Stephen Curry Takes a Shot at a New Game: Producing for Hollywood

Steph Curry Variety Cover Story
Matthias Clamer for Variety

There are fleeting moments when even the sport that made Stephen Curry famous is far from the front of his mind.

Take one late June morning in a Mediterranean mansion in Walnut Creek, Calif., he has on the market. With few sticks of furniture left inside, he thinks back to his decision weeks earlier to move his family out at perhaps the worst time on the calendar for him: smack in the middle of the NBA conference finals. “We thrive in chaos,” he recalls with a chuckle.

Now that the season is behind him and his Golden State Warriors have collected their third championship in the past four years, he’s chosen to not play any basketball for a three-week period, something he’s never tried before. It’s a new adjustment to his typical off-season regimen after the normally stout Curry missed 31 regular season and six playoff games due to recurring ankle sprains. He’s essentially shutting his body down to give his muscles a break, then slowly ramping back up with biking and yoga.

But Curry, 30, acknowledges he’s resting his psyche as much as his body. “Basketball you are consumed by for nine full months every single day,” he explains. “In the playoffs, every game feels like two regular season games in one. You need to just be able to turn it off.”

Matthias Clamer for Variety

His focus is no longer divided now that his wife, Ayesha, is weeks away from delivering their third child and first son, Canon W. Jack Curry. “I actually thought the baby was going to be here yesterday,” he says, nervously patting the mobile phone inside the pocket of his UnderArmour sweatpants. “It was kind of a false alarm. But I’m on alert right now.”

Fatherhood isn’t the only matter far from the basketball court that’s getting more of Curry’s attention today. The afternoon will take him to offices he keeps in Oakland for another new feature of his postseason: development meetings. He announced in April that he was getting into the entertainment business by way of a wide-ranging deal between the production company he had formed, Unanimous Media, and Sony Pictures Entertainment. The All-Star guard sat down with Variety to talk at length about the details of his new venture, including several films already in development — just one part of an ambitious partnership that aims to extend as far as video games, virtual reality and consumer products. But films and TV are the focus of the deal, with concentrations in three core areas: faith, family and sports.

Think of those subjects as the holy trinity that animates Brand Steph.

It’s only natural that sports is in the mix. After all, it’s an understatement to call Curry one of the best basketball players in the world today. With the joyful brio he displays on the court powering one of the most dominant teams in NBA history, he’s shimmied his way into the hearts of basketball fans around the world.

But anyone with even a casual understanding of who Curry is would not be surprised that faith and family are the other legs of his strategy. He’s been public about his devout Christianity throughout his career, and a self-professed family man. Ayesha Curry’s own profile has been on the rise (she has a separate production deal with Endemol Shine North America). And their daughters Riley, 6, and Ryan Carson, 3, might possibly be among the best-known children of pro athletes, given their memorable appearances at post-game press conferences.

But don’t think of Curry as a modern-day Mister Rogers; he’s not going to rule out an expletive or two in programming that emerges from the Unanimous-Sony union.

“I have seen movies with cuss words before, and I’ve said a couple of cuss words myself,” he notes, poking fun at how he managed to soil his own squeaky-clean image during Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on May 21. After struggling to find his shot in the series’ first two match-ups, Curry finally began to regain momentum. Coming off an artful layup, he exclaimed mid-game to the adoring Oracle Arena crowd, “This is my f—ing house!” (At the postgame press conference, a repentant Curry confessed his mother had contacted him “telling me how I need to wash my mouth out … with soap.”)

Sony and Curry may seem an odd pairing, but not so strange considering the NBA and Hollywood are spawning plenty of strange bedfellows these days, including Curry’s teammate Kevin Durant and rival LeBron James, whose move in late June to the Los Angeles Lakers was widely interpreted as an intensification of his already well-developed entertainment interests.

When Curry saw a few years ago what James and other athletes were starting to do in the entertainment space, he was intrigued. He turned to Jeron Smith, a former Nike brand manager and White House deputy director of digital strategy during the Obama administration, for guidance.

“As we talked about what he wanted to do with his brand and where he wanted to go, he landed on this North Star: Stephen wants to inspire as many people as possible,” says Smith. “There’s no more effective way to touch broad audiences and inspire as many people than with the sharing and dissemination of content globally.”

Curry and Smith formed Unanimous Media along with another producer Smith worked with while at Nike, Erick Peyton, who would take the role of lead creative. The name of the company is a double entendre, not only referring to Curry being the unanimous choice as the NBA’s MVP in 2016 — a first in league history — but also denoting Curry’s management philosophy, which calls for no greenlight to be made at the company without all involved agreeing on the decision.

One of the things on which Smith, Peyton and Curry were in agreement was that they would need a distribution partner. The star and his entertainment team began to make the rounds in early 2018 of a who’s who of media and technology companies, demonstrating their intent to break into the content business.

In Curry, SPE saw the opportunity to make good on something the Japanese-owned company has talked a lot about under its new management at both the corporate level in Japan and at the studio, but hadn’t executed on: getting all the many different components of the Sony machine to work together in support of one entity. It’s an important mandate in an age in which mere art often takes a backseat to brand management, which conglomerates like Disney and Comcast orchestrate by maximizing synergies across their vast holdings in hopes the result is more than the sum of its parts.

Matthias Clamer for Variety

“What’s so unique about his relationship to us is it crosses on so many different levels,” says Sanford Panitch, president of Columbia Pictures. “I can’t think of another person we’re continuing to do this with who touches so many different parts of the company.”

WME came in to seal the deal with Sony for Unanimous (Curry is repped separately by Octagon Sports). “It was very important for us as a company to sign Steph,” says Jeffrey Godsick, executive VP of brand partnerships and global strategy at SPE. “He chose us over many other opportunities he had because of the diversity for the company in so many different areas of entertainment, gaming, music and TV. We cover every area of pop culture and entertainment. That was important to him.”

The Unanimous team has huddled with execs from divisions all over Sony to advance ideas. On the TV side, every department — drama, comedy, unscripted, TV movies and miniseries — is working with Curry.

On the film side, execs believe a broadly appealing figure like the NBA star provides a four-quadrant fit for a studio that has found success recently with family-oriented fare including the “Jumanji,” “Peter Rabbit” and “Hotel Transylvania” franchises.

As for the faith component, Sony’s Affirm Films label has a strong track record distributing or marketing Columbia Pictures films for Christian audiences, including “Heaven Is for Real” and “Miracles From Heaven.”

It should come as no surprise that Curry’s camp is developing film concepts themed to key Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas. Other concepts are more loosely tied to faith-based themes, according to Smith: an animated biblical story now under the watchful eye of Sony Pictures Animation and “Church Hoppers,” a “Wedding Crashers”-esque comedy about a jilted groom who takes his pals along with him as he navigates the church scene in search of a new bride. Neither of these projects has been steered to Affirm, a reflection of the fact that while there will be productions from Unanimous-Sony with overtly religious themes, there will also be material that will tap a lightly spiritual vein. And projects that are intended to have sports or family themes may have no connection to faith at all. It’s also possible Unanimous could land a movie in theaters via another studio thanks to projects put in motion before Sony entered the picture.

For Curry, success on the court brings a responsibility to be a role model, but he doesn’t always have to operate in an evangelical mode. “It’s not about me hitting people over the head with a Bible and telling them they have to believe a certain thing, or think a certain way,” he explains.

In a league known for star athletes who loom large in popular culture as cool, Curry is all too aware that his wholesome image and family values might elicit a different kind of adjective that starts with a “c.” “I don’t mind being called corny,” he says. “I’m comfortable with who I am.”

Curry’s Hollywood moment comes as the spotlight on the intersection of basketball and entertainment has never seemed so intense: The arrival of James in Los Angeles has seemingly signaled the vibrancy of this nexus. Plenty of NBA insiders opined James’ move from Cleveland was partly motivated by his interest in strengthening his Hollywood connection. Of course, those close to James claim nothing could be further from the truth — that his choice to sign with the Lakers had no consideration beyond where he was best situated to win his next championship. But his new home puts him on a faster collision course with the juggernaut Warriors.

“It was very important for us as a company to sign Steph.”
Sony’s Jeffrey Godsick

There was a time when entertainment pursuits were the kind of thing best left after the finish of an athletic career; witness the continued prominence of Kobe Bryant, who since leaving the game has nabbed himself an Oscar in the animated short category for “Dear Basketball,” a project inspired by his own life. He’s also the host of “Detail,” a new series for ESPN+.

But James changed the rules of the game when he launched SpringHill Entertainment in 2013 and began stockpiling projects. Durant launched his own production company, Thirty Five Media, last year and began racking up his résumé. Now with Curry in the same game, the floodgates are about to burst open.

“I think between the LeBron deal and the Sony deal, a lot of people are now saying, ‘Hmm, should we be thinking of something like this?’” says Lori York, a TV agent at CAA, where she works with such sports clients as Chris Paul and Aaron Rodgers.

Maverick Carter knows that all too well. As James’ partner in SpringHill, he counsels the new Lakers star and juggles the entertainment endeavors of a number of other top NBA talents. The trend as he sees it is a manifestation of pent-up frustration among athletes too easily pigeonholed for not having interest beyond the sport in which they make a living. “I think the biggest misconception is that they only want to tell sports stories,” he says.

But athletes are just as likely motivated by monetary opportunity, which has grown vastly in the peak-TV era, particularly among streaming services with an appetite unlike anything this town has ever experienced for acquiring content. “You see all of the companies from up north in Silicon Valley now coming down here and getting into it, whether it be Facebook, Amazon or Google, and that’s not going to stop,” Carter says.

Estimates from various agents active in the space peg the amount an athlete pockets from a project he or she fronts at anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million per episode.

The trend of athletes becoming content producers isn’t limited to the NBA, of course; it’s becoming more of a fixture for top stars in every major pro sport. Just last month, WME signed Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch and his BeastMode Prods. But the producing activity coming out of pro basketball is outpacing that of its counterpart U.S. leagues, a reflection of the plethora of breakout stars the NBA boasts at a time when its TV ratings seem to defy the gravity dragging down other sports.

Perhaps only James rivals the star power of Curry in the NBA. The $34.9 million Curry pocketed from the Warriors for the 2017-18 season makes him the best-paid player in the league. Factoring in endorsement deals including UnderArmour, Brita and JPMorgan Chase more than doubles that sum, making Curry the eighth-highest-paid athlete in all of sports. Notably, James made slightly less than Curry in salary and winnings but added $10 million more in endorsements, leaving him the sixth-highest-paid athlete and first among NBA talent.

A cynic might surmise Curry isn’t really involved in Unanimous, just lending his name and massive social-media following to projects Sony steers his way. But he insists he’ll be heavily involved, particularly during the off-season in the early going, to make sure the effort gets off on the right foot.

To launch Unanimous Media, Curry turned to Jeron Smith (left) and Erick Peyton
Matthias Clamer for Variety

Some of the content to come from Curry will feature him in front of the camera; he’s game for a “Church Hoppers” cameo. But at this point the specific form of that face time is undefined and not a priority of Unanimous over the next few years. The player himself is a humble assessor of his own on-air skill. “I have a corniness to me, a decent sense of humor and charm when I’m in front of the camera,” he notes. “I just can’t do voices — that’s it. I’ve got to stay away from that.”

Curry is mindful of the balance he must continually strike between his life on and off the court. He’s a man of faith and family, first and foremost. But don’t question his priorities; the media business may not command his full attention until the end of his career — something that’s highly unlikely to come anytime soon. “Obviously I have a day job,” he says. “I have to make sure I’m the best basketball player I can be for the next however long I’m playing.”

Watch a behind-the-scenes video from Variety‘s cover shoot with Curry below.