80. For me, it was a huge learning curve and I think it prepared me in many ways for this. I was an actor in a theater and I ended up running a theater. I’m an actor in films and I’m ending up running a studio. I don’t know how many actors have ended up running a studio in Hollywood, but I think it’s relatively rare. For me, it’s an extraordinary step in what makes me feel like the luckiest guy in the world. The amount of reinvention and fun I’m able to have and ways I’ve been able to participate in the business, well, I’m just grateful for all of it and excited by those challenges.
BRUNETTI: At Trigger Street, we’ve always been ducking and weaving and trying to figure out where the business is headed and the question was, where would we take Trigger Street and what was the next step. We’d always talked about this, but in a much dreamier way, of raising money and building out a distribution network. With this, we get to fold Trigger Street right into what is already there. We’re actually ahead of the game for what we planned to do for the production company, by coming into Relativity and where it’s at now.
DEADLINE: Kevin, you mentioned that it was a 10-year process to turn the Old Vic into what it is now.
SPACEY: This isn’t going to be a 10-year process. First of all, the movie business is an entirely different one than the Old Vic and you have to understand, I was walking into a company that didn’t exist. The Old Vic was a building you could rent. So it’s a completely different philosophy of building something from the ground up, to walking into a company with a full staff, and they’ve made over 200 movies and done it for a long time. So it will take a heckuva lot less time to do what we want to do, in terms of getting a slate of films going, and to get people in here to make some good films.
DEADLINE: You are confident that when Kavanaugh emerges from Chapter 11 next month, you both will have the resources and commitment to do what is necessary to revive this company, both in feature films and scripted television?
BRUNETTI: We wouldn’t be on the phone with you right now or making this deal if we didn’t believe in that. We are very confident we will have everything we need.
SPACEY: Our biggest problem right now is that Dana and I are fighting over office space.
DEADLINE: You will both be based in Relativity’s Los Angeles headquarters, and both primarily focused on running this studio?
BRUNETTI: I’ve lived in L.A. for a while now and I will be in there and will start when everything is finalized.
SPACEY: I also have this day job, a little television show that I do.
DEADLINE: I’ve seen it. It’s good. You should keep at it.
SPACEY: So I will continue to do that and I’ll act in a couple of movies and maybe do a few other things here and there. But this is the new chapter, and it’s pretty exciting.
DEADLINE: So is it fair to say for Dana this will be 100%, and then maybe 80% for Kevin? Running a studio, that’s a big job.
SPACEY: It sure is a big job. The lucky thing for me is, I’ve had Dana and he has run a really lean and mean shop at Trigger Street and been a remarkable producer. Of course, the workload will be bigger, but the staff will be bigger. Things will work and run in many ways the way they have been running, that has worked well for Dana and I. Dana, what is it that you call me?
BRUNETTI: Kevin is my arrow. When I need to get to someone or get something done, I fire him at them.
SPACEY: We are both very dedicated and serious about this and we’ll work hard and in much the same way we’ve done it for the last 17 years.
BRUNETTI: Since 1997.
DEADLINE: So you fold in your projects, integrate your Trigger Street staff with the one Relativity has, and exploit the development projects they have to get a jump start?
BRUNETTI; The first thing we’ll go through is our slate, because some of those projects are set up elsewhere and those deals are going to have to be dealt with. Then we’ll go through the Relativity slate and figure out what we think can work and what won’t. We will be off to a running start, but it will also be a fresh start.
DEADLINE: Ryan Kavanaugh is giving you carte blanche to build this film and television business the way you see it?
BRUNETTI: That’s correct.
SPACEY: I can say from my experience on House Of Cards that having creative control is a terrific place to be in, and Dana and I will use that wisely. I’m thrilled to be in a place where great storytelling can happen and great filmmakers can come and work. It’s going to be an amazing thing to be able to put people to work on stuff we believe in. For us, it’s an amazing position to find ourselves in and I hope a lot of people will wish us well.