How Brad Pitt Leveraged His Name and Shingle for Oscar Nominee ‘Moonlight’

moonlight Movie
Courtesy of A24

Of the nine films nominated for best picture, fully one-third would not exist were it not for an A-list movie star leveraging personal clout to get the movie made in a system that simply doesn’t take those kinds of risks these days.

“Fences” is by far the most conventional example: Paramount had acquired the rights to August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play in 1987 for Eddie Murphy to star, though it took three decades — and Denzel Washington’s involvement — to get it made.

Matt Damon willed “Manchester by the Sea” into existence. The project originated when Damon commissioned a script from playwright Kenneth Lonergan (coming off a trying experience on “Margaret,” in which Damon played a small role). Though he had originally entertained the idea of starring in “Manchester” himself, Damon ultimately decided to give the lead role to longtime amigo Ben Affleck’s kid brother, Casey.

But of the three projects, the most remarkable is Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” which found its patron saint in Brad Pitt. Jenkins had impressed the Hollywood community with his 2008 ultra-low-budget, black-and-white debut feature, “Medicine for Melancholy,” landing an agent at CAA and developing a handful of other projects that never went forward.

Then, at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival, Jenkins moderated a Q&A with director Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave,” where he met Pitt, one of that film’s producers via his Plan B shingle. Pitt was so impressed with Jenkins that he agreed to back an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”

Needless to say, Hollywood doesn’t have much of a track record when it comes to greenlighting sensitive coming-of-age stories (unless they hail from hit YA novels), and those centered on African-American characters are rarer still. But Jenkins already had a champion in producer Adele Romanski. With the encouragement of Pitt and his Plan B partners, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, it became possible that a movie as special as “Moonlight” might come through “the system,” shepherded by experienced hands who could ensure that it found a distributor (in A24) and wouldn’t get lost upon release.

There are those who argue that pundits shouldn’t make such a big deal about Chiron, the main character in “Moonlight,” being black. Or gay. And yet, it does matter, because Chiron reps such a rare, yet vital, voice on the American cinematic scene.

“Moonlight” isn’t a rap star biopic (à la “Straight Outta Compton” or “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”) or a Tyler Perry movie (one of the precious few black voices permitted to adapt non-Pulitzer-winning plays in Hollywood). And while it’s hardly the only film to shine a spotlight on contemporary black lives, nearly all the others are made on the margins, as independent productions without the resources or experience to break out of the African-American or LGBT festival circuit.

Jenkins’ film is masterful on its own terms and if one thing’s certain, there are more, equally essential stories out there waiting to be told. But until the studios see the value in stories like “Moonlight,” we can only hope the stars continue to align behind them.

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  1. Ronald Brownlee says:

    Such a kinship to my comming of age.I cried. Never has a film touched the darkest and most celebrated parts of my life

  2. Susan says:

    It’s a beautiful movie and another well-deserved win for Brad Pitt whose Plan B has become quite a force for exceptionally great films that otherwise would not be made. Bonus, Angelina Jolie has spent the last 18 hours screeching into her 1500-count sheets. If the nasty fit she threw after 12 years a Slave won best picture is any indication, these additional accolades for America’s highly respected and well-loved Brad Pitt will send her all the way around the bend. Stock up on those sheets, Angie baby.

  3. Even if no one watches it, the fact that this is a film about homosexuals and blacks should be reason enough for it to sweep the Oscars.

  4. Jockie says:

    Both “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight” are examples of mediocre movies that get publicity, rave reviews and nominations solely due to the fact that they have backing and financing from A-List buddies. Both films are disjointed, convoluted, poorly edited and ultimately boring. Giving esteem to such mediocrity is a disservice to the exceptionly good movies that get shoved aside.

  5. jedi77 says:

    “until the studios see the value in stories like “Moonlight,” we can only hope the stars continue to align behind them” – why do these kinds of articles never mention the fact that it IS NOT THE STUDIOS that need to see the value. IT’S THE CINEMAGOERS. How hard can it possibly be to fathom, that if these kinds of films made money, studios would start making a bunch of them.

    Problem is, they don’t. And looking at Moonlight’s BO revenue, it’s pretty clear that over half it’s revenue is because of Moonlights numerous award wins and nominations. So basically, because all films can’t be expected to be winners, the studios are asked to to make films that will make less than $10 million domestic, and next to nothing abroad.

    • jim fouratt says:

      Even if you did not like the content, I can not fathom your critique of the crafting of each film, In “Manchester”, the most memorable scene I have seen in a film last year takes place and is the key to understanding what emotionally is happening with all the characters in the film. The scene is between Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck and it works because of both the brilliance of the script and the intense emotional interplay between the two characters. This is crafting on the highest level. The same argument can be made for the very low budget, short shooting schedule of Barry Jenkin’s “Moonlight”. Again both the cinematography and the acting hold together the film. I can not get the mother screaming out of my head. The honest balancing of the writing and the risk taking acting are critical factors in this film. This is called craft in my house

    • gkn says:

      Actually, it’s made $21 million domestic so far, and is just coming out abroad. The cost matters too, on whether they’ll lose money on it.

  6. I”ve been watching Brad Pitt’s Plan B company for a while and they always seem to put out quality films. Keep them coming.

  7. doperganger says:

    Brad’s Production Company is really hitting it on all cylinders. Dede/Jeremy are amazing Producers. They have a vision and don’t waver. Brad Pitt has a flair for these kinds of movies. And I love that he thinks outside the Box. Putting a spotlight on people behind the camera that don’t get their due.

    Good job Brad.. Good job

  8. Thank you Brad Pitt for making sure a wider audience got to see and feel this wonderful film. Keep ’em coming.

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