Coronavirus Couldn’t Stop This Black Female Director’s First Summer Blockbuster
(Bloomberg) -- Gina Prince-Bythewood initially didn’t want her new movie to be released by Netflix Inc. The 51-year-old director pushed Skydance Productions, the producer of “The Old Guard,” to sell the film to a traditional studio that would release it in theaters across the planet. This was her first movie based on a graphic novel, and she wanted people to see it on the big screen. While Netflix was offering substantially more money, it couldn’t get her movie into major theater chains.
But Prince-Bythewood started to waver as soon as she considered what Netflix had to offer. Throughout her career, she had been told that people outside the U.S. didn’t want to see movies with Black stars. Three of her four previous films didn’t even get a proper international release. “We’re told flat-out over and over again there’s not a market,” she said during a recent phone interview from her home in Los Angeles.
Based on a graphic novel about a band of immortal mercenaries, “The Old Guard” stars two women, a rarity for an action movie, one of whom is Black, which is even rarer. Charlize Theron plays the group’s ringleader and mentors a new member played by Kiki Layne, who starred in Barry Jenkins’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Netflix had been searching for an action movie with a female lead character, and offered to release the film simultaneously in more than 190 territories. It also promised a limited run in a small number of movie theaters. “For a filmmaker like me whose work is focused on Black characters, that excited me,” Prince-Bythewood said.
“The Old Guard,” will make its debut on Netflix on Friday, July 10. Netflix has big hopes for the project, which is the latest in a series of star-driven action movies for the world’s most popular subscription streaming service. The company is on the hunt for movies that could become franchises with global appeal. The action in “The Old Guard” skips from Morocco to Afghanistan to France to London. The ending leaves the door open for a potential sequel.
“We always thought of it as a summer movie,” said Scott Stuber, the head of Netflix’s film division. “If the audience likes it, we can extend it and do more.”
Two of Netflix big summer movies, Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” and “The Old Guard,” come from Black filmmakers and have Black actors at the center. The company has spent millions of dollars marketing Black talent in its projects through the Strong Black Lead initiative, though the diversity at its executive level is still far below where its own executives think it should be. “We want to tell diverse stories and be at the forefront of representation,” Stuber said. “We have made some nice strides internally, but we still have work to do.”
“The Old Guard” isn’t a typical comic-book movie. Its characters treat immortality as a curse, not a blessing, and two of the male mercenaries are lovers who kiss and passionately express their love. The movie avoids the cliche of making every female action hero primarily motivated by revenge. Theron’s character, Andy, is driven by a desire to right social wrongs, rather than by personal animus. “Guys never have to have anything like that hanging on their shoulders,” said Theron.
Before the onset of the coronavirus crisis, this was supposed to be the summer of the female filmmaker and action star. Several of the biggest films originally scheduled for 2020 were directed by women and featured female protagonists, including “Mulan,” “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Black Widow,” a Marvel film starring Scarlett Johansson. Now, each of the movies’ premieres has been pushed back due to the pandemic.
“The Old Guard” almost suffered a similar fate. Netflix originally scheduled the movie for July 10. Then the pandemic hit, forcing the movie’s crew to shelter at home. At the time, Prince-Bythewood had finished the physical production. But she had yet to complete the sound mixing, the coloring or the score, and she still needed the cast to fix their dialogue for some scenes.
Netflix sent supplies to each actor for a makeshift home recording booth. Once their rigs were up and running, Prince-Bythewood directed their lines over Zoom. Her biggest concern was the score, which required a composer to work with multiple performers in a studio. Luckily, one of the composers had left London, where the scoring was supposed to take place, to meet his girlfriend in Iceland—which, as it turned out, was one of the only places in the world that has remained open throughout much of the pandemic.
“It was a lot of figuring out on the fly,” Prince-Bythewood said. “We had our release date set and no one wanted to move off that.”
Prince-Bythewood has now directed five movies in the past 20 years, a deliberate cadence that reflects a commitment to telling only stories that resonate with her on a personal level. Her first movie, “Love and Basketball,” was based loosely on her own experience growing up in Los Angeles as a sports-obsessed teenager. A modest hit at the time, the romantic drama is now considered a classic.
All of her movies feature Black women in prominent roles, which at times has become a source of friction with her partners. She couldn’t convince the distributor of her second movie, “Beyond the Lights,” to release the movie in the U.K. even though its star, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is from Oxford. The studio only changed course after a prominent critic wrote a story criticizing the decision.
Although the success of “Black Panther” a couple of years ago was a huge moment for the Black community in Hollywood, it can still be a tough road for any movie that doesn’t have Marvel’s backing. Prince-Bythewood is hopeful that a summer of movies featuring strong Black protagonists, including “Da 5 Bloods,” Disney+’s filmed version of the Broadway play “Hamilton” and “The Old Guard,” will dispel the myth that such programming doesn’t travel. “It would be a great thing,” she said. “Maybe streaming will push us to that.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.