When the Steve McQueen drama “12 Years a Slave” was named best feature at the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, Brad Pitt — who had a role in the movie and produced it via his company, Plan B Entertainment — took the stage but did not speak, allowing his producing partner Dede Gardner to step forward and bask in the accolades.
One day later the film repeated the feat at the Academy Awards, but this time Pitt was front and center. After Will Smith called the win for the Solomon Northup slavery drama, Pitt took the mike and immediately embraced his role as “12 Years’” public face.
“Thank you for this incredible honor you bestowed on our film tonight,” he addressed a cheering Dolby Theatre. “I know I speak for everyone standing behind me that it has been an absolute privilege to work on Solomon’s story.”
That contrast epitomizes the line walked by Plan B — between a company that at once trades on its tabloid-friendly star and yet embraces the kind of challenging material, such as “12 Years” and “The Tree of Life,” associated more with art than glitz.
As the 12-year-old entity marks its first best picture win — and also switches its affiliation from Paramount to New Regency and Brett Ratner’s RatPac — Plan B is hitting its stride . In doing so, it offers an ideal template for a star-driven production company while also demonstrating the tricky set of skills required to get it there. Pitt’s boutique company is a case study of how a star can use his clout to get difficult projects made in the face of resistance by studios and fearful financiers.
It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood outfit having a better year than Plan B has had. “12 Years” landed three Oscar wins and beat pundits’ expectations with $50 million in art-house box office. “World War Z,” after a chorus of pre-release naysaying, garnered more than half a billion dollars around the world and spawned a sequel. This after several years in which Pitt and the company had a taste of both commercial success (“Eat Pray Love”) and academy acclaim (Terrence Malick’s ambitious “Tree of Life”and the baseball comedy-drama “Moneyball,” on which Pitt was a producer sans Plan B.)
(In its current guise, which includes Pitt, the no-nonsense Gardner and outgoing Jeremy Kleiner — a driving force on “12 Years” — Plan B has a far different makeup than when it started. It was initially led by Pitt, his then-wife Jennifer Aniston and Brad Grey, but those ties were severed with the recent move away from Paramount and, further back, the breakup of Pitt and Aniston.)
Nearly all Hollywood A-listers had or have had producing banners — Will Smith, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise. But unlike Smith or Cruise, who in largely have been occupying themselves with big-budget action pictures, Pitt has been an anomaly, advocating for difficult pictures.
The closest analogue may be Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures, which with partner Grant Heslov has also notched triumphs, including last year’s best-picture winner “Argo.” But the company’s track record lately has been spottier, with “August: Osage County” and “The Monuments Men” among its recent releases.
So what’s Pitt doing differently? Some of it is luck. Some of it is a matter of wise gambles. And some of it is related to a more specific factor--filmmakers In part because Pitt has yet to direct himself, Plan B has had the luxury of cherry-picking directors. And Plan B has cherrypicked some rigorous ones, the kind of people — McQueen, Malick, “Moneyball’s” Bennett Miller — who have far more of an artistic track record than a commercial one, and it should be said, aren’t always easy for a producer to get financiers or studios to agree to, even if that producer has one of the most famous faces in the world.
Indeed, utilizing one’s celebrity isn’t always easy. It’s assumed stars want to bask in a movie’s spotlight — certainly Pitt could be perceived that way in “12 Years,” in which he lands as a rare righteous man — but often a star ends up in a movie because a studio won’t greenlight unless the celebrity producer steps in front of the camera.
Plan B hasn’t had a spotless record. Plenty of films have sputtered even with Pitt’s involvement. There were massive rewrites and reshoots for “World War Z” after a third act was deemed unworkable, while the plug was pulled on original “Moneyball” director Steven Soderbergh days before shooting was set to start, a move Pitt had a say in.
And the produced ones haven’t all been hits. Andrew Dominik’s heist black comedy “Killing Them Softly” was a commercial and critical bomb in 2012 for Plan B, joining ill-fated literary adaptations from the company such as “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and “A Mighty Heart.”
At the Toronto Film Festival premiere of “12 Years,” Pitt took the stage and offered a dramatic statement. “If I never get to participate in a film again,” he said, his voice trailing off as if to imply this would be enough, “this is it for me."
That won’t happen. Plan B is diving right back in with the release by Fox later this year of “True Story,” an adaptation of defrocked journalist Michael Finkel’s book starring James Franco and Jonah Hill. It’s a typically complex Plan B project based on a memoir of a not-entirely-reliable narrator, and it remains to be seen if it can preserve the book’s more subtle themes while upping the thriller quotient.
Meanwhile, another Plan B project has had a rocky road. “The Lost City of Z,” based on David Grann’s nonfiction book about a misbegotten quest in the Amazon, has gone through years of development ups and downs, though it appears to be back on with Benedict Cumberbatch recently signing on.
Maintaining the success will be tricky. Though those auteur directors will be a little easier to get approved by a studio after a best picture win, succeess in Hollywood breeds both expansion and imitators, each of which conspire to keep one company from dominating for too long. On Sunday, Plan B will debut the fruit of a larger TV initiative, the supernatural drama “Resurrection,” which premieres on ABC. It’s far from a sure thing too — an entry in a crowded genre opposite the massively popular “Walking Dead” on a network whose hourlong shows haven’t always panned out.
But Plan B, at least, appears to be willing to keep up the risk-taking. Describing her reaction shortly after the disappointment of “Killing Them Softly” Gardner said, “You want to be responsible, obviously, to the myriad people who invest in your product, and I don’t take that lightly. But if every decision was made based on a guarantee that you’d recoup investment, and that was the first thing we thought about doing, I don’t know how we’d do some of the things we do.”