Humanistic, life-affirming stories don’t sound like a Hollywood business plan, but for the last 15 years it’s worked for financier Big Beach. On paper, partners Marc Turtletaub and Peter Saraf produce titles that may not seem overtly commercial — but they have a knack for finding concepts that connect with audiences.
For 2019, they backed Lulu Wang’s 2019 Mandarin-language drama “The Farewell,” which is nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Golden Globe as well as Best Actress Musical or Comedy for frontrunner Awkwafina, as well as Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which has Tom Hanks vying for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Fred Rogers.
“We have very specific taste,” said Turtletaub. “People want to see stories that touch their heart. That’s hard to define.”
These have ranged from “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) and “Safety Not Guaranteed” (2012) to “The Purists,” a 2019 play that Billy Porter directed in Boston, and Facebook Watch’s “Sorry for Your Loss,” starring Elizabeth Olsen. It’s an eclectic slate, but as a free agent Big Beach can go where the stories are.
Big Beach now boasts an L.A. outpost headed by Daniele Tate Melia (film) and Robin Schwartz (TV) as well as their old New York production hub headed by Leah Holzer (film).
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“We have established different outlets, but we also can go anywhere“ said Saraf. “We’re not beholden to anyone, no network, no deals. We say to artists we work with: ‘We’re going to take your story and do its best version where it makes the most sense.'”
Big Beach supported “The Farewell” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” through long gestations as well as production. (After bringing the film to Sony, they fought to protect Heller’s vision, agreeing to shoot in 35 days, but had to accept filming in Pittsburgh and not New York, to save costs.)
Both played well at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, respectively; A24 picked up “The Farewell” and turned it into a June specialized hit ($17.7 million domestic) that lasted through the fall at a time when theatrical releases are a challenge. Sony pushed “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” into the more competitive fall corridor, which has grossed a respectable $56.7 million to date.
Saraf first learned about Lulu Wang’s story on the weekly Public Radio series “This American Life,” and told his staff to check it out. “We all thought, ‘This is an incredible story,'” said Melia. “The characters are so rich, you could flesh them out, and you could hear Lulu’s sense of humor.”
Saraf learned from “This American Life” producer Ira Glass that Wang retained film rights to her story. “She always knew this was going to be a movie,” said Saraf, who met with Wang and agreed to team with her and producer Chris Weitz, who hadn’t yet raised financing.
At studio meetings, executives pegged Wang as a romantic comedy director, based on her first feature “Posthumous,” and were asking her to add more English-speaking characters like an American boyfriend. “That’s what made her go to ‘This American Life’ and tell her story her way,” said Melia. “It was a proof of concept.”
The movie yielded great response from distributors at Sundance. “But even the ones who were passionate about it were nervous about the foreign language,” said Saraf. “More traditional studios had output deals affected if it was 50% non-English. TV just won’t take it. But A24 was passionate from the beginning.”
A24 understood that, post-Netflix, more movie watchers around the world were accustomed to subtitles, and held onto theaters, timed the home entertainment release to November, and broke through Chinese bureaucracy to book a release there. “‘The Farewell’ story works on a very universal level,” said Saraf. “You don’t feel like you’re watching a foreign-language movie as the language of the story takes over.”
It took seven years to make “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which began when producer Youree Henley (“The Lighthouse”) brought Big Beach the spec screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster. It re-introduced children’s host Fred Rogers in a drama about an Esquire journalist based on Tom Junod, who interviewed Rogers for a cover story.
”We know Rogers spoke to children,” said Saraf. “But he has so much to say to everybody. That came through loud and clear in the script, which introduced me to the radical philosophy of Fred Rogers. It felt like a important story to tell.”
The main impediments to getting the movie made were the Fred Rogers estate, which protects his philosophy, as well as two rival projects.
”[The estate’s] approach to the marketplace was not to commercialize,” said Saraf. “Rogers did not want to sell to children. They feel the need to preserve his legacy, as their old show ‘Daniel Tiger’ keeps going, along with the Fred Rogers Center for Early Child Development. They say ‘no’ to everything, and first said ‘no’ to us.”
Henley and Saraf persevered. “It took years of building trust, going down to Pittsburgh and spending time, responding to their thoughts,” said Saraf, “making sure they knew we wanted to make a movie that was about the philosophy of Fred Rogers. It wasn’t a biopic.”
Big Beach obtained exclusive rights well before filmmaker Morgan Neville came up with the idea to make the Fred Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Saraf and Turtletaub granted him permission to make his movie, banking that it would increase Rogers’ profile, especially overseas.
As Holzer searched for the right filmmaker, she met with “Diary of a Teenage Girl” director Marielle Heller, who connected to the script as the mother of twin boys who watched “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” She passionately wanted to direct the movie without making it glossy, saccharine, or sentimental. ”She had a connection to the material as emotional as our connection,” said Holzer. “Mari was the obvious winner. We had send her so many scripts, but this was the first time she sparked to something.”
Heller directed Oscar-contender “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” while developing the Rogers movie. “She’s fierce,” said Turtletaub. “She’ll fight for what she believes in.”
Heller brought in Tom Hanks to play the TV host, who previously passed on the movie after playing another iconic figure, Walt Disney. He agreed to read it if she was involved — if they were willing to wait a year. Heller also cast “The Americans” star Matthew Rhys as the magazine writer who is estranged from his father (Chris Cooper).
Next up: Big Beach is backing new projects from both Wang (Alexander Weinstein’s “Children of the New World”) and Heller, as well as a number of other women directors in both film and television, including Natalie Portman. “We can do it our way and take risks and support filmmakers,” said Melia. “We take risks and go for it.”