Few production companies have found commercial success as rapidly as QC Entertainment, which followed up the overnight sensation of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” with “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee’s most acclaimed movie in years. However, the recent success of QC executives Sean McKittrick, Raymond Mansfield, and Ted Hamm follows years of struggle in the indie trenches.
Over a decade ago, McKittrick was running Darko Entertainment with financier Hamm when the company released “Southland Tales,” directed by the company’s co-founder Richard Kelly. The filmmaker’s long-awaited follow-up to cult hit “Donnie Darko” was a legendary flop, with a $17 million budget and a box office gross under $375,000. The company endured similar challenges with dark Robin Williams comedy “World’s Greatest Dad,” director Bobcat Goldthwait’s Sundance hit that flopped in theaters, and “Bad Words,” Jason Bateman’s raunchy directorial debut, a $7 million production that underperformed.
“Nothing hurts more than making a great film that doesn’t do well,” McKittrick said. “It was always difficult to find the right distribution partner for those films. We realized that we want to really push these unique voices into a wide commercial release structure.”
Years later, the new formula has been paying off, with the one-two punch of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” QC — the letters stand for “Quality Control” — launched in 2016, and dove headlong into production on Peele’s directorial debut. One year later, it became the first debut directed by an African-American filmmaker to cross the $100 million mark at the box office, and later bagged Peele an Oscar for best original screenplay. For the company, that experience solidified a new approach for releasing edgy, unconventional projects into the world: Go to the studios and plead your case.
By establishing a distribution plan with Universal during the early stages of production, “Get Out” was guaranteed the resources that would bring Peele’s unique social-thriller to the masses. “It just goes to show you that an acquisition is different from a studio being behind you for the whole process,” McKittrick said. “They can’t all be Marvel movies.”
Prior to embracing the studio model, the company found that its sensibilities were at odds with the acquisitions game. Their movies were dark, offbeat, and provocative. “We had a hard time making these because we were beholden to distributors caring,” Mansfield said. “They weren’t caring, because you couldn’t point to an example of somebody making a lot of money doing this.”
In the aftermath of “Get Out,” the QC team found themselves in the spotlight. “You can imagine how many pitches we got that all said the same thing — ‘This is the next ‘Get Out,’” McKittrick said. “The truth is that we don’t want to copy something that worked. We want to be ahead of the game.” They had already started developing “BlacKkKlansman,” the real-life story of African-American policeman Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan, with Peele attached to direct. But after “Get Out,” the comic actor-turned-filmmaker decided to continue writing his own projects. (He eventually settled on a new thriller, “Us,” an ultra-secret production starring Elisabeth Moss and Lupita Nyong’o that opens next year.) With Peele now a producer, the team came up with a list of “a good 20 or 30 African-American filmmakers we felt could really do something with this,” and Lee was at the top. “Spike is a legend,” McKittrick said. “It was Spike and everybody else.”
Peele called Lee directly, while QC’s executives sent the book and the screenplay to the filmmaker’s agent. Lee signed on and agreed to develop a new draft within 48 hours. Tapping their Universal connections from “Get Out,” the company set up “BlacKkKlansman” with studio subsidiary Focus Features — the same company that dumped “Bad Words” into theaters five years earlier. “That just goes to show you the fickle nature of everything,” McKittrick said. “The Focus team now is incredible. They were incentivized to do everything they could to make the film and the distribution work.”
These days, QC tries to manage its budgetary expectations while pushing for projects that go beyond mainstream standards. “Of course, we aren’t going to spend $240 million making ‘BlacKkKlansman,” McKittrick said. “You have to have a healthy respect for the market.” Nevertheless, he argued that “people want to be challenged,” and noted that companies like A24 and 2018 surprise hits like “Sorry to Bother You” prove that point as much as any of his own production credits. “People want to see different points of view,” Mckittrick said. “We never want to be chasing what’s working. We want to set the bar.”
While McKittrick remained in Los Angeles for production on “Us” (“There’s a huge level of anticipation for Jordan and he’s going to deliver,” the producer said), Mansfield worked with Focus on the summer release of “BlackKklansman,” which has grossed over $77 million worldwide to date.
In addition to “Us,” the company also produced the wacky satire “The Oath,” which marks the debut of writer-director Ike Barenholtz, another established comedian making his filmmaking debut (Peele recommended QC to Barenholtz). Next year will see the release of “Sapien Safari,” the directorial from actor Sharlto Copley, whose script revolves around an alien naturalist who owns the Earth. It’s another out-there premise designed to wrestle with modern concerns through a peculiar lens. The QC aesthetic has settled into a routine of combining unlikely formulas.
“All of these movies are comedies, they’re dramas, they’re thrillers, they have social commentary,” said Mansfield. “You often hear on projects like this that they’re really execution-dependent. Studios don’t want to take that risk, but what we’re finding now is that there’s a little bit more interest in the projects that fit right into our slate, because the momentum is there.”