How Black Label Media Became Hollywood's Hottest Indie Producers
It would be easy for Hollywood to roll its eyes at Black Label Media. The five-year old production company has a name inspired in part by the American Express Centurion Black Card and in part by Johnnie Walker Black. One of the founders, Molly Smith, 36, is the daughter of a billionaire; her dad, Fred Smith, founded FedEx and is a Black Label investor.
And she runs Black Label with the Tinsel Twins, a nickname given to Thad and Trent Luckinbill, 42, by their home state's largest newspaper, the Oklahoman. Thad moved to Los Angeles in the late 1990s and ended up starring on the Young and the Restless for 11 years. After a career in law and private equity, Trent followed his identical twin to California and took up producing—and surfing. Over lunch at the Viceroy l’Ermitage Beverly Hills, Trent points to a black eye and explains, “I had an accident in the water.”
But dismissing Black Label as a vanity operation would be a mistake. Despite having only 10 employees, the company is proving itself to be a serious player on the indie film scene. “You have to be a bit of a gunslinger to make it in this business, and I see that quality in Molly,” says Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a veteran producer and studio executive who teamed with Black Label to make October’s firefighter drama Only the Brave. “It explains why Black Label’s movies are so singular.”
Those movies include Denis Villeneuve’s celebrated drug war thriller Sicario, which cost less than $30 million to make and took in $85 million in 2015. Last year Black Label jumped at a chance to take a 25 percent stake in a little film called La La Land. The musical ended up grossing $445 million and becoming a cultural sensation, missing the Oscar for best picture by an eighth note—or a bungled envelope.
“Certainly the success of La La Land increases our credibility,” Thad says.
Black Label has also made mistakes. It produced The GoodLie, a drama about Sudanese refugees that flopped in 2014. But Smith and her partners have learned from these errors. “We loved the film but realized we could really be in trouble if we tried to go wide,” Smith says. “So we pulled back and got to video-on-demand sooner, which was a tough call but the right one. It ended up being very profitable.”
Black Label’s recent bets include Rebel in the Rye, a J.D. Salinger biopic; the upcoming Horse Soldiers, an Afghanistan military drama produced with Jerry Bruckheimer; and Soldado, a sequel to Sicario.
Smith describes their taste in films as “commercially viable prestige.” Smith, laidback in jeans, is sitting on the l’Ermitage patio with Thad and Trent. She started in 1999 as an intern at Alcon Entertainment, which is best known for 2009’s hit The Blind Side—the script for which she personally rescued from the rejection pile. “I’m like the additional sister they never wanted,” she says of the twins. “We finish each other’s sentences.”
As if on cue, Trent pipes up. “We all think alike, and our taste is the same,” he says. “Maybe it’s the Southern connection.” Smith, who grew up in Memphis, points out that her younger sister Rachel also works for Black Label. “Being such a family-orientedcompany has allowed us to keep our circle small,” she says. “It really provides a foundation of trust.” Thad nods. “It definitely feels less corporate, which is something we all like,” he says. “I probably focus a bit more on the creative side, given my acting experience. Since Trent is a lawyer, he and Molly deal more with the business, and I love watching them in action.”
Smith says she learned dealmaking from her father. “Hollywood likes to put a gun to your head, and he doesn’t react to that,” she says. “If it’s a good business decision, it’s
probably going to be there tomorrow."
Hair by Sydney Valentine. Makeup by Jillian Gregory using Charlotte Tilbury.
This story appears in the November 2017 issue of Town & Country U.S.