How Indie Production Studio Treehouse Pictures Finds its Roots Among Big Studio Blockbusters

“We’re not just running after something because it feels hot or competitive,” Treehouse Head of Development Juliet Berman says

As the big Hollywood studios evolve, consolidate and get bigger, the road to success for indie production houses like Treehouse Pictures is to somehow artfully fill in the space between the big-budget blockbusters, super hero flicks and IP-driven franchises.

This year has seen several indie films underperform at the box office, including STX Entertainment’s “The Best of Enemies,” Amazon’s glitzy Sundance purchase, “Late Night,” and Annapurna’s “Booksmart.” But despite the otherwise disappointing year for indie films, there remains the belief that there’s room for more.

Treehouse Pictures President and founder Justin Nappi (pictured above), and head of development Juliet Berman talked to TheWrap about the challenges of operating in today’s market and how indie production studios can stand apart.

Where does Treehouse fit in today’s Hollywood, and what are your thoughts on the indies, such as “Booksmart,” this year?

Berman: More studios are making these big blockbuster movies, but we’ve always operated under the belief that audiences are still hungry for that kind of content that we don’t think that studios are making anymore — that kind of storytelling that’s both entertaining but is also substantive and has something to say, whether it’s a romantic comedy like “That Awkward Moment” or “Set It Up,” (both produced by Treehouse Pictures). Those are both movies that very much have something to say about being at a specific point in your life, but they’re also fun and entertaining, and they move you.

I think “Booksmart” is a brilliant movie. Obviously, we’re friends with writer Katie Silberman who wrote “Set It Up,” I think that movie is going to be talked about for a long time, and I think it will have a long, long life, regardless of what people are saying now about the economics of it because good content finds a way through.

Is conversation the barometer for success, regardless of box office? 

Berman: “Set It Up” [which premiered on Netflix in 2018] is a good example of this in terms of a barometer for success. We always think from the start, “How should this story be told? What’s the best way for people to come to this content? And, what makes the most sense? How do we make this a win?” I think “Set It Up” worked so well because people wanted to watch that movie at home on their couch. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have worked theatrically, we don’t know, but we do know that everything came together in the perfect way to make that movie work and the barometer of success was that people were talking about it and they liked it, and Netflix did a really great job marketing.

How has Netflix changed Treehouse’s approach to producing in the last 10 years?

Berman: You have to think about [Netflix] early on when you’re thinking about how you’re gonna sell your movie, and how you’re going to put your movie together. They can’t be an after-thought; you have to factor them in. We’ve even seen in foreign sales deals — I think most of them have clauses now for what happens if you sell a territory and then you end up selling your movie to Netflix.

They are part of every conversation in terms of how movies get distributed and for us, the way it’s changed our model is we have to have really early conversations about what’s the best play for this movie and then that informs at what point do we sell off what piece of this movie? How do we put this movie together? How are we casting it? What is our target? Because they think different in terms of how they buy things and what they’re looking for, so you have to be more thoughtful and targeted from an earlier standpoint.

What kind of projects does Treehouse look to produce? Does the amount of competition handicap you?

Nappi: When I started Treehouse, the mandate was social consciousness. I think that’s changed a little bit, but really it’s just myself and Juliet, and we make the decisions, so it’s obviously things that are attractive to us, but I do think we have a responsibility.

Berman: I could bring Justin the most commercial movie on planet earth, but if there’s not a reason to tell that story, if it doesn’t have something to say, he won’t do it. There is a lot of competition. But rather than chasing something that is hot — that 25 other companies like ours are chasing — we’re kind of more inwardly focused on developing things ourselves that we’re excited by, that we believe audiences and buyers will be excited by too, and relying on our taste and building things internally. And I think that’s for us how we’ve been able to operate and last this long — because we’re not just running after something because it feels hot or competitive.

What’s lacking in Hollywood that you wish the industry was doing?

Berman: Risk-taking. I’m hoping that is starting to change, but you can’t predict what will be a success. There’s no formula for it. No one could have predicted “Get Out,” or “Napoleon Dynamite,” or “Little Miss Sunshine” — I could go on. I think the more studios are willing to come up with some sort of model where their risk threshold is higher — the more risks we’re willing to take, the more big swings we’re willing to take, the more we have an opportunity to succeed.

We’ve been really strategic in wanting to put risk into things, but at the same time not risk everything on one thing so that if it doesn’t work, all of a sudden we don’t have a company. It’s that balance I think that has enabled us to continue being able to make interesting stories, but also have longevity and stability in a business where a lot of small, indie companies like ours have come and gone.

Is there anything you’re watching that could change the future of the business?

Berman: I think what’s going on in Georgia right now is really interesting to us in terms of the way that politics is affecting choices that are being made that might not be financially beneficial. People feel like they have this ethical or moral responsibility, and I think that that could end up impacting this industry in a lot of other ways.

Nappi: Yeah, also I think we’re still a little far away from it, but I think the next narrative change that we’ll start to see more of is VR (virtual reality) and short-form content. We ourselves, Treehouse, have kind of dabbled a little bit with VR. We haven’t done anything really with it yet, but we’ve spent a year now kind of worrying about it. It can’t be a gimmick.

Trey Williams

Film Reporter covering the biz • trey.williams@thewrap.com • Twitter: @trey3williams



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