The Interscope record label’s interest in film/music crossover isn’t exactly a secret: With hit companion albums for “A Star Is Born,” “Black Panther” and “La La Land,” they’ve seemed to own the soundtrack space at times in recent years. And the company hasn’t completely made a secret of its desire to move into film production. But with three films premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend, they’re ready to go on record as officially being in the movie business with the launch of Interscope Films.
Or re-launch, in a manner of thinking. If “Interscope Films” rings a bell of any kind, it may be because you know your history. Before there was a music company by that name, Ted Fields started Interscope Communications (aka Interscope Pictures) in 1982, before it morphed into the music behemoth we know today in 1990 and the filmmaking component eventually dropped away. Now, they’re dotting that giant “I” and declaring to the industry that they’re back in the movie-making business.
“Obviously, we’ve got that history when Ted Field was part of the company,” says Anthony Seyler, the Interscope label’s longtime EVP of film and TV marketing and licensing. “And then under Jimmy Iovine), we had a history of being involved with films like ‘8 Mile’ with (Brian) Grazer, and ‘Get Rich or Die Trying’ with 50 (Cent), which were pretty notable pieces. But this to me is relaunching something that had been somewhat dormant for a while. A few years ago, (John) Janick (Interscope’s chairman/CEO), Steve Berman (the vice chairman) and I were talking about this space and decided to focus on bringing Interscope Films back to life.”
While Interscope has taken an interest in films like “A Star Is Born,” the first release to come out under the new banner was “Teen Spirit,” which represented something of a soft launch for the company two weeks ago, as they had a small investment in and executive-producer status on the music-themed, Elle Fanning-led drama. But the Tribeca slate really reveals — or at least offers a true first hint of — the scope, so to speak, of their ambition.
Only one of the three movies being unveiled in the coming days obviously counts as “a music movie,” per se. That’s “Sublime,” a documentary about the titular band’s life before and after the death of frontman Bradley Nowell in 1996. The others have crucial music tie-ins but require a bit more explaining. “A Day in the Life of America” is a doc that had 92 film crews going out to all 50 states on one recent 4th of July — with Jared Leto as director, and his band Thirty Seconds to Mars doing the soundtrack. “The Wrong Man” is a very mature animated musical about capital punishment, and a variation on a live-action, one-man off-Broadway show to come later this year — and it’s the brainchild of another successful musician, hit songwriter Ross Golan (whose credits include tunes for Ariana Grande and Maroon 5). All three will be looking for distribution partners coming out of Tribeca.
There are more films in the pipeline that Interscope Films isn’t ready to announce yet, including a documentary charting the rise of one of the biggest names in pop culture at the moment. But Interscope’s principals insist they aren’t looking at just creating ancillary product for the label’s artist roster but out to find projects that will stand on their own.
“There should be a significant soundtrack component” to all their future projects, says Seyler, Interscope’s soundtracks guru for the last two decades, “but I’m not interested in just doing music biopics. It doesn’t have to be based on a musician, or set in the world of 1940s jazz or whatever. Music could just be a powerful backdrop for a story to be told. While we do want to tell stories like ‘A Star is Born,’ we’re equally as interested in narratives like a ‘Garden State,’ where music is incredibly impactful but not thecentral character of the film.”
For Janick, part of the genesis of starting a film division was not wanting to completely hand off the movie careers of the label’s star artists to film studios that have put a lot less care and attention into what works for them.
“I’m not the music executive that just thinks film is sexy, that wants to get into film because it’s a great thing to do, because I don’t need to add more work to my schedule or our teams’,” says the chairman. “But with all the work that we do every day, the last thing I want to do is just completely pass something off to another company and hope they get it right. We’d like to help guide and be partners with our artists and other creatives along the way and strengthen their brand overall.”
Looking back at some of their smash soundtracks, it’s clear Interscope wouldn’t have minded being more involved on the filmmaking side, had the structure been in place. “A lot of those projects had our artists sitting at the center of it, whether it was ‘Black Panther’ with Kendrick (Lamar) or ‘Star Is Born’ with Gaga or ‘The Great Gatsby’ with Lana (Del Rey)… Music and film together, when it’s integrated right and you have the right marketing behind it, I feel like it’s a one plus one equals three.”
This was Interscope’s own call and not something that Universal Music Group tried to push, even though Polygram Films has suddenly become a going concern with UMG. “For us it wasn’t a mandate from the top,” Janick says. “We’re tied at the hip with them, but we’ve been talking about this since we got the script for ‘Teen Spirit’ probably two and a half years ago. That might’ve been around the time that they start talking about what we were thinking about, too. Universal (Music) has done a lot of great things in the film space, but just like all the labels in Universal’s portfolio, Interscope has its own A&R and own point of view. So we’re working closely with Polygram, but we want to build out kind of with our own taste and tone.”
Janick explains how “La La Land” led to “Teen Spirit,” which led to the explosion of activity: “I ended up meeting Damien Chazelle because he has the same agent as Selena Gomez, and she tipped me off to watch ‘Whiplash.’ I was blown away, and she told me he was doing a musical, so she set me up with Damian and he met the company and fortunately picked us to do ‘La La Land.’ Then we got introduced to Fred Berger and the other producers, and Fred had such a good experience with us that he brought the ‘Teen Spirit’ script to us, which Max (Minghella) had written and was going to direct. Fred put all this together took us along for the ride. We ended up funding some of it and being executive producers, so that was kind of getting back in this new world for us.”
They will be — are — taking a much more active role, creatively and financially, in some of the other projects. Says Seyler, “I think the key to being successful for us, especially because we’re such a young company, is being nimble. And the key also is finding the right partners. There are some films that we are financing 100% and we are producing from the ground up. There are other projects like ‘Teen Spirit’ that we are in very, very small part financing. And there are projects where we’re not financing at all; we’re just producing. So our philosophy is that each project’s needs are different.”
Clearly, almost every musician they’ve partnered with on a project — including those announce and those being held close to the vest for now — is an Interscope artist, past or present, with catalog or new product to exploit. But Seyler is insistent that synergy is way down the totem pole of what to take into consideration for a green-light.
“We’re not making films as marketing stems,” he says. “We are very focused on making real films that, while they may complement an album or may be a part of an artist’s development, can stand on their own. I think historically in the past record labels have dove into creating content merely to support albums — and that will happen naturally from time to time. But our focus is purely about making a great film, and we would never rush a project solely to line it up as a marketing piece for an album.”
Seyler points again to “A Day in the Life of America,” which no one will mistake for B-roll for a Thirty Second to Mars album, since Leto and the band don’t even appear in the film. “Jared basically sent out 92 film crews across the 50 states to capture a day in the life of America on the Fourth of July. The entire film was shot in a single 24-hour period, and it’s just a wonderful, provocative, inspiring, sometimes scary, beautiful film. After I watched it for the first time, I was absolutely blown away. When you get through a movie and you think to yourself, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to check and make sure that my voting registration is current,’ that’s a powerful emotion to get when you come out of it.
“What John and Berman and I wanted to come together to do is to be a company that can be a part of moving culture and driving emotions with film, because you can impact culture in a way with film that that you might not be able to with music alone.”
Interscope Films is distinct enough from the music side that the three principals will all have separate titles, although Janick’s and Berman’s — chairman and vice chairman — will echo their positions at Interscope Records. Seyler, who is EVP of soundtracks at the label, will carry the simple title of EVP at Interscope Films.
The triple Tribeca launch had more to do with coincidence than any attempt at creating festival shock and awe with multiple titles. “As you probably know with films and festivals, a lot of it comes down to timing,” Seyler says, “but we feel like we got really lucky. Tribeca is one of the most prestigious festivals there is, and such a filmmaker-driven festival, which is great for us having a two-time Oscar winner like Bill Guttentag (directing the Sublime documentary).”