Scott Stuber has started work at what is arguably the best job in town. Presiding over the feature slate of Netflix, Stuber will have formidable resources at his command to challenge the set-in-stone processes and procedures of Hollywood’s studio system. As such, he will be a disruptor – albeit unexpected casting as one, since Stuber, 48, is himself a skilled corporate player, disciplined and thoughtful. But now he will build a studio without a studio structure, operating from a different scale of budgetary requirements and audience expectations and hence offering deals the majors would often not approximate.
In his years as a top executive at Universal, Stuber survived a succession of occasionally inept owners and shifting mandates, thus mastering the craft of resilience. He was mentored by one of the industry’s savviest survivors, Ron Meyer, before forming a producing partnership with the talented Mary Parent.
So in what direction will he take Netflix? I have no intention of asking him, because it wouldn’t be smart for him to answer. With the majors’ production slates becoming ever slimmer, their gambles ever pricier, Stuber is in a position to create surprise. His rivals at Amazon are bent on pursuing a program of niche movies; by their criteria Manchester By The Sea represents a blockbuster ($47.6 million U.S.). Amazon goes to the market with movies about a blocked poet (Paterson) or an 18th century matchmaker (Love And Friendship).
By contrast Netflix is committed to War Machine, a dark political satire set in Afghanistan starring Brad Pitt and directed by David Michod, and cop fantasy Bright starring Will Smith and directed by David Ayer. Both projects scared off rival bidders because of their expansive budgets and dark subject matter. Netflix also disclosed this week that it is funding a period action film that will re-team director David Mackenzie with Chris Pine and Ben Foster, whose last joint effort was the surprising Hell Or High Water. Netflix also recently made a deal for The Week Of, a comedy in which Adam Sandler’s daughter marries Chris Rock’s son.
Other upcoming Netflix features encompass a range of stars from Robert Redford and Jane Fonda (Our Souls At Night), Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman (The Meyerowitz Stories) and Angelina Jolie (First They Killed My Father).
If an eclectic slate emerges from Netflix, it will be an effective reflection of Stuber’s studio career, not to mention his work as a producer. At Universal, Stuber played a role in nurturing A Beautiful Mind and the Fast & Furious franchise. Along with the winners came the inevitable problem pictures. Wannabe franchises like Riddick and Van Helsing didn’t perform to expectations. As a producer Stuber’s name is on Ted and Patriots Day, but it’s also on Battleship and The Free State Of Jones.
Having steered through the hits as well as the disappointments, Stuber seems eminently qualified to build a strongly diverse slate at Netflix. Over the years I’ve encountered him at good moments and bad, and have always found him to be candid in his reactions. In 2005 I sat down with Stuber and Mary Parent when they’d just endured the sort of crisis that turns executives grey. A major star vehicle, American Gangster starring Denzel Washington, was set to start production, its crew in active preparation, when clouds gathered. The budget kept bumping upward and the script still had serious trouble spots.
“I’m not too proud to admit that we were getting off track,” Stuber told me at the time. “You suck it up and try to make sober decisions, all the while hoping to retain a climate of stability. But suddenly you face a bunch of orphans who until now thought they had jobs for the next year.”
American Gangster was abruptly canceled; it was re-assembled a couple of years later with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe under the direction of Ridley Scott.
“The thing to remember about Stuber is that he’s one of the good guys,” advises one producer who has worked with him. “He’s a suit, but he’s considerate and respectful and wants to see you succeed as well as him.” There are thus a lot of people in town who are rooting for his success, and for his occasional disruptions.