When Laura Lewis set up Rebelle Media, the intention was to move the needle of how women are depicted on screen by building a company focused on storytelling led by women. However, there’s a caveat.
“If a good idea comes from a man, I want to take that business opportunity,” the CEO and founder explained. “I want to show that women have economic power and that we can run successful businesses too, because, again, women haven’t been able to raise capital for their ideas for so long.”
Hulu’s Tell Me Lies, a ten-episode series she executive produced with Emma Roberts and writer-showrunner Meaghan Oppenheimer, is the company’s latest project that proves Lewis is doing what it set out to achieve.
Before Rebelle, Lewis was a film finance and sales agent at CAA and packaged and sold films such as Jackie, Dallas Buyers Club, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Rebelle Media has already released two films, Long Weekend and Mr. Malcolm’s List.
I caught up with her to talk about branding, how she set herself up for success, why supporting women and marginalized individuals doesn’t mean not supporting men, and how she found ways to push against the “no.”
Simon Thompson: Branding is critical, especially in a busy and constantly changing market. What is in the name, Rebelle?
Laura Lewis: I’m laughing because if you saw the number of names I went through and the number of domain names I owned, you wouldn’t believe me. I would wake up at three in the morning and say, ‘That’s the name of the company,’ and I’d buy the domain name. The following day I would wake up and say, ‘No, that’s not the name.’ I wanted to focus on changing the narrative around women. That was one of the major reasons that propelled me to leave CAA, and I use the word propel because it was one of the names I initially considered using. Sadly, somebody else has it trademarked for film and TV purposes and I’m glad because I really love the name we landed on. It took over a year. Even though our focus is on gender narratives, I want to be inclusive across the board so I didn’t want anything too feminine or too ostracizing. I want to work with men, I want to work with everybody, so I didn’t want it to pigeonhole us into one space. To me, with Rebelle, I used a French feminine spelling of it, but I want to shake things up because that’s what you do when you rebel against something. There are two L’s in there, so it’s my initials and a subtle nod to me. Then there is the logo, sunglasses with lenses because it’s all about the lens through which we see things. What’s important to the company is who is crafting the narrative from the perspective of the writer, director, editor, and cinematographer; those are all the different eyes through which the gaze works on film and TV content, and we also want to move forward. There are a lot of different messages in that one logo for me too. For too long, we’ve seen things through one lens, so for us, it’s about changing that up too.
Thompson: Rebelle is a company set up by women for female storytellers to tell stories, yet it is not excluding men. For some people who will not understand that female narratives and female-run companies can also involve men, where do the men fit into this where the focus is predominantly female-focused?
Lewis: First of all, we’re a business. If a good idea comes from a man, I want to take that business opportunity. I want to show that women have economic power and that we can run successful businesses too, because, again, women haven’t been able to raise capital for their ideas for so long. The onus is on us to show that women can run a successful business and you can’t do that by not working with half the population. Again, that’s happened for too long, where people have been networking with us and taking our ideas. Why would I do that in reverse? Secondly, several men write and direct women very well. In our first film, Long Weekend, Steve Basilone wrote this beautiful script, but our crew was 55 percent women, our cast was 50 percent women, we had a female editor, a female composer, there’s balance. A number of the cast members said it was one of the best sets they’ve been on, and I think it’s because there was balance. There was no predominant point of view. There are a lot of times I push back where if we have a male director on something, I’ll say, ‘Okay, great, but now we need a female writer.’ We want to work across the board with anyone who has the best ideas. I’ve been sent scripts by female writer-directors where the entire cast is men, and I’m like, ‘No, that’s not the world I want to portray or what we do, but that’s fine for somebody else.’ We want to portray a little bit more female-skewing narratives, and we want the world on screen to be the way it is off.
Thompson: The industry does appear to be more open and actively courting the kind of stuff that you’re selling female storytellers and storytelling. Does appearance match reality? The industry can be very much about the optics and the right words being said, but the bigger picture is very different.
Lewis: No, the words do not quite match the reality. You can look at the numbers from the studies that come out. It’s getting better, but no, they do not quite match. It might take a generation because we have gatekeepers across the board in film and television; even if we have senior women at many levels, they still have to answer to a man at the corporate level or justify their jobs. I feel like we won’t get equality across the board until we have more greenlight power in both film and TV in more diverse hands, not just women but more people of color. A lot of it is optics, but that’s because these people’s jobs are on the line. They’re like, ‘Oh, I can point to that person who has done 9000 things, and I can justify my decision there versus taking a chance on that other person.’ It’s still hard to find people who will take the chance.
Thompson: You excel at finding ways to push against a no to get stories told.
Lewis: I look back to my days at CAA a lot because I was told numerous times that both Dallas Buyers Club and The Butler would not get made for different reasons. Obviously, they both got made and were great successes, but it took years. I knew they were worth pushing for different social reasons. Mr. Malcolm’s List, which came out recently, is another example. A first-time female director made it, Sope Dirisu was our male lead actor, and we knew he was our Malcolm, but he didn’t have the name recognition that others did. We made a short film to show people that there was an audience, which helped us make the movie. We look for strategic ways to push against the no. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but we’re at least going to try. We’re not just going to say, ‘Oh, well, that didn’t get financed by the big guy.’ We’ll find ways to balance it out.
Thompson: What was it that spurred the move from CAA to go independent? Was it seeing the opportunity? Did it feel like just the right time? Had people expressed interest in being involved if you did it?
Lewis: It was three things. The earliest thing was noticing that whenever I had anything female-driven, whether it was the audience it was aimed at or the fact it was written or directed by women, it was much harder to get it financed. I literally had an investor once say to me, ‘I already have my female project,’ as if there could only be one. I’ll never forget that. Women are half of the population, and there are so many stories. If no one is focusing on half the population, that is an opportunity. I started writing the business plan for Rebelle around 2013 or 2014, and I’d been at CAA for about three or four years at that point. I started working on a multimedia company focused on film and TV because people were still very siloed. They would do film but not TV or vice versa, but to me, it was about what was the right way to tell the story and reach the audience. I asked what was the female-driven media company for women now? It was pretty much Lifetime and Bravo at that time because it was pre-Hello Sunshine and pre-Made Up Stories. The impetus to finally do it came in 2016., to stop thinking about it after noodling on a business plan nights and weekends for three years and go and do it. When I told CAA what I wanted to do, they were very supportive and helpful. By mid-2017, I realized you couldn’t build a company while also having a full-time job, so I had to choose. I left with no investors but did I have people I was already talking to? Yes. I had this phenomenal woman called Candy Straight, who unfortunately passed away last year, and she introduced me to so many people. Once I left CAA, she locked arms with me and helped me raise the money to get the company going. I will say it was challenging to raise the money. I thought it was going to be very easy due to all the connections I had at CAA, due to the number of people I would see walk through our doors with zero film experience with a billionaire backing them, and it is harder for women to raise money. The number of people that told me they were going to invest a lot who then turned it into, ‘Why don’t you just do a first look deal with me?’ and I was like, ‘But then you’re still the gatekeeper, and the point is diversifying the gatekeepers.’ It was challenging. I remember starting with such a high, and after a year, I was like, ‘Oh, this is hard.’
Thompson: How did the pandemic change things? Did it? We’ve just had a window of two years where it has impacted everything from investment and production schedules to the content and how it is being consumed. Did it change your plans?
Lewis: We launched the company at the beginning of 2018, so in 2020, we had just gotten our slate together, and we were supposed to go into production on three projects that year. All of them disappeared except for Mr. Malcolm’s List, which was then pushed to shooting in 2021. As a new company, suddenly our revenue just disappeared. I was lucky because I had overhead backing for the company, and the investors understood, so I was able to keep my whole staff, but it did change our outlook for the future. It has also disrupted distribution, I think both for good and for scary. I won’t say bad because it’s the unknown. The good part is that I did think that there needed to be more playing around with windows and meeting the audience where they are. Audience habits have changed, and that 90-day window doesn’t work anymore, plus you’re not maximizing marketing dollars. You have to relaunch the film, which is inefficient from a marketing spend perspective, affecting everybody and everyone’s back end and stake in the movie. I think that’s been good. Then the scary part is that audiences seem to have flocked back to the big guys, but there is still a big question over the independent space. Aside from A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, we haven’t seen a big breakout in the indie space. I’ve talked about that with a number of buyers and producers and asked what the future is for the more independent fare with older audiences still not going back or taking more time. I think those most significant changes were that our slates were disrupted, so how do those come back together? Then how does distribution affect what gets made, how we can get it made, and the future there?
Thompson: Switching sides from an agency to the production side, what was the one thing you didn’t anticipate that you’ve learned through your experience in the last couple of years? It can be positive or negative.
Lewis: I’d worked for a producer in my early years, and I think I’d put blinders on to how long things take. At CAA, I worked on 40 projects a year minimum, and I would have ten films to sell at every festival. Then I went to getting only one to two things made a year when I would love to make three to five. That’s been the hardest part; getting my ambition to match the market. We’ll get there, though. Also, not having control as much over cast schedules and how that aligns with things, that’s just harder to navigate. There’s so much content getting made now that getting the elements together. I’m still shocked every time we get anything greenlit.
Thompson: What was your most transferable skill?
Lewis: It’s so funny because when I was at CAA, several people offered me producing credits on my projects because they’re like, ‘You did the job of the producer.’ As agents, you’re not meant to take the credit, but I think I was already sort of doing the job. Project management, just being able to oversee a product, was very transferable. A lot of producing is overseeing all the different pieces. I will admit that I did not have the physical production knowledge that others do, but what you do is find the right partners or hire the right people. Knowing the film financing world has been a great value add to producing. I think it’s allowed me to get a couple of projects up and running faster than somebody else with just a creative producing background. Those are the two things I feel I’ve carried over the most.
Tell Me Lies is now streaming on Hulu.
https://www.forbes.com/sites/simonthompson/2022/09/13/rebelle-medias-laura-lewis-on-why-inclusivity-in-hollywood-is-good-business/ Rebelle Media’s CEO Laura Lewis On Why Inclusivity In Hollywood Is Good Business