A Filmmaker’s Belief in Himself Pays Off


Ms. Adams is considered by Oscar prognosticators to be a contender for best actress at next year’s Academy Awards.

And “Arrival” in many ways is just the icing on Mr. Levy’s cake. Though 21 Laps mostly focuses on film, its television business — until now best known for the Tim Allen comedy “Last Man Standing” on ABC — delivered one of the biggest small-screen hits of the year: “Stranger Things.” An eerie mystery series dripping with 1980s-era nostalgia, “Stranger Things,” created by the brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, arrived on Netflix over the summer and was an instant cultural phenomenon, both in North America and around the world.

Netflix does not disclose viewership data, but the series was quickly renewed for a second season. When the Golden Globe nominations are announced on Dec. 12, “Stranger Things,” with a cast anchored by Winona Ryder, could make a big showing in the television categories, and maybe even earn a nod for best TV drama.

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Amy Adams in a scene from “Arrival.”

Credit
Jan Thijs/Paramount Pictures, via Associated Press

For Mr. Levy and his 21 Laps lieutenants, none of whom have previously been players on Hollywood’s awards scene, the sudden one-two punch has led to no small amount of giddiness.

“Pure, unmitigated thrill is what I feel,” Mr. Levy said over lunch at Mr. Chow here recently. “So beyond anything we had hoped for. When I used to talk about wanting to build a production company with wide interests and a focus beyond family comedy, people in Hollywood would nod politely. ‘That’s nice, but it’s never going to happen.’ Guess what? We actually did it!”

Mr. Levy’s company is based at 20th Century Fox, which pays overhead costs in return for the first right of refusal for any movie project developed by Mr. Levy and his team. (That deal runs through next year.) Forthcoming 21 Laps films include “Why Him,” an R-rated comedy starring James Franco that Fox will release on Dec. 23. “Fist Fight,” a comedy starring Ice Cube as a fired high-school teacher out for revenge, is scheduled to arrive via Warner Bros. on Feb. 17.

After spending two years turning down numerous offers to direct big-budget movies — his last trip to the multiplex as a director was for “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” — Mr. Levy has signed on to direct “Uncharted,” a film adaptation of the popular PlayStation video game. He will also direct a remake of the science-fiction film “Starman.” (Both of those movies are for Sony.)

So the frenetic Mr. Levy is not, even by a long shot, abandoning his career as a mass-market filmmaker.

But now that “Arrival,” in particular, has put 21 Laps on a different part of the Hollywood map, Mr. Levy is also charging full-speed ahead with artier projects. He is producing “Kodachrome,” for instance, a drama about a father-son pilgrimage to a Kansas photo lab. The modestly budgeted film, directed by Mark Raso and not yet scheduled for release, is based on a 2010 article in The New York Times by A. G. Sulzberger, a former reporter who is the company’s new deputy publisher.

“I’m sure I have as solid an ego as any filmmaker, but if I can see someone else doing a better job behind the camera than me, then I want them to do it,” Mr. Levy said of people like Mr. Raso. “You can’t build a company with director avarice.”

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“Stranger Things” on Netflix was created by the brothers Matt and Ross Duffer and is part of 21 Laps.

Credit
Netflix

It is unusual in Hollywood for A-list directors like Mr. Levy to champion other filmmakers to such a degree; they usually focus all of their resources on furthering their own directing careers. “From the start, he became sort of an older brother to me,” Mr. Villeneuve, the “Arrival” director, said by phone. “Trying to share his experience, trying to guide me, giving me strong encouragement and good advice in the editing room — that’s not that common in this business.”

Mr. Levy, who was born in Montreal and who put himself through film school by landing small roles in shows like “Beverly Hills, 90210,” said that he had to learn to shelve his ego in other ways. One involved staffing 21 Laps. “In hiring people, you don’t double down on your strengths,” he said. “You know your weaknesses, and you find support in those areas. Meaning you hire smart, hard-working people with tastes that are different from your own.”

Both “Stranger Things” and “Arrival,” for instance, were spotted by a pair of 21 Laps executives that Mr. Levy calls “the Dans” — Dan Cohen, executive vice president, and Dan Levine, president. Mr. Cohen previously worked on indie films like “Lars and the Real Girl.” Mr. Levine is a former Paramount executive.

“You hear about typecasting in front of the camera, but it also happens on the other side,” Mr. Levine said. “People were not initially going to bring dramas to us. We had to go out and find writers ourselves.”

Mr. Levine estimated that 21 Laps now has about 40 movies in development, along with a couple of TV projects, making the company one of Hollywood’s top suppliers.

One person who was always a believer? Mr. Levy. And look no further than the company’s name as proof.

21 Laps refers to a kindergarten jog-a-thon in 2004. “I expected my daughter, who was not particularly athletic, to run four or five laps and then sit down and pick flowers,” he said.

“Somehow,” he continued, “she went to a place inside herself, to a place of will, and showed everyone what was possible.”

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