Filmmaking rarely travels a straight path, but for “Monster” it was exceptionally twisty. After the legal drama starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. premiered at Sundance in 2018 in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, it’s seen a title change, its first distribution deal fall through, and the original title restored. Producers Tonya Lewis Lee and Nikki Silver say it was all worth it: The movie premiered on Netflix May 7 and was among the top 10 Netflix titles in the U.S. last week.
“It has been a long journey, but it has been a really good journey,” Lee said. “It didn’t go the way we thought it would, but ultimately we landed where we were supposed to land. People are seeing it, they’re feeling it, and they’re responding to it.”
“Monster” is based on the 1999 YA novel by Walter Dean Myers, which follows a high school honor student (Harrison) who faces prison time following his alleged peripheral involvement in a deadly robbery. While the film enjoyed a standing ovation at Sundance, buzz didn’t travel much farther than the Eccles lobby: Few publications reviewed the movie and it took a year before striking a distribution deal. “As much as the audience responded, we just didn’t get as much media attention as we thought we would,” Lee said.
The film is the feature directorial debut of Anthony Mandler, who made his name over the last two decades as a music-video director for artists like Rihanna, Drake, and Beyoncé. The cast includes Jennifer Hudson, Jeffrey Wright, ASAP Rocky, John David Washington, Nas, and Jharrel Jerome. John Legend, Nas, and Wright are among the executive producers.
The muted response may have been tied to a point of confusion in the Sundance 2018 lineup: Washington and Harrison also co-starred in another, similarly titled film, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “Monsters and Men.” Like “Monster,” Green’s film explores racism in the criminal justice system and its impact on Black communities.
In April 2019, Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios announced it had acquired “Monster,” but with a new title: “All Rise.” This may have been an effort to differentiate it from the 2003 film by Patty Jenkins, but it also had the effect of separating it from the source novel. Then, after the press releases, the deal fell through.
“Deals can be complex. Without going into too many details about what really went on, the deal was just not able to fully come together,” Lee said.
Founded in 1993 by Byron Allen, Entertainment Studios sought to make a bold move into distribution in 2016 when it made a surprise $20 million bid for “The Birth of a Nation,” the ill-fated Sundance phenomenon that ultimately sold to Fox Searchlight. Its first successful acquisition was undersea horror film “47 Meters Down.” A 2017 attempt at an awards play, Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” failed to gain traction. Other titles included “Chappaquiddick,” “Replicas,” and “Arctic Dogs”; its most recent released was the faith-based romance “2 Hearts” last October.
An Entertainment Studios rep declined to comment. After the deal fell through, Lee and Silver took the film to Netflix.
“Sometimes deals don’t happen,” Silver said. “But it is a producer’s job at that point to say, ‘Well, that’s not the end. That just gives us more resolve. The one thing we have known all along is that audiences were going to respond to this material. We saw it at Sundance and we knew from every subsequent screening after that — that not everyone was going to understand this, and yet we knew that audiences would.”
Lee had a relationship with Netflix; she produced the “She’s Gotta Have It” series created by her husband, Spike Lee.
“I really like working with Netflix,” Lee said. “We approached Netflix with the film. My understanding is that they really took their time to watch the film internally with many people and really think about how they could best bring the film out. We had lots of conversations with them.”
Audrey Gardiner, director of content acquisition at Netflix, was among them. “Timing is everything,” she said. “When I saw ‘Monster’ last summer, it felt timelier, more important than ever. To bring the words of Walter Dean Myers to a global audience is a privilege and we’re honored to be part of the journey of this powerful film.”
By the time Netflix released “Monster” (with its original title, “which is what we always wanted,” Lee said), its elements had improved with age. Netflix introduced “Monster” co-writer Radha Blank to the world with the Sundance 2020 acquisition of her semi-autobiographical “The Forty-Year-Old Version.” Harrison’s star has risen with his BAFTA-nominated performance in “Waves” and Independent Spirit-nominated turn in “Luce.” And Washington has continued to perform in high-profile projects, most recently “Tenet.”
The film’s release also comes a year after the police killing of George Floyd, which prompted increased international attention on the systemic racism embedded in American society.
“The gods just held it for the right time,” Lee said. “But at the same time, I believe that any time is the right time for this story. It’s a fable, its about the over-incarceration of our youth. It’s as timely now as when Walter Dean Myers wrote it in 1999.”