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Jordan Peele on how to make original movies that are commercially viable

The Academy Award-winning auteur talked with Universal chairman Donna Langley about their fruitful collaboration at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival.

Jordan Peele on how to make original movies that are commercially viable
Jordan Peele [Photo: Daisy Korpics for Fast Company]

Jordan Peele has the distinction of having been rejected from an SNL audition, only to go on and become such a phenomenally successful filmmaker that SNL parodied one of his movies in a memorable sketch.

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Another marker of Peele’s impact was the line outside of the Caldwell Factory in Lower Manhattan on Wednesday afternoon to get into Peele’s Innovation Fest panel with Universal Studios chairman Donna Langley. The line stretched down the block so far that not everybody would be able to make it in, prompting one woman with a suitcase to somehow slip in before showtime, only to be summarily escorted out by two large guards.

It’s a hot ticket because Jordan Peele is on fire. Both his filmmaking debut (Get Out) and his sophomore effort (Us) were huge hits, both commercially and culturally, with Get Out fetching a Best Picture Oscar nomination and a Best Original Screenplay win. (Whether this year’s Us proves similarly Oscar-worthy, we won’t know for another couple of months.)

What’s perhaps most amazing about Peele’s success is that both of his films are original stories, an unfortunate rarity in our reboot-heavy, cinematic universe-dominated cultural moment.

Behind the scenes, however, it took a certain kind of dance between the visionary auteur and the well-financed studio to get the movie made and ensure it was as bankable as possible.

In Peele and Langley’s Innovation Festival panel, moderated by Fast Company editor-in-chief Stephanie Mehta, the two discussed what it takes (on both sides) for an original film from a major studio to succeed in 2019.

You sunk my Battleship

According to Langley, Universal’s collaboration with Peele followed eight years of loud, expensive disasters⁠—movies like Battleship and Land of the Lost, whose appeal relied almost entirely on familiarity and nostalgia.

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“We were owned by GE—who makes fridges, not movies—so we were driven to go for franchises,” she said. “What we learned the hard way was that a movie that doesn’t really have a reason for being, that doesn’t really have a story or characters people are interested in, it’s not connecting. And so we had an opportunity to redefine our slate and the movies we wanted to make, the people we wanted to collaborate with, and the audiences we wanted to reach. We knew there were pockets of people being underserved.”

Langley began looking for films aimed at women, and soon Universal had projects like the Pitch Perfect and the Fifty Shades series on its roster. She also drew on her experience at New Line Cinema in the mid-’90s—making low-budget hits like Love Jones and Friday that were primarily aimed at black audiences—and started green-lighting projects like Straight Outta Compton and Girls Trip.

The idea, however, was to find projects so fresh and promising that they would transcend any category and appeal all across the demographic map. “I would love to see more original material in the theater, and this is part of the reason I partnered with Donna and Universal, is because this is their mission statement: to give story a chance,” Peele said. “I feel probably overconfident that we’re going to be able to prove that ‘new story’ will be the most enduring type of story to be created. Obviously, that’s not the case right now. But when I see something fresh that surprises me, there’s nothing like that.”

Trust is a two-way street

Movie studios need to trust that their creative talent can deliver the goods, and creators have to feel confident that they’re supported as well. Sometimes both sides have to take a leap of faith.

“With one movie, [Peele] had cemented himself as a storyteller who the audience would want to follow,” Langley said. “We green-lit Us based on Jordan coming in and giving a pitch, and I’ll be honest: There was a lot about it I didn’t understand. It really went over my head. We had a great experience on Get Out, but this was a more ambitious movie, a more expensive movie. I knew he had the vision so intact, though, so I understood that it would be this iterative process of my evolution, my understanding as it went on, and that’s what happened. I read the script a couple times, and I got it more. And then I saw it.”

For his part, Peele had to trust in the company’s marketing plan, which hinged on rolling out the first trailer on Christmas Day last year, both on digital channels and on TV. (While families were likely to be watching The Sound of Music together.)

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It seemed like a bit of a risk to Peele, but he trusted the process.

“I wasn’t sure in the beginning,” he said. “It’s Christmas, are people really online? And yes, that’s the first thing, they are. A lot of family members on their phones. And I’ve found that somehow I draw connections within families. Families kind of enjoy these films together. People taking their sons or daughters to see Get Out. So this idea of blasting on Christmas put a lot of families watching in the position of figuring out, ‘Oh, that’s that guy who made that movie you liked and that show you liked.’ And they kind of put the pieces together as a family. That was a stroke of genius.”

Selling the “why”

“Making a movie is almost like launching a new business,” Langley said. “You have to have a business model, you have to have sound rationale, and you have to look at it in terms of what’s come before it, even though there’s never been a movie like Us before. But you look at other things in the horror genre, and then we put that to the side and think about the creativity.”

In order to facilitate the creativity of her auteur, though, Langley has to explain to her corporate overlords why they’re spending millions of dollars on a movie about rabbit-nibbling underground dwellers.

“It has to go beyond gut instinct and general enthusiasm and excitement based on what we know from the filmmaker,” she continued. “We have to be able to have that conversation about money, and for me that was a learned skill. I came up in the creative process. The other part was a language I needed to learn and do it all while being authentic to who I am. All of a sudden, I have an MBA, and I’m coming in with charts and graphs and budgets. I love systems and processes, and that gave me confidence to be able to express what I needed to express about how to spend their money. And it gave them a level of confidence that I wasn’t completely full of it. I knew actually what I was talking about.”

Interestingly, Langley’s experience in trying to finance Peele’s vision seems to mirror Peele’s experience in trying to sell himself: It all comes down to finding the right way to explain why you need what you need.

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“There’s a type of creative who has a strong vision they’re passionate about, and if there’s something they’re told the studio doesn’t get, they can sort of hunker down and say, ‘This is the way it has to be.’ Which is a quality I admire, because it’s badass,” Peele said. “But I would say also, when you’re trying to fight for something, put together a good reason. Be able to explain it and don’t just hang it on, ‘This is the movie I wanna make because it’s my passion.’ Let them know why this will make the movie better and more successful, and if it won’t make it more successful, lie.”

Finally, the filmmaker cautions creatives about making sure to defend one’s vision only for the right reasons.

“It’s very easy for your ego to pop up when it comes to something so close to your heart. I started off in comedy so I know, the ego is the worst enemy for your creative process. There’s so many correct decisions that I wouldn’t have made if a certain stubbornness hadn’t kicked in. So fight for your vision, that’s a really good thing. But know how to present that in a way that’s not linked to your ego.”

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