As a producer, Ryan Donnell Smith sees aspects of filmmaking that the casual viewer doesn’t necessarily see. Here, he talks to Awards Daily about the different stages in which he is involved in a project. Smith talks about what excites him when getting involved in a film both in the message it can bring to the audience in addition to the more mundane aspects of looking into the tax and financing possibilities to help make that film a reality. It’s this path that led to a career in film production and ultimately led him to Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Awards Daily: Your job involves a lot of tax work, which isn’t the first thing people think of when they think of filmmaking. What does that entail? And how did you get involved in that line of work?
Ryan Donnell Smith: I work with Streamline Global Group, and we do federal tax equity investments through IRS code 1801 168k. It’s a very unique model where we work with debt and equity to finance feature films. I met my business partner Emily Salveson about five years ago as Emily was starting Streamline and building this up and, the next thing you know, I really loved how healthy the money was for features. Oftentimes equity can be quite predatory to a film and I was a creative that was out trying to get a project financed and thought this is an amazing benefit for the investor. It’s very healthy in terms of the finance structure for the filmmaker. So I was very excited to jump in and partner with Emily and here we are. We have done three films to date, all in different parts of production, some in development, some in pre-production, some in production (in fact I’m actually on set in Georgia on a film called One Way), and some in post-production, so that is how it started.
AD: I read you started your career producing When the Night Comes with the United Nations Foundation. How did you get involved in that?
RDS: Early in my career, right after college I was working in a creative space but I thought I was going to be a doctor. My undergraduate degree is in sports medicine, so my trajectory was becoming a physician–taking the MCAT and going to medical school. But in high school and college I was working with a casting director kind of as my side job and passion. By the time I graduated college– it was my sixth year in college–I thought, it’s going to be a pain to go all the way through medical school, and I actually feel more passionate about the film and media industry. I love what I do on the side. So I decided to make that my premier passion and then I found and fell in love with this organization called Invisible Children. They were doing media, the first in a non-profit space around Joseph Kony, who was grooming young children for his rebel army in Africa. I was so blown away that in the times we live in that that was going on in our world and the world wasn’t talking about it. Invisible Children was creating media in bringing awareness and they did that quite unbelievably. They had the most viral video in the history of the internet at the time.
So my involvement with Invisible Children led me to partner up with one of the founders, Bobby Bailey, on an initiative with the United Nations Foundation. That’s when we created When the Night Comes in partnership with the UNF. We went to the United Nations Foundation and said we want to do something else with what we’ve learned about video and at Invisible Children to activate young minds and young individuals across the world. So we asked what are the causes that we should be aware of? There were five millennial development goals that the UN was working towards, things like education, food, and water.
Then Elizabeth Gore of the UNF said to me ‘Ryan, one of the really really impactful things that dwarfs all the other development goals is malaria.’ And she said, ‘If someone is diagnosed with malaria It blocks their funding, it blocks their ability for education, it blocks everything else. And, one in five children in Africa are dying of malaria.’ That was another statistic that blew my mind. So I was very honored to create that documentary and meet with some unbelievable people from around the world, leading up to the World Cup in South Africa. I really treasure that time of my career because I always want to create media that helps activate or change or leads humans into a call of action in order to make the world a better place.
AD: How did you get involved in The Trial of the Chicago 7?
RDS: So fast forward a decade. [Laughes] I had done everything from a production company that did work for hire, everything from $2,000 digital web videos to million-dollar commercial campaigns. Through this process I was line producing, doing other projects and other films, and part of that is you meet some amazing people. I was brought to the project by Tyler Thompson at Cross Creek Pictures and he was, like, ‘Hey this is an amazing film that we want to bring to life. The Amblin team has been working on it for a long time and they have a shortfall.’ So I was able to come in as an executive producer and help package and bring some financing to the project, which helped greenlight the film. We had no idea at the time, but we were really, really excited, because again, we were going back to the fact that the film is very impactful, very socially relevant, and really causes people to pause and think. So it fell right into the types of projects I’ll fight to bring to life.
AD: So, what was your experience like working on the film where you were mainly behind the scenes, or did you do much interaction with Aaron Sorkin and the cast?
RDS: You know it was a great, great honor meeting Sorkin and working on the film. I was not in the day-to-day for physical production, though there are films that I actually do the physical production on. This was one where you had absolute expert top tier filmmakers, and so my involvement was definitely way more on the front end of the packaging side to help curate the vision, craft the vision, and bring it to life. To get the train on the track, and then once the train was on the tracks, it kind of took off from there.
AD: Was this your first time working with Netflix?
RDS: Netflix actually came in after the film was made. No one was aware of the trajectory of the world at the time. Production happened at the end of 2019 in Chicago and New Jersey and so at that point there was no COVID. At the time it was positioned for a very wide theatrical release and then the world changed. And in real time it was a film that needed to reach the audience because of how relevant and impactful everyone hoped the story would be in the hearts and minds of those in the United States. Thankfully and gratefully, Netflix stepped up in a major way that allowed the film to find its audience at the perfect time. An unbelievable experience, changing the landscape of film as we know it in an amazing way. This was the perfect example of an amazing collaboration for distribution that was outside of the last decade of filmmaking and theatrical distribution as we know it.
AD: A lot of people I’ve been talking to have been very happy with Netflix in the way they’ve been changing things and getting more independent voices out there.
RDS: Oh, absolutely. I would say all of the streaming platforms, right? It’s a really fun time in the industry because a lot of content is being greenlit by a lot of different people and companies. So, if you have a voice, if you have a passion, if you have a project, it’s a wonderful time to really be able to go and get that out. And you don’t have to be a thirty to fifty million-dollar studio film. Films of all ranges are finding their place for distribution, especially with streaming platforms, in finding unbelievable audiences in a really exciting way.
AD: What do you look for when you are looking for a new project to get involved with?
RDS: It depends. I have a physical production studio in south Georgia. I think each tier of my business has a little bit of a different evaluation process. For me personally, I want my name connected to projects that push society forward and cause people to ask questions. I don’t care what the question is, but I want a piece of media that you’re taking in to take you to some sort of thought, conclusion, process, or just a question, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a perfect example of that. Another one of my films early on was Some Freaks and I think Some Freaks does that in an amazing way as well. That’s personally how I evaluate the projects that I want to be connected to, my legacy long-term.
Then on the financing side, there is a different set of structures for projects that we look for. We look for great films of all sizes and budget ranges of talented people in the industry who deserve a shot at getting their films made. But on that side we do look for more packages, so we’re not a company that typically finds a script on a streamline side. We don’t find a script and develop it all the way through. We try to partner with producers, directors, and creatives that have a bit of a package. We look for directors, a script, and, ideally, some talent. I have a great partnership with Highland Film Group and do a lot of work with them. So we look for a more package project on the financing side.
AD: I read that you have an upcoming film The Tiger Rising. Can you tell us about that project?
RDS: So The Tiger Rising we filmed right before COVID hit, at the exact same time The Trial of the Chicago 7 was being shot. We filmed that down in Georgia. It’s a wonderful story based on a book by Kate DiCamillo, one of the greatest children’s authors of all time. She wrote The Tale of Despereaux and just a plethora of unbelievable books that children all over the world read. I think something of 20-30 million copies of her books have gone around the world. But The Tiger Rising is a book that is required reading in many schools around the United States, at the 4th to 5th grade reading level. So we acquired the property, we developed it, we were really lucky to cast Queen Latifah, who also came on as an executive producer and helped us wrap it out and get it made. Dennis Quaid came on as well as Katharine McPhee. Christian Convery was our young lead boy, who is an up-and-coming little rock star actor. He was just a gem to work with and so professional that he put everyone else on set to shame. And Madalen Mills, who was one of the leads in Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. So we filmed that project in 2019 and, to give you just a little teaser about this, a boy and a girl go on a little bit of an adventure and end up finding a real tiger in the woods behind the hotel where the boy lives, and they go on this quest to free the tiger. That is the journey of the movie. It addresses a lot of real truths, and so we’re very, very excited, because we’re holding on to this, wanting to bring this to audiences when things get better, and trying to being upbeat here as COVID-19 regulations are opening things up and people are getting the vaccine, as far as when we will release. But I imagine it will be out later this year.
AD: Not to jinx anything but The Trial of the Chicago 7 has become a huge contender in award bodies, including very likely the Oscars. Is this something you were thinking about, or are you trying to stay calm and avoid that kind of talk right now?
RDS: Of course you have to think about it. When you get pinged on the press on IMDb or see a notification, it’s a constant reminder. I would say I’m just lucky to have a seat at the table with such amazing filmmakers, talent, actors, and actresses. This film is just an honor to be part of any accolades or awards that it may receive, all deserving of such if they should win. Look, fingers crossed and sending all the good vibes that I can, but I think the most impactful part of The Trial of the Chicago 7 was getting out to the audience at such a relevant time in the history of our country and doing that is much greater than any award could ever be for the film.
AD: Is there anything you want to leave our readers with?
RDS: I’ll share with you I’m actually in production right now down here in Thomasville Georgia on a film that we picked up at the very end of the year and decided to push go and get it into production called One Way, with a great director, Andrew Baird. And we have Machine Gun Kelly (Colson Baker) as our leading man and Travis Fimmel, Kevin Bacon, Storm Reid, and Drea de Matteo–a wonderful cast. We are excited to be working and employing crew at this time and we have contained the shoot down to fifteen days. We are on day 8 now. So we are cranking this little film out and we are really, really excited about it as well.
AD: Wow that is very impressive that time frame. Good luck to you!
RDS: Thank you. It is quite impressive, our days have been very intense. It’s like a fire hydrant to the face but we’re getting through it and making it happen.