Typecasting happens behind the camera as often as it does in front of it. Shawn Levy, whose brand as a Hollywood director was typified by family blockbusters like Cheaper by the Dozen and Night at the Museum, wanted the production company those hits yielded, 21 Laps, to be much more than a vehicle for him to crank out more of the same.
“I know what it feels like to be perceived as limited in what you do,” Levy told moderator Pete Hammond of Deadline on Sunday during a panel at the Produced By conference.
When Twentieth Century Fox came to Levy after the smash success of Night At The Museum a decade ago and offered him a first look deal, the Canadian native and Yale graduate saw an opportunity to build a company that would support filmmaker voices.
“I wanted it to be a production company,” said Levy, “not just a vanity deal for me to direct.”
About seven years ago, Levy was joined by Dan Levine and Dan Cohen, who helped him line up projects across the gamut of budget, genre and platform. The chemistry has taken time to develop, but in recent years 21 Laps has produced some of the biggest hits on both big and small screens in recent years, including Paramount’s Arrival and Netflix’s Stranger Things. During the session, the three principals at 21 Laps detailed how all the pieces have gradually fallen into place.
“We have our various tastes,” added Levy. “We have our opinions…But at the end of the day we’re there to help shepherd and protect the director’s vision and voice. That’s what I always want when I direct.”
The breakthrough came in 2013 when a low-budget romantic comedy, The Spectacular Now, became a hit at Sundance. A movie about teen-age life saddled with an R rating, it charmed most critics but grossed only $6 million. No matter — for Levy, it was the company’s turning point.
“Before we did Spectacular Now, 21 Laps was just about comedy and family films,” he said. “From the minute it came out, it was a turning point. No longer were we just saying we could do different things. We were doing it.”
No film better illustrates the evolution of that vision than Arrival, the science fiction movie that starred Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. After acquiring book rights, they went to Fox to pitch it under their agreement.
“They didn’t think it was for them at the time,” said Levine. “Like with many projects, if they don’t feel and don’t want it, they’ve never handcuffed us from making it elsewhere.”
Arrival landed at Paramount Pictures, where the alien contact movie directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) became a critical and commercial success, earning eight Oscar nominations and winning one (for sound editing). Made for a shade under $50 million, it surpassed $100 million at the U.S. box office and $200 million worldwide.
Along with Arrival, 2016 brought Stranger Things, a fantasy horror-drama with Spielberg-ian flourishes that sold to Netflix after it was turned down by numerous studios. “You really have to believe in the project and director and writers and just keep fighting,” said Levine. “A bunch of people may say you can’t make that but were passionate.”
He added, “I call it sticking your face in the fan. You just keep going. If you don’t give up, that’s when you get it done.”
Levy recalled a friend who was ready to give up because he said movies he spent years working on didn’t love him back.
“If you really love them and stick your face in the blade every once in a while,” said Levy, “they will love you back.”