Get to know ‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ executive producer Ryan Donnell Smith
Ryan Donnell Smith has the experience and the skillset to produce the stories he wants to see. He spent a decade in film production, forging strong relationships with creatives and executives, before he went on to become the President and Partner of Streamline Global. Smith is currently responsible for the development, production, and management of Streamline’s film assets.
Smith is also the Partner and Head of Production for Mountview Films and co-owner/operator of Thomasville Pictures, a studio and production services company in Thomasville, Georgia. He’s produced multiple commercials, music videos, and short films, and in 2015, he negotiated a partnership between AARP & Cumulus to bring Larry King back to radio. Smith then produced Christmasland, which was one of the largest Christmas festivals in the history of Los Angeles.
More recently, Smith has produced films like The Tax Collector and the award-winning historical drama The Trial of the Chicago 7. Film Daily was fortunate enough to talk with Ryan Donnell Smith about his career, his producing style, and his plans for the future. Here’s what he had to say:
Tell us about your history in film production. How did you start your journey?
I began my career at the age of 15. I had an opportunity to work for a brilliant casting director, Regina Moore, in Nashville. For the next seven years, she mentored and taught me as I worked alongside her in high school and college. I started a production company in Nashville, TN with my partner Allen Cheney and then within a few years, we made the transition to LA where the film side really picked up.
One of our earliest films was Some Freaks, where I like to say I earned my MBA in filmmaking through real-life experiences. I consider myself lucky because I have such a thorough understanding of physical production. I started making $2k web videos and then worked my way up to multimillion-dollar commercials and feature films.
Today, I’m able to use the knowledge I gained to make good decisions on the projects that we decide to greenlight and produce.
As President of Streamline Global, you oversee the production and management of the company’s film assets. What is the most difficult part of the job?
Oh man… I hate having to tell people that their project is not a fit for us. Every writer, producer, director, puts so much time and effort into their project that it is heartbreaking when we are not able to make it work from our side. At the same time, there is nothing better than sharing with someone that we are going to greenlight their project.
I absolutely love what I do…so work does not feel like work. I am happy to put in 16-hour days and produce multiple films in a calendar year. I try to stay optimistic and tackle each challenge as if it were an opportunity.
You also handle the greenlight process. How do you go about determining if a project is right for Streamline Global?
Streamline finances films through a unique model centered around tax equity investments. Due to our structure, sometimes the greenlight process is more a mechanism of finances and numbers than it is of story and creative. I could never handle the volume of projects that come through our door without our amazing team!
They keep me going. I evaluate the projects from a creative and production side…things like… talent, director, budget, incentives, producer, story, etc., and my business partner Emily Salveson crafts the tax equity model for each film. We are looking for projects that are pretty far along in development and already have a director and cast attachments.
You’ve produced commercials, music videos, and large concert events. Do you find that the role of producer changes based on the medium?
Yes and no… each medium has its own unique and individual structures and challenges, however, at the end of the day producing is mostly solving problems. You anticipate needs, setup and plan to the best of your ability, and then put out each and every fire as it comes your way throughout the process.
I would say the biggest difference is between filmed events vs live events. When you are producing a live event, everything moves in triple time, challenges must be handled immediately, and your audience is seeing it all! I will never forget the first time I stepped on a film set. I felt like we had SO much time to prepare after having come out of the live event space for so many years. It was a welcomed change.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
I have and I believe wholeheartedly that it is one of the greatest things anyone can do to better themselves. I feel that I have always tried to make sure that I surround myself with people who challenge and inspire me. I work with an amazing executive coach, Courtney Seard, who holds me accountable and helps me accomplish my dreams and goals. But… There are SO many people that I consider mentors but have barely met.
I would say that Scooter Braun, Richard Branson, and Oprah are my greatest mentors. I have never met Richard in person and my interactions with Oprah and Scooter have been extremely minimal, however, I consume anything and everything that I can get my hands on from them. So, I challenge everyone to find mentors through reading, podcasts, interviews, media.
A mentor does not have to be someone with whom you set a one-hour meeting once a month. Find people who inspire you and devour all the content that you can get your hands on. It will help you in ways you can’t imagine.
You executive produced The Tax Collector, which starred Shia LeBeouf. Was there a hesitancy to cast an actor who has a history of difficulty on film sets? Do concerns like this factor into the development process?
For some of the projects that I take on, I simply engage on a financial side and that was the case for TC. Shia was already connected when I came on board the project.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 has garnered many major awards season nominations. How did you initially get involved with the project?
I am simply honored to be connected to The Trial of the Chicago 7. Tyler Thompson from Cross Creek Media called me and said, “I have a once-in-a-lifetime project for you.” When he sent it over, I knew it was special and something that I would fight like hell to help get made.
That is what we did… we worked like hell and were able to make the project happen. It took a lot of people and many, many years but man…. what an honor to see it on the screen.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a stellar ensemble cast. Has it been difficult to determine which actors get pushed for award campaigns over others?
Stellar is an understatement….and luckily, I am not the one who has to make those difficult decisions. We will leave that up to Netflix. If it were up to me…. EVERY SINGLE person who worked on the film would win all the awards!
On a serious note, this film is so much larger than any award that it could ever win. The film carries a message that will impact us culturally and hopefully inspire millions to fight for their voice in our society. That is the big win for this movie.
How was your working relationship with Chicago 7 filmmaker Aaron Sorkin?
Have you ever had an idol that you follow, and you just sit in absolute awe of their work? That’s what it was like for me working with Aaron Sorkin. His work speaks for itself. His kindness is palpable.
His wisdom jumps off the page. His vision flows through the lens. It was an absolute dream to collaborate with Aaron Sorkin and hopefully, I will have the ability to do it over and over again.
Which aspect of the production process do you enjoy most?
Because of my background, I am a sucker for physical production. I love the family feel of a film set. I love the grueling days, the meals with cast and crew, the sleepless nights, and the feeling of accomplishment at wrap. Nowadays, we are blessed to have so many projects going that I cannot make it on set to all of them. I am learning that I love development and packaging as well.
What has been your greatest success?
My greatest success thus far has been helping my mom raise my younger brother and sister. They were very young when I was in college, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I can see that it was so much more impactful than the career accolades.
Life is about loving those around you and creating experiences with family and friends. On a professional note, anytime we can help someone bring their vision to life on screen…that is success to me.
How about your biggest failure? What did you learn?
If I counted all of the times I have failed, then I would not be excited to move forward lol. This industry is not easy. You have to learn and try and fail and do it over and over again.
I think the biggest failure for me was when I let down my employees early in my career on a project that we were working on in Nashville. I learned some valuable lessons but made sure to work hard and push to be better and better on every project.
Do you have an interest in writing or directing your own films?
To be honest, I don’t. I believe that my job is to be the facilitator and the man behind the scenes who can help bring others’ visions to life. I can promise you; you would NOT watch a movie that I wrote or directed.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
I am thrilled to say that we just wrapped filming One Way at my studio in Thomasville Georgia with Colson Baker (Machine Gun Kelly), Kevin Bacon, Travis Fimmel, Storm Reid and Drea de Matteo. To make it through physical production during COVID safely is something that I am very proud of. We are going into production next month on our film Supercell with Alec Baldwin.
We just announced The Pale Blue Eye with Christian Bale and director Scott Cooper in partnership with Cross Creek. Finally, I cannot wait to share our amazing film The Tiger Rising with Dennis Quaid, Queen Latifah, Christian Convery, and Madalen Mills. Because of the pandemic, we have been holding back its release until theaters open back up.
Are there any actors or filmmakers you’d like to work with?
I am thankful for every single actor and filmmaker that I have worked with to date. I learn so much from every film and am constantly blown away by the talent of others. BUT…. If I have to do a shortlist for today it would be…. [Steven] Spielberg, Leo [DiCaprio], Reese [Witherspoon] and Meryl [Streep].
Who are your biggest influences as a producer?
I am influenced by the crew members who give it their all every day on set to help craft amazing stories.
What advice do you have for aspiring producers?
Never give up. If you only knew the percentage of people who walk away from their dream RIGHT before their breakthrough success, then you would be devastated. This is not easy…. Keep fighting and know that success comes one brick at a time.
Lastly, an easy one: what is your favorite film of all time?
The Aviator. The actors, director, producers, Howard Hughes… everything about this movie captivated me.