Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz

Nicole Brown (President of TriStar Pictures) on Creative Collaboration, Movie Test Screenings, & Keeping Audiences Engaged

January 03, 2024 Kevin Goetz / Nicole Brown Season 2023 Episode 34
Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz
Nicole Brown (President of TriStar Pictures) on Creative Collaboration, Movie Test Screenings, & Keeping Audiences Engaged
Show Notes Transcript

Kevin is joined by the President of TriStar Pictures, Nicole Brown

Join host Kevin Goetz as he engages Nicole Brown in a conversation about her career evolution from child actor to President of TriStar Pictures. Tracing her early acting jobs to producing and executive roles, Brown imparts thoughtful wisdom on creative collaboration, test screenings, and keeping audiences engaged. She shares insights on balancing bold artistic visions with commercial success, studio involvement, and the importance of innovation. From her experiences shepherding original films like The Woman King, Baby Driver, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Brown offers revelations on what goes into crafting compelling films. She also has advice for emerging talent looking to push the industry forward.

Early Life and Career (4:23)
Brown describes getting bitten by the acting bug as a child growing up in Culver City, California. She began booking commercials and roles in shows she watched on TV. She reflects on how quickly acting went from an extracurricular activity to a central part of her young life.

Transition to Producing (6:05)
When Brown attended Columbia University, she began realizing that she derived more joy from facilitating creative projects behind the scenes than being on camera.

Internship with Marc Platt (11:08)
After college, Brown landed a career-changing summer internship with powerhouse producer Marc Platt. She sat in on his meetings at a major studio and soaked up his openness to ideas.

Insights on Studio-Filmmaker Collaboration (19:24)
Brown stresses that every film requires a different type of creative dance between the studio and the director. She notes that the studio's level of involvement often depends on the director's proven track record and the film's genre.

The Origin Story of The Woman King (25:16)
Brown traces how the idea for The Woman King originated when Viola Davis approached her eager to play a fierce African general leading an elite female army.

Elements of Successful Theatrical Films in a Changing Landscape (31:19)
Brown believes today's films require a sense of spectacle, urgency, and relevance that makes audiences eager to experience them immediately on the big screen.

The Power of Test Screenings (36:28)
Brown values seeing real audiences experience a film during test screenings. Beyond just the questionnaire data, she learns a great deal from the crowd's audible reactions and body language.

Advice to Emerging Talent (40:21)
Brown urges the next generation to fully immerse themselves in cinematic history and all forms of storytelling. But she also challenges them to then throw out the rulebook and bring completely new, bold ideas to revolutionize filmmaking.

Tune in as host Kevin Goetz and Nicole Brown unpack valuable filmmaking lessons.

Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: Nicole Brown
Producer: Kari Campano
Writers: Kevin Goetz, Darlene Hayman, and Kari Campano

For more information about Nicole Brown:
Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicole_Brown_(film_executive)
IMDB: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0114352/
Sony Pictures: https://www.sonypictures.com/

For more information about Kevin Goetz:
Website: www.KevinGoetz360.com
Audienceology Book: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Audience-ology/Kevin-Goetz/9781982186678
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @KevinGoetz360
Linked In @Kevin Goetz
Screen Engine/ASI Website:

Podcast: Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz 
Guest:  TriStar President, Nicole Brown
Interview Transcript:

Announcer (00:02):

There's a little-known part of Hollywood that most people are not aware of known as the audience test preview. The recently released book, Audienceology, reveals this for the first time. Our podcast series, Don't Kill the Messenger, brings this book to life, taking a peek behind the curtain. And now, join author and entertainment research expert, Kevin Goetz.

Kevin Goetz (00:24):

As CEO and founder of Screen Engine/ASI, every day I show up with my A game and I give my business everything I have. Well, at least I try to. I bring my experience as an entertainment researcher, a strategist, and as a creative. Today's guest and I had an immediate connection when we met years ago. We have many similarities as focused and committed executives, but our backgrounds are quite similar as well. Our first jobs were as child actors. We have a great love of musicals and we're both passionate about paying it forward. A Los Angeles native, Nicole Brown is the president of TriStar Pictures, Sony's specialty division that she helped restart with Tom Rothman back in 2013. She's overseen movies at TriStar including A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Baby Driver, Trainspotting, and The Woman King. Nicole graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University. She got her start interning at Miramax. Worked for producer Marc Platt and was executive vice president at Good Universe. Originally that was Mandate Pictures. The list of movies that she shepherded and helped to produce is long and impressive. Nicole, I am so happy to have you on the show today.

Nicole Brown (01:46):

My pleasure. Thank you for that introduction.

Kevin Goetz (01:48):

Yeah. So I want to ask you about your early days getting started in show business period. Like you and I really were the real deal. We were working actors. Did you have stage parents? Like how did you get into it? Did you always want to do it? Because I had no stage parents.

Nicole Brown (02:06):

I have no stage parents either. My father is a businessman and my mother's a therapist and I tried to play sports but that never worked out for me. I was the girl who always like had a note from home and needed to go to the nurse's office and avoid anything athletic. But I would watch TV and I was like, I want to be on that show. It was a very strong feeling. For me, life was in a make-believe place and the TV looked like a fun place to be.

Kevin Goetz (02:41):

Were you just a really young kid then?

Nicole Brown (02:43):

Yeah, I was like eight, nine. Like I wanted to sing and dance and imagine things. I grew up in Culver City.

Kevin Goetz (02:52):

Oh my God, and you live in Culver City now, you know what I mean?

Nicole Brown (02:57):

Exactly. My mother found this group called the Culver City Civic Light Opera, and they would do these shows with children, Annie, Oliver, and there'd be these big auditions and that became my extracurricular. I would go and do the shows and I would always get good parts. I was the Artful Dodger or Annie or Scarecrow. And then after the shows, because like LA is such a Hollywood place, there'd be like agents who would give me their cards and I would save them and show my parents and they were just so reluctant, but I was persistent and convinced them to let me get an agent.

Kevin Goetz (03:38):

How old were you at that point?

Nicole Brown (03:40):

I was 10. 

Kevin Goetz (03:43):

Wow. We are so similar because I had such a similar story, but my parents wouldn't take me into New York because I lived in New Jersey and you needed to take a bus into New York and my mother said something like, I'm not giving up my career so you could have a career. I mean it sounds harsh, but it wasn't until I started making money as an actor that she became my staunchest supporter. But in the beginning, it was like a lot of begging.

Nicole Brown (04:07):

It was begging. And my parents didn't see themselves as those, they didn't see themselves as stage parents. They had a life, they had jobs and I didn't give up and convinced them. And so we tried it.

Kevin Goetz (04:20):

You started working, you started doing commercials, right?

Nicole Brown (04:23):

Yeah, started doing commercials and booked a contract with Mattel and did a lot of Barbie commercials and found my way into a movie with a young filmmaker, John Singleton and that became Boys in the Hood and then booked a TV show that had been on for a long time that I really admired as a kid and found myself in on one of the shows that I had pointed at, you know, on Kids Incorporated. It just became a part of my life.

Kevin Goetz (04:49):

I was one of those kids that I pointed at. I love that. And by the way, you want to feel older. I was very polite when I said that. I worked on Boys in the Hood. <laugh> Back in the day. I loved John Singleton. He was something else.

Nicole Brown (05:05):

Rest his soul.

Kevin Goetz (05:06):

I know. So how did you get into the film biz? Like let's talk about your transition from acting to the business side of entertainment. When you went to Columbia University, did you, did you go there as an actor?

Nicole Brown (05:20):

I went thinking I was still an actor, but I was so curious about all things film and performance and I, while at school, I started this theater group and I named myself head of the script committee. I had this idea that no one comes to your production. You get like four people in the audience after working so hard for a semester, like rehearsing and doing all this stuff. So I was like, I need to pick the script because I'll pick some like really edgy or sexy or get attention and I'm gonna fill the audience. And that was like a really important thing for me. And I hadn't put all these thoughts together, but clearly I was on a path.

Kevin Goetz (06:03):

Oh, were you ever?

Nicole Brown (06:05):

But I picked the script that was very provocative and I met with people who wanted to direct and I picked the director of the play and they picked the actors. But I would like weigh in and be like, are you sure? But I just, I backed off a little bit and let everybody do their parts. But what I most remember is the show and that we had a full audience and people were curious and people were talking about it because it was a little controversial. And I remember it was standing in the wings and I watched the actors bow and I watched my directors bow and I didn't take a bow, but I just was smiling and, and someone actually took a picture. And then there's this picture of me in the wings like just holding my hands like this smiling. And I was like, that's it, whatever that is the joy of watching other people shine and thrive and tell their stories. But being a part of building that audience and getting it done right was what I realized brought me joy. And that was with a few other factors. That was what sort of led me to kind of seek this facilitator role as opposed to being in front of the camera.

Kevin Goetz (07:10):

Well also being the boss, being the leader and no, seriously, and choosing the material. Like you innately knew that the power was in the material, that the power, you bet power is in the material. And is it the same with movies? You bet it is. Of course.

Nicole Brown (07:26):

Absolutely. Like all I do is like, what should we pick? What should we make? I mean that's the biggest question of at the beginning.

Kevin Goetz (07:35):

We're gonna, we're gonna get to that. I'm really gonna go there, but I want to ask you, do you ever miss it? The acting? Do you ever miss it?

Nicole Brown (07:43):

No. No.

Kevin Goetz (07:44):

Let me say, hold on. You're watching Woman King or something. You're not looking at going, oh, I could do that. Oh no. Never?

Nicole Brown (07:51):

Don't get me wrong. I love actors, but for me, I exercised that out of me that need to like perform and be in front, it is gone. I did it. I saw it through, I'm grateful to my parents who supported a curiosity of mine and let me get it out as early as possible so that I could really find my purpose and like I was better fit for, which is something behind the camera. So I find so much joy in watching great actors, new actors, but what I appreciate is that I can look at them and understand how hard it is. I don't know that everybody knows the agony and the vulnerability that goes into being the vessel of a story. So I really admire them. I really respect the craft.

Kevin Goetz (08:39):

You know, I only feel the missing, not in movies, but when I go to a Broadway show, every now and then, there's something I see and I go, I could turn that out. I could do that. 

Nicole Brown (08:52):

Well, you could.

Kevin Goetz (08:53):

Well, I'm just saying like, so that, that's the only time I really feel that. But you know, you have to also remember that because of what I do with focus groups every night of my life and having an audience of 40 or 50 people sitting behind, sometimes as many as that, usually it's more like 20 or 30. But behind the group in a theater watching me quote unquote perform has filled that itch, you know.

Nicole Brown (09:20):

And you perform, you are <laugh>, you're fantastic. I see it. I mean, to get the audience to speak, it's part of what you do.

Kevin Goetz (09:28):

Thank you. Okay, so you're out of Columbia now and you are thinking about, I guess what a career in movies or in theater? Where did you go from there?

Nicole Brown (09:40):

I knew I wanted to be in Hollywood, but it sounded like a daunting business to figure out one's way in.

Kevin Goetz (09:49):

Although you were from Culver City.

Nicole Brown (09:52):

I was from Culver City and I had been an actor, but I still, even though I'd gotten a little peek into it, it still was intimidating. So I had this plan of going to graduate school for producing because I thought that would give me, you know, an angle, leg up, a good education to help move my trajectory forward. So I got into the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC and I had planned to go there. And, and the summer before going to graduate school, I interned for a producer named Marc Platt.

Kevin Goetz (10:24):

OH, a little known producer called Marc Platt. <laugh> What was it like working for Marc?

Nicole Brown (10:30):

It was incredible. And that summer, just being his intern, I think oftentimes when someone is an intern, you know, you're just gonna get coffee, you're just gonna photocopy papers. But with Marc, I sat in all of his meetings.

Kevin Goetz (10:47):

What was he doing then? What meetings were you in?

Nicole Brown (10:49):

He had recently gotten left running Universal. And so this was a fresh first-look deal at the studio. And,

Kevin Goetz (10:59):

And Joey was with him. 

Nicole Brown (11:00):

Joey Levy, she's retiring.

Kevin Goetz (11:02):

I heard that. I love her. She’s wonderful. 

Nicole Brown (11:05):

She called me and told me.

Kevin Goetz (11:06):

What a sweetie.

Nicole Brown (11:08):

So, he was just working on Josie and the Pussycats and had a bunch of projects set up and was moving into working on this book that they had just set up called Legally Blonde, the beginning of his company. And what he taught me was a good idea can come from anywhere and it didn't matter who you are or how young or how old, trust that voice. And he was so confident in himself in his body of work that he welcomed anybody shouting out an idea.

Kevin Goetz (11:45):

Let me just say Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal were guests just a little bit ago and they talked about Antoine Fisher, of course he worked as a guard at the Sony gate and pitched Todd this story, and that's how it became Antoine Fisher.

Nicole Brown (12:03):

A great producer listens, a great producer, can hear ideas, feedback, could even like listen to culture. I mean think about Brian Grazer, like they're awake to the stories that are swirling in the world. And Marc is exceptional at that and exceptional at cultivating executives and people around him who become inspired to kind of push out as many ideas as they have. And that's, that's what he did for me. And he just made me feel really brave at a young point in Hollywood where I think most people are afraid and get scared to talk and scared to sit at the table. He was like, sit at the table. What do you think? And that was a game changer. And I think it's really what helped me get to where I am today. And I love him. He's very special.

Kevin Goetz (12:57):

You and I have something that not a lot of people share in our business, which is really a shorthand and a trust that we have with and for each other. And that didn't just happen overnight, it's happened over decades. In fact, a couple of decades. 

Nicole Brown (13:15):

Yeah. And a lot of films. Yeah. And a lot of proving that the art of translating an audience works and can have incredible outcomes. I've learned over time through your guidance that they speak the truth. Like the group think is truly like…

Kevin Goetz (13:33):

Wisdom of the crowd. Yeah

Nicole Brown (13:35):

Wisdom of the crowd.

Kevin Goetz (13:35):

Has a lot to say. And you're right, they don't come in except wanting to love your movie. I say that so often and it's up to you, to you meaning the product that you're giving them, the beautiful film, the challenge where you're placing it in front of these innocent folks who are daring you to entertain them.

Nicole Brown (13:57):

Our job at the end of the day, as storytellers, no matter what our specific role is in the process, is to build a machine that makes you feel. That is our job. To build a canvas that makes you feel. I do believe part of my job is to listen to the audience and make sure that I've made them feel, have I made them laugh? Have I scared them? Have I made them cry? Like have we have we thrilled them? Like, and if we didn't then, then we gotta keep working on the machine.

Kevin Goetz (14:28):

I just want to say you using that clearly as a metaphor, because you're one of the last people who thinks of a film as a machine. You value filmmakers like you have done and proven yourself to really support new filmmakers, emerging filmmakers, giving them a shot and letting them shine just like you'd have expressed that you do with actors. Edgar Wright comes to mind.

Nicole Brown (14:57):

Hmm. Yeah, we've had a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun.

Kevin Goetz (15:01):

And I've seen you work and you're always deferential. One of the things that I have to say that sort of bothers me is that filmmakers often are very judgmental about the executives and think that they're sort of on another side. And I watch it from a distance and it really bugs me because I know your passion and commitment and your need and desire to want to make something great.

Nicole Brown (15:29):

It's okay because there's a lot of factors that go into that relationship and some of the baggage people bring to those relationships. One, to be an artist is really hard. To be an artist means you have to trust this voice, this vision inside you, and you've decided to commit your life to your instincts. And not everybody lives that life. And that's hard. Once you put your art into the world, it gets picked on and judged and poked and prodded. And so I understand how guarded a filmmaker needs to be because they'll fail if they are constantly just kind of tossing and turning in the water and being pushed and letting their vision get swayed. So I have great respect for an artist who questions the process or even questions an executive. I also know that executives are different and companies are different. And some people want to be liked and say yes and like make things easy. And some people…

Kevin Goetz (16:41):

Yes, that's right.

Nicole Brown (16:42):

But at some places their job isn't determined by the final product as much as like just getting the product. So also an artist who must listen to themselves, trust themselves, guard themselves a little bit, is also surrounded by different types of executives with different types of goals. My philosophy, it's actually why I love working in the theatrical space so much, is I believe that movies are like these other babies and I grow very passionate about raising that baby, right? And speaking truth to power or truth to the project so that it can become the best version of itself. I love movies that endure. I love stories that, that are seared in my brain and my heart and change me as I finish watching it at home or finish watching it when I leave the theater. And for that, you've gotta strive for perfection and perfection is hard.

Nicole Brown (17:45):

And perfection takes hard work and pushing and prodding the art until we truly believe it's right. And at the end of the day, as I may challenge a filmmaker to think about things or consider what the audience said or maybe this or maybe that, at the end of the day, I also love filmmakers, like you said. So I want to defer and support the artists and go back to their voice inside of them and say, trust that voice. That's why you're here. Let's go with that. So at the, even after all the journey and all and the process that you champion so well, I will say the final final is making sure we've made the film that the filmmaker wants to.

Kevin Goetz (18:26):

Yeah, it's really well stated. I do want to ask though, what you feel the studio, or let's call it the people that are financing a movie, the marketing folks, what should their contribution be? In other words, filmmaking is a vision that is executed by a lot of really talented folks. It's not like a painting, it's not like a novel. It requires artists from major departments, meaning costumes and production design and cinematography and editing. And it also requires development from the studio and then marketing support and ultimately a return on your investment. How do you grapple with that? Because I'd like to know your position on how much can the studio assert or should they assert themselves having that leverage? Do you think it's really a collaborative process?

Nicole Brown (19:24):

It's a hard question because actually I think every movie is different and filmmakers are different and the freedom that they have earned is different.

Kevin Goetz (19:36):

Oh, that's very, very interesting. And you're absolutely right. I always said Fox Searchlight, if they wanted to make something that was a little off, they earned the right to do it because they had so many hits, and some of those were based on really going for it and taking a risk and they paid off.

Nicole Brown (19:52):

Yeah, look, I think a superhero movie is a moment in a universe and you have to honor the universe, honor the audience, and honor a language. And so I think that the studio that surrounds a project like that, they probably are making three or four of those a year. They understand that they probably lived in the universe for, you know, 10 years or who whoever knows. But I think different types of films or different types of genres, demand accompanies different type of interaction. At the same time. I look at a film like Everything Everywhere All at Once, and the way a movie like that gets made is stay the fuck away. Let people's imagination soar and you've made it at a fiscally responsible price, so you can be creatively ambitious. Go for it, get out of the way. When I make movies with comedians, I say, I don't know comedy, I might share some story notes, I might share some structural notes. And I can tell you, it doesn't sound like they're laughing here. It sounds like they're laughing here. Like, this sounds like a big laugh, this small laugh, but, but at the end of the day, I'm not, I don't know jokes. So that's what you do. So, so I think every genre, every type of film demands a different type of engagement. And I think again, that's what makes a good company. That's what makes a good executive. That you understand your place in each film.

Kevin Goetz (21:21):

Does the studio deserve a seat at the table as much as a filmmaker does?

Nicole Brown (21:28):

Yes.

Kevin Goetz (21:29):

I would agree with that.

Nicole Brown (21:30):

The studio is experienced and a huge reason for the film to be made is they're the financial backer. That being said, a director comes on board and sits at the front of everything for a reason. And they're the ones, you know, we talk about an actor being vulnerable, the filmmaker becomes very vulnerable. And so they have to be able to stand behind the choices and they have to be able to stand up and say, yes, I made this film. So it's a dance.

Kevin Goetz (21:57):

It's a dance, it's a dance.

Nicole Brown (21:59):

And it takes respect. My hope for every movie is that you have an incredible filmmaker that's right for the movie and that you have the right executives that are right for the movie as well.

Kevin Goetz (22:11):

Ooh, that's that's a good point.

Nicole Brown (22:12):

I think that's what makes for the best experiences.

Kevin Goetz (22:14):

Well, also I think it's really interesting that you even say, yes, we should have a seat at the table, but you as a smart executive are probably gonna ultimately be deferential to the filmmaker because that's why you hired them. And you want to make sure their vision is realized. And that's where the art and the science really comes together and the art and the business comes together. It's, you're making art, but you're there to make money. You're there to make a profit and you have to almost be a conscience, I imagine.

Nicole Brown (22:46):

Yeah, and it's the idea of what is success. Success is absolutely for the company box office, but success for the filmmaker is again, something they can really feel proud of that reflects them that they feel they made. And I would never want to take that away from the filmmaker.

Kevin Goetz (23:08):

Whenever we do debriefs after screenings, I find you almost to be the adult in the room in a way. Like you're trying to listen to everyone and be a good den mom and say, I respect you and I respect this voice. But at the end of the day you have to say, but I want to try this and I want to do this, because let's listen to the audience.

Nicole Brown (23:29):

Absolutely. But I think you used the word mom. Like I do it hopefully with love because I truly have respect for the filmmaker and the film and the effort and the heart and the blood, sweat, and tears that went into that, that screening and the hard work. And if we try something new, sometimes that can be scary and I want to acknowledge that and hopefully we've created safe spaces. But I know sometimes things can become hard and antagonistic and it's scary to let things go.

Kevin Goetz (24:03):

It's what makes you such a good executive. You are a listener and a supporter and a nurturer and super creative. And it's why I think you're one of the best in the business. When we return, we're going to ask Nicole about some of her more recent projects and stuff that we can look forward to seeing in the future. We'll be back in a moment.

Announcer (24:27):

Get a glimpse into a secret part of Hollywood that few are aware of and that filmmakers rarely talk about in the new book Audienceology by Kevin Goetz. Each chapter is filled with never-before-revealed inside stories and interviews from famous studio chiefs, directors, producers, and movie stars, bringing the art and science of audienceology into focus. Audienceology, How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love, from Tiller Press at Simon and Schuster. Available now.

Kevin Goetz (24:59):

We are back with Nicole Brown, president of TriStar Pictures. Nicole, give me a movie that you are super proud of that you've done somewhat recently. I'd love to know where you stand on a couple of the movies that you've made recently.

Nicole Brown (25:16):

Super proud of The Woman King.

Kevin Goetz (25:19):

I was hoping you were gonna say that because can you tell us how, how The Woman King started, where did the idea come from and all of that jazz?

Nicole Brown (25:28):

The Woman King started when Viola Davis and her and her producing team, Julius, Viola, Kathy Schulman, Maria Bello came to my office and said, there's a true story of these women in Africa who used to be the elite army for the king. They were paid, they were respected, and they were fierce. And I was like, that sounds amazing, <laugh>. I never knew that story. And, and Viola was like, I want my Gladiator. I want to be the general of that army. And just one, the fact that there's this true story, I was so gobsmacked that I had never heard it and it sounded so thrilling and it sounded so exciting to watch and so theatrical, but also that it was Viola Davis saying, I want to play that role <laugh>, I'm gonna be that general. I was sold right there that that was something I wanted to wake up every day and work on and try my best to get to the finish line. And they worked so hard to deliver that story. And I remember the first time reading Dana Stevens’ script so good. And I,

Kevin Goetz (26:46):

The first draft was great, the first draft? Wow.

Nicole Brown (26:49):

And I remember I finished it and I said, uh oh, I gotta make this movie. And I knew there would be challenges.

Kevin Goetz (26:55):

Wait a minute, let's dissect that, let's dissect that. Uh, oh, I knew there were gonna be challenges. What were the challenges? 

Nicole Brown (27:02):

A hundred million dollar movie, swords and sandals with women beating up women, beating up men beaten up. I mean, it was period. Africa. I had never seen that film before. You know, it wasn't easy. It didn't fit into an easy box that is really easy for Hollywood to say yes to.

Kevin Goetz (27:22):

I don't know, you just sold me. I'd seen it 16 times. But I mean, you sold me just saying it just then.

Nicole Brown (27:29):

Well, that's what I thought. I mean, I begin my process with do I want to see it? Am I excited? Do I want to wake up every day and work on this? And my answer as just a girl going to the movies, eating popcorn was absolutely. So that's the first step in my process. And then the next step is like a real business analysis. And the business analysis was more challenging, but I believe that it was simply a challenge, not an impossibility.

Kevin Goetz (27:59):

So you did your financial analysis and then you were out to directors. Yes. Did a lot of people want to do it? How did you land on Gina?

Nicole Brown (28:08):

It was a really short list because we wanted someone that understood these females but also understood action. You know?

Kevin Goetz (28:20):

Oh, the old guard.

Nicole Brown (28:22):

Well, Gina Prince-Bythewood was someone I have always admired, always sent her scripts and never found the right one. But I'd met with her and I knew that in addition to beautiful portraits of characters, beautiful relationships, she was also really passionate, interested, eager to work in that action comic book muscular space. And the timing couldn't have been better because she was rapping The Old Guard, and I was hearing such great things.

Kevin Goetz (28:54):

<crosstalk> Oh, that, that was badass. That was badass.

Nicole Brown (28:57):

It was amazing. But I hadn't even seen it yet. But I was hearing the rumbles, like there was something kickass here. And I remember reaching out to her agent, I was like, I've got something for her. Is she available? And her agent at the time said, you know, she's gonna want to take a break after The Old Guard. It was a long movie. She's been working a lot, doing TV, doing film. And so she'll probably want to take a break, but we can send it to her and see. And I said, well, yes please, let's just get a read. Let's see how she feels. And the agent called me a day later and was like, who else are you out to? She wants this. This is, this is her next movie. She's not taking a break.

Kevin Goetz (29:37):

<laugh>. Oh my God. How often do you get one of those calls? Not often, right? 

Nicole Brown (29:41):

Yeah. And that passion translated from the agent. I just knew, I had a feeling this was gonna be it. And it was, she had an incredible meeting with Viola. She shared this a bit when we were on the press circuit, but she never cries. And she actually cried with Viola in her reaction to the depth of the script and the intentions of it. And so she just saw so much of herself and purpose in the movie and getting people who believe that a movie isn't just a job, but it's part of their life mission, their purpose, their higher calling is such an amazing, powerful combination to get. They're not in it for just the check.

Kevin Goetz (30:27):

I remember seeing that first cut Nicole, and I was like, wow, she's got just these skills as a filmmaker that were so evident and I was so moved by it. Just like you said, it was like something I'd never seen, but I'd seen it because I'd seen it in Gladiator and other Braveheart and things like that, but, but it was like a different take on it.

Nicole Brown (30:48):

That's the power of a fresh perspective.

Kevin Goetz (30:51):

Well, that's what I was gonna ask you about. I know you worked on the movie Thanksgiving released this past November. Again, I know the answer, so I'll set this up a little bit, which is, I know you agree with me wholeheartedly, that whatever you're embarking on must be elevated. Whether it's elevated drama, whether it's elevated horror, whether it's elevated comedy, it just has to be elevated in order to even be considered to be a theatrical release.

Nicole Brown (31:19):

Absolutely. In the new world order we're in, you can't just have a good script, a great cast, a good filmmaker, and smart price. You have to have this other thing, theatricality. And it's kind of hard to put your finger on it.

Kevin Goetz (31:36):

Well, you have a nose for it.

Nicole Brown (31:37):

Something that fills the screen and kind of fills an audience with awe. And also that the material itself is relevant and urgent and that there's a reason for it to exist in the world and a want for it to exist in the world. And that it's something people want to share and push.

Kevin Goetz (32:03):

I call it a love brand. It's like you have to have something that speaks about passion and advocacy and evangelism. Like you're not just gonna like it, you're gonna love it.

Nicole Brown (32:17):

It kind of goes to your, like on your questionnaires, there's the box, definite recommend. And is the best version of your movie, the thing you're thinking about is the best version, something that people would definitely recommend. And not just because it's good, but because its fabric, its DNA is so compelling, it's so something that they want right now and that's what we're looking for.

Kevin Goetz (32:45):

I felt that in Baby Driver, for example, like the passion that people felt because these numbers were like choreographed to music. It was so profoundly interesting.

Nicole Brown (32:57):

And that's the spectacle, right?

Kevin Goetz (32:59):

But you found the DNA there, you see what I mean? You found that and you elevated it. Think about it, if it weren't in Edgar Wright's hands.

Nicole Brown (33:07):

It’s the same thing as how when Viola Davis said, I want to be a Gladiator. I was like, okay, I'm in. Edgar Wright says, I'm gonna make you a car opera. This is going to be, it's a heist movie that is operatic with cars. And I, I was like, what is that? I want to see it. You know, we love cars, we love heists, but we've never seen it the way Edgar Wright had imagined it. And that was so exciting.

Kevin Goetz (33:31):

What do you think, Nicole, what do we have to look at you as an executive? What do you have to examine and really think about, talk about in part to your staff, your people that work with you and that are looking for material for you. Like, tell me what the criteria you see moving forward.

Nicole Brown (33:51):

The criteria is, on one hand it's gotta be can't be good. It has to be excellent. I won't speak about other platforms, but an audience that's leaving their home, paying for a babysitter, paying for parking, doing all the work to get there wants something that is perfection. So the execution has to be topnotch. It has to feel original. I think if they feel like it's the 10th sequel and it's gonna be the same, or if it's the same formula and it's a cookie-cutter story, they can wait. They'll put it in the queue.

Kevin Goetz (34:32):

They can wait.

Nicole Brown (34:33):

But if it's, oh my gosh, I've never seen that before. This is so new, this is so cool. That's what makes people say, well then I want to see it now. I don't want to be behind. So I think a dynamic idea that's, that can cut through things that sound the same and incredible execution are going to be the demands of theatrical these days. There's some genres that are stronger than others. Horror to me is actually an event. It's like a roller coaster. It's like you do horror, you don't just watch it. I think dramas are hard because they're quieter ideas and they're more nuanced. And I don't know that we've figured out how to compel people to see those. I think…

Kevin Goetz (35:22):

Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer.

Nicole Brown (35:24):

I do think Oppenheimer cuts through. Yeah, that is a perfect film. And he promised us through incredible marketing, an experience we had never experienced before in a conversation we had never had before. And so again, it was a new perspective.

Kevin Goetz (35:42):

People are asking me, are comedies dead? Are romantic comedies dead? And the answer is not until there's one that really works and it's gonna work because of the formula that you're talking about, the elevated sense of an event, a spectacle, an experience. I keep hearing you and you are very demonstrative in your body language. You lean in. I don't know if you knew that as you're talking about it, you're actually leaning in and that is what a theatrical experience has to bring to the table. Or you're not, as you said, leaving your house, paying that money. And that's gotta be a question you have to answer beforehand. And if it's at all in the generic, you're not gonna succeed, I think.

Nicole Brown (36:27):

Yeah.

Kevin Goetz (36:28):

Let me ask you this, Nicole. So going back to the test screening process, and you're such a fan of it and the whole process, and again, we met on movies you worked on back, I want to say certainly at Mandate. And what do you find most constructive? I know you love hearing the audience and experiencing it, but from a questionnaire, from a focus group standpoint, where do you find the most helpful information coming from?

Nicole Brown (36:56):

First, once you've done this enough, just literally sitting in the audience and kind of getting in sync with their energy. Because you learn everything from the gasps, from when people are walking out. You literally learn what works, what turns people off. Is the ending thrilling enough because they're gonna clap? Or if you're middle’s sagging, because everybody's going to the bathroom, checking their phone. Like you, they literally, it's like a dance, like a dance. And you can see the kind of the ocean of people like moving in the same way and you just know. And again, some genres tell you even more like a comedy, you see, it's like a gaf.

Kevin Goetz (37:36):

Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

Nicole Brown (37:36):

The jokes go up or a small joke and you're like, ooh, that shit didn't work. And a horror, it's the same thing. It's just the different side of a coin, you know? It's like are they're jumping, they're scared, they cover their eyes? So they literally tell you. So I like to sit up in my seat and look around, sit in the middle, because you really just, they tell you everything. And then your focus groups are great. Sometimes it's like different people can kind of lead a group. So I find I really enjoy the questionnaires and I look for what are the commonalities in them? What are the kind of unanimous things? Again, it's like I'm watching the audience for how they kind of move together. And then the questionnaires often reflect those movements and kind of articulate the body language I was watching. And, and the things that are common to everybody are the most interesting things. I don't look for the outlying comments.

Kevin Goetz (38:32):

You try to listen for commonalities.

Nicole Brown (38:35):

Yeah. And I also, I'm careful to not neuter a story. Sometimes people think something's really gross or something's really crazy and sometimes that's the audacious nature of the story. And so you want to protect certain things because the strong reactions is the good thing. But you look for the things that are just, gosh, that middle was boring, you know? And if everybody tells you the middle was boring, you gotta look at the middle. And so…

Kevin Goetz (39:01):

Oh yeah. Amen. Amen.

Nicole Brown (39:03):

I enjoy that. I think I'm making movies for the people. So I really, I enjoy listening to the people and being around the people and serving the people.

Kevin Goetz (39:14):

You know, it's super interesting. I'd like to segue to, before we break, your sense of giving back and your mentorship. And I know that you have been involved in several organizations. One of them is within your own company at Sony. You are part of the mentorship program there. Also, what's some of the others?

Nicole Brown (39:37):

I've been a mentor for a Reframe. And I'm on the board of Women in Film and board of American Cinematheque.

Kevin Goetz (39:44):

American Cinematheque really supports the theatrical experience.

Nicole Brown (39:49):

They protect and celebrate and educate the history and the future audiences that will go to the theater, and just figuring out how to celebrate film through the theater experience.

Kevin Goetz (40:04):

That's fantastic. I want to ask you, if there was a young mentee, protege, or just a young person listening to this podcast and wants to be an executive, wants to go into the business, what would you tell them?

Nicole Brown (40:21):

I would first tell them to watch everything, to read as many scripts, and to know your story history, because the deeper you're entrenched in the stories that have come before, the better, and I think higher quality, the films we can make in the future will be. But once you've done the work and you're ready, I think the other thing is to be bold and to not do things the way I've done it, the way you've done it, the way anybody tells you it needs to be done. But we must innovate in order to keep theatrical alive and in order to make stories fresh and exciting and to make people pay attention, we have to keep making it a new experience. And I think I'm excited for the next generation to show me stories and to tell, to create films and television that I've never seen before. Because all I want is to be thrilled by a story. And it's the best feeling in the world. Wouldn't you agree? You know, when you're just mesmerized by something. Oh. And so I don't think it happens by just copying what other people do.

Kevin Goetz (41:41):

That's incredibly good advice. In fact, it's advice for every studio executive who's currently working to hear. And gosh, I could stay here for another hour, but I want to be respectful of you having to go and make some more movies and get inventive <laugh>. So Nicole, I love you dearly. You are so special to me. You're so talented and creative and smart and insightful and all of those things. And I'm so thrilled that we got to talk today.

Nicole Brown (42:13):

Thank you for having me. The feeling is mutual.

Kevin Goetz (42:17):

To our listeners, I hope you enjoyed our interview. Please check out SonyPictures.com for more information about their movies discussed today. For other stories like this one, please check out my book, Audienceology, at Amazon or through my website at KevinGoetz360.com. You can also follow me on my social media @KevinGoetz360. Next time on Don't Kill the Messenger, I'll welcome veteran film producer and former president of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Producers Guild of America, Hawk Koch. Until then, I'm Kevin Goetz, and to you, our listeners, I appreciate you being part of the movie-making process. Your opinions matter.

 

 

Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: Nicole Brown
Producer: Kari Campano
Writers: Kevin Goetz, Darlene Hayman, and Kari Campano