“King Richard,” the true saga of how Richard Williams (Will Smith) turned his athletic daughters into tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, started off as an idea from Tim White, who co-founded Star Thrower Entertainment (Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” Matt Spicer’s “Ingrid Goes West”) with his filmmaker brother, Trevor. Once they decided to pursue the Williams family’s story, the Whites proceeded to do just about everything right. In Hollywood, this is rare.
Here are the ways the White brothers delivered an entertaining, authentic, and uplifting movie that Warner Bros. is pushing for the Best Picture Oscar.
1. A relatable narrative, tied to recognizable names.
Tim grew up in Annapolis, Maryland playing competitive tennis, from the junior nationals to the minor leagues. He knew the Richard Williams story, and when he was a teenager, saw him in the stadiums rooting for his kids. “I remember him holding up the signs and hearing people talking about him as this controversial guy,” said Tim. “Our company’s always looking for compelling and true stories about people who you know a lot about. Around 2015 we started talking about Richard Williams. We didn’t have any rights at all.”
“We thought we had an interesting way into telling the story of these iconic women,” said Trevor.
So they looked for a writer for their story about the security guard from Compton, California, who had no money and no tennis background, who groomed two athletic daughters into tennis superstars — at a time when, beyond Arthur Ashe, tennis was an all-white sport. “This was the greatest coaching story in history,” said Tim. “In 1994-95 he was branded as a total huckster, or a Don King. He was controversial because he made a lot of predictions that annoyed people. But in the end, they were all largely true.”
2. Patience, Part 1
The brothers started by meeting a half dozen writers. They also sent an email to Venus Williams through an assistant, but got no response. “The only way we’re going to actually get them to pay attention,” said Tim, “is to develop an amazing script that’s just undeniable, that goes around town, and takes on a life of its own.”
They heard many takes on the Williams saga over several years, but didn’t hire anyone. “Tim and I felt like this story is so good we should protect it,” said Trevor. “You shouldn’t jump into it with the wrong take. And we waited patiently.”
In September 2017, the brothers sat down for a general meeting with Zach Baylin and brought up the Williams idea as an afterthought. It turned out Baylin was another tennis fan. A few days later, he sent the brothers an email “that was the movie, the timeline, when it started, when it ended. It gave us goosebumps,” said Tim. “We still had no rights at all, but at the end of the day, we needed this script. I’m not sure we’d do it again quite this way. It was probably a little naive.”
They hired him.
3. The script was so strong it attracted a global movie star.
Baylin’s script did take on a life of its own. “It went everywhere, without even sending it anywhere,” said Tim. “People started passing it around.” Will Smith and his production company Westbrook expressed interested in the script before it landed at number two on the 2018 Black List. Smith, now age 53, was Star Thrower’s first choice, followed by 66-year-old Denzel Washington, Idris Elba, 49, and Mahershala Ali, 47.
“Will has such a large presence,” said Trevor. “At that time period, Richard owned every room that he was in. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him. And there was nothing understated about him. We felt like Will naturally has that. There’s an inherent likability. And we were drawn to a side of Richard that we hadn’t seen Will do. We felt that could be exciting. Will’s whole social media presence is about empowerment and encouragement and lifting up people to be their best self.”
Smith told the Whites that he instinctively understood Williams, without ever meeting him. “I understand him, because of my own relationship with my dad,” said Smith. He found the YouTube video story of Williams yelling at a would-be coach for questioning his confidence. Baylin added it to the script.
4. Patience, Part 2
Smith insisted that the Williams family get on board before he was officially attached. The producers spent nine months in conversation with the family to build trust, starting with Venus and Serena Williams’ stepsister Isha Price, an attorney who handles their business affairs, followed by their mother, Oracene Price (now divorced from Richard). The family agreed to the film, although the two tennis stars didn’t become producers until they screened it.
5. Create a bidding war.
As the script made its way around Hollywood, studio executives clamored for it. In March 2019, the producers shopped the movie to streamers and studios, fielding competitive offers from Paramount, Netflix, Sony’s TriStar, and MRC. (Only Disney didn’t make an offer.) They prepared a budget for a mid-market adult drama that might cost $30 million. Offers quickly doubled that.
6. Pick the distributor with the most passion.
Coming off of “A Star is Born” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” Warners president Toby Emmerich convinced the brothers to accept his offer in the $50 million-$60 million range, which included not only talent fees, but also the life rights and the production budget. This meant turning down former president Barack Obama, who spent an hour on the phone trying to persuade the Whites to let him produce the film under his Higher Ground banner at Netflix. “It wasn’t about the money,” said Tim. “This was such a special project to us. It had become clear that this was one of those projects that only comes along a couple times in a career, if you’re lucky. Warner Brothers was just so passionate. They wanted to turn this movie into a cultural event.”
7. Hire a gifted director.
The next step was convincing Warners to go with Reinaldo Marcus Green, whose debut feature “Monsters and Men” impressed Jada Pinkett-Smith when she was on the 2018 Sundance jury, and whose second feature, Mark Wahlberg vehicle “Joe Bell,” wasn’t yet in the can. After meeting many smart directors, the brothers felt that Green, despite his relative inexperience, “got it on multiple levels that we hadn’t heard yet,” said Trevor. “In terms of just creating the magic that the script might have? Rei was the guy.”
Like Smith, one-time semi-pro baseball player Green told them that he understood sports obsessive Richard Williams. “He was like my dad,” he said. Thanks to his brother Rashaad Ernesto Green, a director who had his own Sundance breakout in 2011 with “Gun Hill Road,” Rei Green also understood that two sisters could be competitive and supportive at the same time. Green felt strongly that Baylin needed to include more family members. “You’ve got three more kids who are on the outside of this thing,” he said. “That’s not how it was like. They got to be in there. They got to be at the court. They got to be in the car.”
The Whites recognized the importance of hiring a director of color. “It was important to us to have an African-American director given that we were white,” said Tim White, “and we had a white writer. We needed someone who could really connect to the material on that level and be a representative for the movie in the world.”
The risk was turning this studio production into something with the mainstream gloss of Smith’s 2000 Robert Redford-directed golf drama “The Legend of Bagger Vance.” “Rei combined with Will we liked,” said Tim. “He could make Will grittier.”
“The movie is inherently commercial,” said Trevor. “We thought, ‘Tell the story truthfully. It shouldn’t feel like a tiny indie; we’d love to have a aerial shot to establish the tennis court size and scope.’ But Rei said in the early meetings, ‘I don’t want to make it look like a Nike commercial. You’re not going to get any shots of the camera traveling with the ball in the net, or hyper-stylized slow motion, crazy stuff that’s distracting on a movie like this. You tell it truthfully, try to make it look beautiful. You don’t let the camera distract from the actual play and the emotion of it.'”
8. Listen to Jada Pinkett-Smith.
While Jada Pinkett-Smith was not on the set due to COVID restrictions, she had a role to play. She advocated for Green, and got involved in the casting of Serena and Venus (Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney, respectively), attending the final casting and makeup tests for the girls. For his part, Tim made sure the two athlete actresses could play believable tennis. “We couldn’t have gotten away with wizardry,” he said. “All the tricks in the world wouldn’t get you out of it if you had people who couldn’t move naturally. And Rei was focused not compromising at all. He wanted girls who really felt like a family.”
9. Take advantage of pandemic downtime.
After three weeks of shooting, COVID shut down the production in March 2020. Luckily, they filmed the younger backstory first: As the girls continued to grow over the next eight months, it served the story. Since they could no longer shoot big crowds at tennis tournaments, the visual effects budget doubled. “We had all of our 100 extras changing outfits on green screen, and we tiled so that the real people are just plopped in,” said Trevor. “They’re not digital.”
Smith understood the benefit of being able to look at what they had shot so far. “We should see what’s working well, what’s not working well,” he told the producers. “I wish I could do this on every movie.” Said Tim, “We improved our approach to how to do the tennis. For us, we looked at it as an asset. There were things that we wanted to do that were just not possible. That was a reality. And we were disappointed, obviously. But, they were replaced with things that actually work better.”
10. Cope with the new reality.
Like every other producer with a 2021 release at Warners, the partners had to deal with a day-and-date debut and they will never know how big a hit the movie might have been if it wasn’t also playing on HBO Max. At a preview in Los Angeles, the producers saw how the movie played with an African-American audience, who stood up and cheered in one climactic scene when Williams’ wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) stands up to a neighbor.
After seeing the rousing premiere at Telluride, Neon CEO Tom Quinn urged the producers to find a way to release the film for at least a few weeks exclusively in theaters. “If they’re not doing it for ‘Dune’ or for ‘The Matrix,’ they’re not going to do it for us,” said Tim. “Hopefully, it won’t matter.”
Warner Bros. releases “King Richard” in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Friday, November 19.