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Jordan Peele’s First-Look Deal Should Inspire More Studios to Support Emerging Filmmakers (Column)

Peele has made original movies on studio dime ever since his debut. Why don't studios do this more often?

Nope

“Nope”

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Congratulations to all my L.A. peers on victory of the Rams at last week’s Super Bowl, but I have to admit that the highlight of the show for this sports-illiterate viewer had nothing to do with musclemen or their ball, nor that invigorating half-time show (though Kendrick Lamar’s cardboard boxes bit was legendary). I perked up Jordan Peele’s “Nope” trailer, a pileup of shocked cutaways to a very menacing something in the sky: It said just enough about why we should anticipate this late-July release without saying much at all. 

Above all, it said Peele is still at it, directing singular horror-comedies with a calculated intent to entertain and enlighten. Six years after his debut “Get Out” became a global behemoth, here’s a modern U.S. filmmaker with a rare ability to take his time making original movies with the full backing of a studio’s dollars. Peele is developing a filmmaking trajectory that we’d love to see more often. So why aren’t we? 

The answer may lie in part with the elusive first-look deal.

After “Get Out,” Peele’s Monkeypaw Prods. signed a two-year first-look with Universal. After “Us” in 2019, that became an exclusive five-year first look deal that included his next two films and allowed him to produce other filmmakers. That enabled Monkeypaw to throw its support behind two memorable debuts from this year’s Sundance Film Festival: Universal subsidiary Focus will release director Adamma Ebo’s “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” day-and-date with Peacock, and Nikyatu Jusu, whose “Nanny” won the Grand Jury Prize, will direct her next film at Universal through Monkeypaw. 

“Honk for Jesus” stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown in a hilarious and often scathing mockumentary about southern megachurches, while Jusu’s eerie, atmospheric immigrant drama-turned-creature feature (still without distribution!) announces the arrival of a promising genre director. Finding a home within Peele’s cottage industry points to the value of investing in savvy directors.

Netflix megadeals for the likes of Shondha Rhimes and Ryan Murphy aside, most first-looks are more modest affairs. Prices vary: Some include overhead; sometimes studios pay fees as advances toward future projects. Others are designed as development fees with additional payments for specific projects. All of them make it much more likely that a director’s impressive first feature will not be their last.

Directors aren’t the only ones who benefit from the kind of infrastructure. Producer Karen Chien addressed this challenge head-on during a keynote at this year’s virtual festival when she pointed out that “producers find ourselves organizing for the right simply to be paid. We fight to receive a nonzero number.” 

IT FOLLOWS, from left: Lili Sepe, Maika Monroe, 2014. ©RADiUS-TWC/Courtesy Everett Collection

“It Follows”

Everett Collection / Everett Collection

Those are powerful words. But the focus of this week’s column actually arose out conversations with Rebecca Green, the prolific producer behind “It Follows” and  “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” She blogs at Dear Producer and last year launched an essential sustainability study for producers.

She also provided some of the most constructive feedback that I received for the divisive column I wrote earlier this year about first-time directors and paydays. I lamented the cultural frustration involved in watching talented directors vanishing into blockbuster tentpole gigs rather than charting a more singular path. Green was happy to offer a reality check.

“For the films I’ve produced with budgets no higher than $2 million, on the low end, I’ve received a producing fee of zero dollars and on the high end, $25,000,” she told me. “Each project was no less than three years of full-time work. On all of my films, director fees are in parity to producing fees.” 

To stay alive on those funds alone, you must be independently wealthy, have a day job, or Bear Grylls survival skills. Or, better yet, all three: Independent production is an all-encompassing lifestyle commitment.

To address this gap, Green had a fascinating proposal: Studios should explore the potential of committing $3 million per year toward 10 first-look deals with first-time directors and producers. That’s $300,000 each, enough to sustain moderate overhead during complex development periods, and would almost certainly yield compelling work from directors who have already shown they’re good for it.

This would address a specific market need, because content-hungry streamers would get in the business of eager storytellers at bargain prices. Last year, Netflix bragged about releasing one movie per week. Deals like this would feed directly into that goal. Even those disposable holiday rom-coms would improve as a result.

Green cited Peele as a model that should inspire more opportunities. He was an affluent celebrity by the time he made “Get Out” and obviously works in a commercial register (in remarkable ways), but there are other directors who show vision right out of the gate.

“What he is doing right is taking new filmmakers under his wing to open doors for them,” Green said. “But he is a unicorn, and sustainability shouldn’t be for only the unicorns.”

Green noted that this approach would address an ongoing challenge in the independent production economy. Cinereach no longer offers its $50,000-per-year producing award, while the Sundance Institute’s Amazon Studios Producers Award has dropped from $25,000 to a measly $10,000. That’s fine as a vote of confidence, but it’s hardly enough to keep a project afloat. 

“Tangerine”

So, how about those low-budget first-looks? I asked an array of independent producers, executives, directors and… well, not everyone was sold. Many said, in a buyers’ market, studios won’t pay because they don’t have to.

More than one person cited Sean Baker, a revered writer-director who works on his own terms and seems just fine these days — but no studio invested in him based on “Take Out” and “Prince of Broadway.” He had to survive in the microbudget trenches until the industry caught up with “Tangerine,” “The Florida Project,” and “Red Rocket.”

Of course, studios don’t want first-look deals with Sean Bakers. They want more Jordan Peeles: directors eager to make crowdpleasers for underserved audiences. Peele makes genre movies with Black casts that work for passive viewers and critics as a single unit — he’s a showman who’s subversive and eager to please all at once.

And that’s what makes this proposal so hard to swallow. Several people I called lamented how the studio system sucks people into its own agenda rather than investing in storytellers who could shake up old formulas. Streamers respond to data that tells them mediocrity sells. When they worried about churn, they go on a spending spree until the numbers stabilize. There are few careful investments in filmmaking talent that could add value by working on their own terms. 

And to be fair, few filmmakers (and not all producers) can thrive in a corporate context that would expect them to crank out ideas on a regular basis. Searchlight somewhat famously signed a first-look deal with “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin when it acquired his movie out of Sundance in 2012, only to wait another eight years for him to figure out his ambitious Peter Pan riff “Wendy” while roaming around Antigua with a pirate ship. (The studio confirmed to me that it no longer has any first-look deals.)

Not everyone is that particular. Peele only directed three movies in the past six years, but Monkeypaw also produced everything from TV series like “The Last O.G.” and “The Twilight Zone” to acclaimed hits “Candyman” and “BlackKklansman.” Anyone supported by a first-look deal would have to make peace with the idea that they’d need to bring value to the table beyond a feature. That can take many forms, from writing on other projects to producing other filmmakers’ work or otherwise being a voice at the table.

Few studios keep promising first-timers on their rosters. Amazon has a TV deal with Lulu Wang, and first-looks with Steve McQueen and Alma Har’el. A24 has one with the Safdie brothers. Credit goes to Blumhouse for its first-look deal horror director Gigi Saul Guerrero, whose gory provocations are just controlled enough to suggest she’s on the verge of a global hit.

One entity that seems keen on first-look deals is Topic Studios, the entertainment studio owned by First Look Media. Over the past year, it invested the acclaimed “Spencer” as well as “Nanny.” Topic currently has first-look deals with Carly Hugo and Matt Parker’s Loveless, as well as Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin’s Watch This Ready.

Topic financed Covino and Marvin’s debut “The Climb,” an eccentric and unapologetically arty movie that suggested Judd Apatow by way of Pierre Etaix. (I’m a fan.) Covino, who directed (they co-wrote and produce together) happens to be a veteran producer and pragmatist who loves to hold court on why it makes more sense to make the smart bet rather than chasing the bigger commercial paydays.

the climb covino

“The Climb”

SPC

“Most filmmakers would want their basic needs covered so they could just focus on making films and not taking a payday,” he told me by phone from Los Angeles, where he’s scouting a new feature that Marvin will direct. “At a studio, they could get paid well but not make the next step. You know, you couldn’t go from the $2 million movie to the $5 million movie and so on. Companies should invest in that. If I had a ton of money, I’d be doing a ton of these deals. I’d say, ‘This filmmaker’s brilliant, let’s make sure they can focus on finding their voice, working on it with them, and help them put the pieces together.’ Then we can go out to the marketplace to put it together. Topic is a value add on all those fronts.”

He was dubious of how agents tended to guide breakout talents. “The reality is that the agents’ jobs are to have a splashy premiere of the first film and then try to get their clients set up with some big movie,” he said. “You’ve been grinding and taking odd jobs and suddenly you have that splashy premiere and all of a sudden you go, ‘OK, how do I set up my life to get paid?’”

The counterargument is that a first-look need could preclude the opportunity for a bigger payday. “People told me not to take a first-look deal, that we could get more money down the line,” he said. “For me, there’s an element of comfort and understanding of what I need to run a business and create at the same time. And because it’s a first-look, I can still take a studio movie if I want to. But as for my original ideas that I want to turn into films — to me, I didn’t take for granted that I could find a good partner for that.”

With all this in mind, the person best suited to make the case for more first-look deals might be Jordan Peele himself. He was unavailable to comment, I was told, because he’s locked away in the edit suite finishing “Nope.” That leaves us with an open-ended situation that begs further exploration. Studios and streamers reading this (I see you!) should be considering the ease with which they could address a serious economic crisis in the film community and address their own bottom-line needs in one fell swoop. You might even get some masterpieces. Peele doesn’t have to be the anomaly.

Of course, I may be missing a lot of nuances involved in the first-look structure, the revenue challenges it creates, and I haven’t even dug into the distinctions between the narrative and documentary business. I encourage readers with thoughts on these and other related matters to reach out, address my oversights, suggest other solutions…or, you know, call me an idiot, as long as you can back it up: Eric@indiewire.com

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