She got misty when she arrived to the set in February 2015, and saw Casey Affleck slip into the character of a lonely janitor in the Kenneth Lonergan drama. “Casey was amazing,” recalls Steward, who financed the $8 million project through her new company K Period Media. She welled up when she heard the indie drama had been accepted into Sundance. She bawled at the premiere (“at the opening credits”) with a packed crowd of 1,300 at the Eccles Theater. “I think I even cried on the red carpet, seeing Kenny do interviews,” she says. “I cried throughout the whole thing.”
And she really needed a box of Kleenex when she learned at the festival that Amazon Studios had dished out a staggering $10 million for the film, with plans to release it this fall. Steward, 34, daughter of billionaire businessman David L. Steward (who founded the systems integration firm World Wide Technology), is entering the film world at a time when the market is in flux. K Period Media, which she runs with partner Lauren Beck out of Los Angeles (with frequent trips to New York), aims to bankroll daring material that the studios, obsessed with franchises and comic-book sequels, wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. But while many financiers come to Hollywood with dreams of making ripples in the business — only to see their movies go straight to VOD — Steward hit the jackpot with her inaugural feature.
“It’s overwhelming, and I’m grateful,” says Steward, who compares her recent journey to being crowned a Disney princess. “And I haven’t turned to a pumpkin,” she adds with a smile. And while the producer has never been to the Oscars, 2016 could be a banner year. Amazon is planning a formidable awards push for “Manchester” after it earned rapturous reviews at Sundance similar to those that followed “Boyhood’s” Park City debut two years ago. If the movie lands a best picture nod (which some say seems likely), Steward would be the second black woman — after Oprah Winfrey — to receive an Academy Award nomination as a producer. Now, agencies are sending her their top-tier scripts, and Hollywood insiders are already comparing her to Annapurna Pictures founder Megan Ellison. “I have a lot of work to do to catch up with her,” Steward says, admiringly.
Indeed, it’s the best of times and the worst of times to be in the indie film business. On one hand, industry heavyweights like the historically movie-centric Weinstein Co. are looking more at properties aimed at television, and Focus Features is undergoing its second makeover in two years. But Steward joins such deep-pocketed producers as Ellison (who came to last month’s SXSW with Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” and Seth Rogen’s raunchy R-rated comedy “Sausage Party”) and Broad Green’s Gabriel and Daniel Hammond.
While Steward’s company is still in its formative stages — she doesn’t even have office space yet — she envisions producing another movie this year, and continuing to build from there with her small staff of four employees, including Beck as head of production and Josh Godfrey, who’s assisted big-budget directors and producers, as head of development. Although “Manchester” was the toast of Sundance, financing a dark movie headlined by indie favorites Affleck and Michelle Williams with a running time of more than two hours was clearly risky.
Steward grew up in St. Louis, where she quickly developed an appreciation of movies through her film-buff mother, Thelma, who introduced her to directors like Bergman, Kubrick and Polan-ski. At 19, she owned her first business — an events and bridal planning service.
After college, she moved to New York and worked at Women’s Wear Daily as a fashion assistant, and in 2010, she started the Kess Agency for makeup artists and photographers. It was there she met Beck, and they eventually decided to try their luck in the movie business. “We were both looking for the right partnership,” says Beck, 39, a former advertising executive who had produced short films on the side. “It clicked.”
Steward and Beck took meetings with executives and agents, and scooped up a Black List script last year called “Conversion,” about a mother who sends her gay son to conversion therapy. But as they were trying to get that project off the ground (it’s still part of their upcoming slate), “Manchester by the Sea” arrived at their door.
The project had a long road to the big screen. Matt Damon, who brought the idea to Lonergan several years ago, had planned on starring, with financing secured from Gigi Pritzker’s OddLot. But Damon had to drop out due to scheduling, and he suggested Affleck as his replacement. When Steward received Lonergan’s script, she locked herself in the bathroom of her temporary apartment, sat on the floor and devoured the entire story. “Once I read it, it was mine,” she says.
The 31-day shoot on the Massachusetts coast — in unusually frigid temperatures that hit 20 degrees below zero — doubled as an introductory film class for the K Period team, which produced “Manchester” along with Damon, Chris Moore and Kevin Walsh. Beck, who had worked in post-production for advertising campaigns, drew on her technical expertise, while Steward handled financing and learned about foreign pre-sales. She also pitched in on daily production tasks like setting up tents and heat lamps as the crew huddled for warmth. Says Beck: “Every day, you knew the performances were there. It was shot so beautifully.”
When Steward first met Lonergan, she told him how much she loved the story and wanted to be part of his support team. “Everybody says that; not everybody does it,” Lonergan notes. “There wasn’t a single moment where I felt [adversely] pushed creatively.” Adds Affleck: “They were like perfect parents. They were never too permissive, never too authoritarian.”
If Steward continues to succeed, she’ll be the rare Hollywood movie producer who is a young woman of color. Against the backdrop of a nationwide conversation about #OscarsSoWhite, she has given serious thought to her responsibility to tell diverse stories. “The industry is starving for lead roles for black characters,” she says, noting how big a fan she is of Kerry Washington’s performance on ABC’s “Scandal.” “I think that as a financier, I hope to bring more opportunities for diversity to the market — not only on the screen, but also behind the screen.” She expresses a desire to work with directors such as Dee Rees and Spike Lee.
She also wants to be a producer who launches talent — discovering up-and-coming auteurs. “I believe in creating opportunities for people around me,” Steward says.
But she realizes that this is a special time in her career. She’s still trying to get K Period on the map, with excitement bubbling around “Manchester.” She hopes she feels this idealistic about the movie business after a string of hits.
“If not,” she says, “come back and smack me.”