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Ryan Donnell Smith Film Producer, Netflix

Ryan Donnell Smith: Netflix film producer reveals industry insights and tips

Ryan Donnell Smith is an executive producer of Oscar-nominated Netflix movie The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020). In a rare opportunity to learn about the filmmaking process, presenter Aiysha Jebali sat down with Ryan to discover what a top movie producer actually does and how to become a film producer on big budget films. Hint: it’s not an overnight kinda deal.

Have you ever wondered:

Why are so many movies filmed in Atlanta, Georgia? What are the tax benefits for filmmakers shooting in Georgia? What are the different types of film producers? What does a line producer do? How do I become a movie producer?

We cover all this and more as we discuss the business of filmmaking with the executive producer of Academy Award-winning director Aaron Sorkin’s Netflix film.

Winner of a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) tells the true story of the trial against civil rights activists and anti-Vietnam war protestors in 1969.

This group of individuals all protested against the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Their main charge was conspiracy to incite a riot, even though most of the accused were in fact, not connected previously.

A monumental and politically-charged trial took place under President Nixon’s presidency and is remembered for the farce it became.

The film stars Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis, Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, John Carol Lynch as David Dellinger, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Ben Sherman as Leonard Weinglass, Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, Danny Flaherty as John Froines, Noah Robbins as Lee Weiner and as Judge Julius Hoffman.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 Movie Poster
The Trial of the Chicago 7 Movie Poster. Netflix © 2020.

Interview with Ryan Donnell Smith

FF: Can you tell us a little bit more about your filmmaking background?

RDS: Yeah, absolutely. I kind of started in that early production on set working in feature films really learning the film production industry through and through from each department, and understanding how the camera works to the lighting, everything kind of the on set physical production side, and that gave me my love for filmmaking, watching films be made.

More recently, I’ve moved into the packaging, development and film financing side of things where I have the opportunity to find great stories, work on those stories, develop them, work with my team, put the financing together to actually make some movies, and then do the physical production all the way through distribution on the end.

So, I do that now with a couple of companies on the film finance side; I have a film finance production company called Streamline Global, and then I also have a studio in South Georgia called Thomasville Pictures.

FF: Fantastic. Okay, so you’re obviously going to have a wealth of knowledge that our viewers are going to want to know about for sure. And where can people watch your movies? Where can people get your most recent content?

RDS: So our film, The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), is out on Netflix, we’re really excited about that. I have another film, The Tax Collector (2020), that’s on Amazon. And then we have a few movies, gosh, we have quite a few…but they will be coming out over the next 12 months.

So, we have a film called The Tiger Rising (2021) with Dennis Quaid and Queen Latifah coming out in the next year, and we just finished filming one called One Way (2022) with Machine Gun Kelly, Kevin Bacon and Travis Fimmel that will also be about a year ‘til it sees the screen.

But, if you have a moment, we’re very, very proud of The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020). It’s out on Netflix around the world currently.

From line producer to executive producer

FF: Fantastic. We will definitely be checking it out. With line production being one of the starting points for you, how would you say that being a line producer helped you to be a better producer and executive producer later on down the line?

RDS: There were some theories early in life of people that I’ve met in management, really big companies, and in some companies, they make you go work in every single department, you know, to get an understanding of, ‘Hey, this is really how this works’.

And so, early on in my career I started working on little tiny web videos, and commercials and music videos, and digital content, new media pieces, all of those elements really taught me the logistics of filmmaking and I think it’s really important because now, you know, I work on the finance side and on the packaging side, and so I’m really able to take that knowledge of all of the logistics that it takes in filmmaking to create great content, but I understand the realities of how things work, I understand how the electric package and the grip package are going to function with the camera and at what level we should set costs associated to each of those items, and so it helps me also protect my projects, from you know, the line producer.

I always say the line producer’s job is to deliver a movie on time and on budget, and so you’re overviewing, you’re going over everything on the film, and you’re over so many moving aspects, but you’re really able I think with that understanding of physical production, and diving in and getting some real life experience on set first before I went into the packaging and development side, and film finance side now, I think that it does give me a bit of a competitive advantage because I really know through and through how these things work and how they’re put together, and I think that’s a great thing.

For anyone that’s working in our industry to have that bit of knowledge of really, ‘Okay, this is how our great industry works from a physical production standpoint’.

Sacha Baron Cohen The Trial of the Chicago 7
Sacha Baron Cohen in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Nico Tavernise / Netflix © 2020.

Putting your time in and getting experience

FF: Yeah, absolutely. I think understanding the functionality, a lot of people, you know, they want to make their own films, but they don’t necessarily have the experience to see how others have done it. How did you go about getting that experience? And what would you recommend that aspiring filmmakers do in order to get that, you know, such important experience under their belt?

RDS: Yeah, I tell everyone, I think it’s important to, and when I say put your time in I don’t mean it in a negative way, but I do think it’s important to realise this industry is not an easy industry. You cannot just step into it today and make the biggest content in the world. Maybe there’s one or two anomalies, but for me, my personal journey was years and years of working on projects and like I said, I started with the very low budget, you know, piece of content and today we didn’t have the technology then. But today, that type of content could be created on a smartphone, on an iPhone, on an Android, and then put into a computer and made into something special with one person really diving into production.

And so starting in that way and getting your hands dirty a bit, is how I began at least, and then that started to grow so I worked on projects that were a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger, and I call it ‘work for hire’ side.

So, more on the commercial side, people paid me to produce for them. So whether it be a brand or you know, a commercial for someone, a music video for someone, my company was paid to create that media, to create that work for them and that really helped me and I grew that very slowly.

You start on a low budget and then move all the way up into multimillion dollar commercials, which are very large sheets on that. I then transitioned that into the film space and when I went into the film space and actually started to create content there, and in film and television, I had to take a big back step.

So, I was doing like I said, multimillion dollar projects and commercials but my very first feature film had a budget of $200,000, and I think that’s very important because in my experience, I started small, my next film was a little bit larger, around half a million dollars, the next film was, seven figures, and then the next and you know, you step up and up until I finally landed, now we’re doing some wonderful, large scale independent production on a pretty big level.

But I think for me personally, and I would recommend for everyone not to dive into your dream of filmmaking and go try to make the biggest, ‘This is a $10 -, $15- , $20-million movie and it’s my first one, and I’m going to make it’, and even if you have that dream, pick a different project to try first that’s smaller. And if your dream project is going to cost a lot of money, realise that and go do some other projects first that bring you up to speed and give you the knowledge and the expertise to do the larger scale production.

The Trial of the Chicago 7
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (L-R) Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Ben Shenkman as Leonard Weinglass Mark Rylanxe as William Kuntsler, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis. Nico Tavernise / Netflix © 2020.

How to fund a film project

FF: That’s great advice, thank you. And also when you’re you know, you mentioned about your first one being 200,000, how did you get that 200,000? Like, actually get that because that may not be a big budget, obviously, in terms of the grand scale that’s out there, but for aspiring filmmakers, okay, even a few thousand, it’s hard, so it’d be interesting to hear.

RDS: Yeah, you know, I was lucky in that I had a filmmaking friend and he was willing to invest in the, this is transparent my story, but he was willing to invest the money to create his first project right, and I had the technical expertise to help him navigate and protect that money to deliver the movie. But what I would share for someone is, like you said, if you’re starting out, that is a lot of money and I like to treat any movie, whether it be $5, or $5 million, or $50 million, right? Money is money, and you have to take it very serious that you’re spending money and oftentimes on our side we’re spending other people’s money and so the first rule of lesson I would say is, be cognizant and careful with how you budget and how you allocate, make sure you have an entire plan before you start spending money, whether it’s yours or someone else’s.

But as far as how to get the money, there’s so many great platforms if you’re starting out now and you’re trying to really get projects made.

So, the first thing I would do is find the friends and family in and around you to get that first piece made people that will work for free, people that are as passionate about your story as you are, and maybe you know, whatever they may cost, maybe they’ll work for 10% of what they would otherwise charge within the industry.

There are so many great platforms out there now for crowdfunding, where if you have an amazing story, you can crowdfund and you can share your vision, your scripts, offer different levels of benefits, whether that be credits, things, and allow people to crowdfund into your film. Or you can go and find a partner, a production partner, or a company where you do share that vision, and a production company comes on and is willing to take the risk and invest the funds. Now that, you know, again, if you’re just starting out, I want to say that’s a long and hard road and a lot of people think that that’s exactly what they’re going to do.

Ryan Donnell Smith Film Producer
Ryan Donnell Smith Film Producer. Credit: Riker Brothers

They’re going to go and they’re going to just share this with five production companies and one of them’s going to just write the golden cheque. And sometimes that happens. That’s the reality. I’ve never had that happen for me personally, you know, but I know someone that went in and pitched Netflix a story and walked out with $10 million having never made a piece of content before. I would say that’s one-in-a-million chance and so it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to really…I call it, bootstrap your way to getting those first projects made.

But I do think if you’re passionate, and you’ve got to be patient, it will come and one key anchor of any type of putting projects together is finding cast because in our industry cast brings a lot of value. And I know it’s a bit of chicken and the egg because it’s so much easier said than done, go get a great cast, and then the money will come. And then you go to try to get the cast and they say, ‘Well show us the money and maybe we’ll consider a conversation’. But there are ways to find great actors and actresses, and these do not have to be major Hollywood names or you know, stars.

Get a really good team around your project and it will naturally, over time, you should be able to raise the money.

Casting and the importance of chemistry reads

FF: Fantastic. So when you were casting, what did you have in mind? What do you look for when you’re casting?

RDS: When we’re you know, when casting a project, gosh, again, the media that we all create every day, and I lean more on the numbers in the business side than I do the creative, right, in the nature of what I do. But it all starts with a great story, no one is going to invest hard earned money if they do not believe in the script, in the story.

So when it comes to casting, again, technology has really helped us out. There’s so many wonderful platforms where if you are an emerging filmmaker, or just starting out, you don’t have to hire some very expensive big name person to help you cast. There are ways to get casting calls out online, and really see a lot of great names.

But I would say: go from the heart when you’re seeing an audition, share, you know, sides, we call them sides with the actors to audition, and really watch. Make sure you do a chemistry read, a lot of people will love two different people and they play an intricate role together in a movie, let’s call it a father and son right, but what they don’t realize is that the chemistry on screen is absolutely terrible. So make sure you take time to do, if someone’s interacting a good majority of a movie together, make sure that you’re doing a chemistry read to make sure that the actors work well together and that it presents itself in a natural and realistic way on screen, whatever that may be, whether that’s love or anger or frustration, or you know, whatever they’re playing, make sure you try that out and in different ways.

But I do think casting is very, very important. It’s worth taking the time to really, really connect and find the right actors before you jump into a project.

The Trial of the Chicago 7. Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman. Nico Tavernise / Netflix © 2020.

From script to screen

FF: And talking of projects, if you could tell us a little bit about your most recent project that’s obviously going to be available for people to see soon, can you tell us about your process there? What was your whole process? Not just casting but how did you come up with choosing to tell the story and everything?

RDS: I’ll give you the example of the film we’re going into production on right now, we’ve done quite a few, we’ve been very lucky to have a lot of projects in motion currently. So right now I’m working on a project, a film project called Supercell, and specifically with this one, Jamie Winterstern, our director, is a young, emerging first time director.

So that is an exciting opportunity for us and at the same time, we have to put protections in place to make sure that we empower him to do an amazing job on the film. And we know he’s going to do a wonderful job.

We cast Alec Baldwin in the film and so we are quickly moving into the pre production phase where we start to put together the rest of the elements. And so what we’re doing, I’m actually in my office in Georgia, we film a lot of our projects in Georgia, it’s a wonderful state where there’s tons and tons of incentives to be here.

Speaking a bit to the financial side, Jamie had created this great story, developed it into a script, I partnered with a good friend of mine Ryan Winterstern who had really what I call ‘packaged the movie’. He put together the script and the story and connected a sales company. A sales company will oftentimes help you get foreign pre-sales or get connections so that you can cash flow your movie. And so Highland Film Group came on board with us and we attached Alec Baldwin, and then Highland Film Group took the film to market and sold which was what allowed us to cashflow the movie, is that our sales agency sold international territories around the world, and so we’ve actually locked in pretty much worldwide distribution prior to even making the film which we’re very excited about.

So now we’re at the place where we’re doing our budgets, we’ve created our budget, we’ve cast, we’ve put everything together and are moving into the pre-production phase. So once we get there, what’s going to happen, we will travel everyone to location, continue the casting process, and then actually film the project. So that’s a little bit on our latest project there.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Mark Rylance
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale and Mark Rylance as William Kunstler.. Nico Tavernise / Netflix © 2020.

The benefits of filming in Georgia

FF: So you know the cash flowing idea, I’ve heard that being done quite a lot, and obviously you were saying about incentives to film in Georgia, to shoot in Georgia. I’ve heard, also, quite a lot that a lot of films that are LA productions end up actually being shot in Georgia. What are some of the financial benefits for filmmakers looking to make that swap?

RDS: So there’s a couple of benefits. One, and I love Los Angeles, I live in California, I live in LA, you know, I love LA, but there’s just a few benefits of coming to the state of Georgia. Georgia has done a wonderful job of creating a tax incentivisation plan, and so they incentivise filmmakers by basically, there’s a little bit more brass tax here, but basically they give you 30 cents for every dollar you spend.

So the state allows you, and let’s say you come here and you spend a million dollars, if you spend a million dollars locally within the state of Georgia, they will give you $300,000 of your budget, you know, it’s a little bit more complex than that, but that’s the basics. So then when you’re going out and you’re raising money, you no longer have to raise a million, you now have to raise 700,000, which is a great great benefit.

So, additionally, LA is a very busy place, there’s a lot of traffic and you know, different things there, it’s a little bit harder to get access to locations, film, obviously, has been around for years and years and years, and it’s a little bit newer in Georgia so access to locations is slightly easier. Traffic is not as bad, hotel room rates are a little bit cheaper here, and so Georgia is a wonderful place to film, we absolutely love it, and they support us as filmmakers in what we’re doing.

The other part of the financing is talking about pre-sales, so then we raise a bit of equity, and equity is the finance, we call it, it’s a bit of the risky part, right, of the film finance structure. And so it’s friends, family, investors, production companies, whatever it may be, that are going to put in the equity for your movie.

So, a good example would be, let’s call it a $1 million budget, 300,000 in equity, so that’s the money you would actually go and raise.

In the early days I was doing this with friends and family and mentors, and you know, you go around, and you may have a lot more investors to get to that $300,000, but all of a sudden you have $300,000 in equity, and then $300,000 from the state of Georgia, now what we call a shortfall is $400,000. So then a sales company can go sell foreign territories and bring in that remaining $400,000 for you.

It’s a little bit more difficult because you have to cash flow all of this, so you bring in a lender, and the lender will do a loan on the movie, and that loan will consist of the state tax incentive, as well as your foreign pre-sales. And then they’ll give you the money for that with a premium of course, and all of a sudden you’ve hit your strike price for the movie.

FF: That’s amazing, thank you so much. That honestly is probably the most simple way that it’s been explained to me so far, so thank you very much.

RDS: I mean like I said there’s, you know, there’s steps in between but you know that’s kind of the what I believe is one of the safest ways to make film, you know, is to do it with that model.

Advice for aspiring filmmakers

FF: Just finally as well, if you were to give one little snippet of advice for a new filmmaker, what would it be?

RDS: It’s not going to be easy, but so many people give up on their dream right before the success is about to come, and so keep pushing and know that you have to fight for your dreams and it may take time.

FF: Thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it.

RDS: Thank you so good to speak with you.

Credits

Transcribed & Edited by: Nicole Mitchell
Presenter: Aiysha Jebali
Video Editor: Millie Hayward
Second Print & Video Editor, Visual Effects & Artwork: Richard Williams
Audio Podcast Editor: Danny Morrison
Image of Ryan Donnell Smith: The Riker Brothers
Stills courtesy of Netflix / Persona PR