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‘Dumb Money’ Producer Aaron Ryder Is Used to David vs. Goliath Stories (Just Ask About ‘Memento’)

In January 2021, Dumb Money producer Aaron Ryder was in the midst of a mandatory two-week quarantine in Montreal, and to pass the time, he began to track the ever-evolving situation with GameStop’s stock. The struggling video game retailer became the apple of the internet’s eye, as Redditors on the WallStreetBets subreddit and YouTube investors like Keith Gill’s Roaring Kitty (portrayed by Paul Dano in Dumb Money) were leading the GME stock short squeeze in an effort to give hedge fund short sellers a taste of their own medicine.

Around the same time, Ryder’s company, Ryder Picture Company, had just launched and entered into a first-look deal with MGM, and as all this drama was still unfolding with GameStop’s soaring stock, the Oscar nominee became a part of the deal for author Ben Mezrich’s GameStop-related book proposal that would later become The Antisocial Network. Mezrich had previously written The Accidental Billionaires, which Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher turned into The Social Network (2010). In October 2022, Sony Pictures acquired Dumb Money’s distribution rights, with director Craig Gillespie beginning production on Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo’s screenplay.

The greed of hedge funds ultimately prompted retail investors (commonly referred to as the pejorative “dumb money”) to teach them a lesson, and Ryder believes that the current labor movements across the U.S. are connected to the same ethos.

“There are moments in time where people stand up because they are tired of [greed], and so their voices become a little louder than they were before,” Ryder tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And we’re living in one of those times right now, not only politically, but also the multitude of labor disputes happening right now. So [Dumb Money] is so well timed in that it is the story of an everyman fighting against what is perceived as seemingly unfair odds and living with corporate greed.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Ryder, whose résumé boasts Donnie Darko, The Prestige and Mud, also looks back on the challenges of finding a distributor for Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Then he reflects on Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, which landed him his first Oscar nomination as producer.

In early 2021, GameStop’s stock took off. Did you happen to be watching the situation unfold?

Yes, as a matter of fact. I was trapped in this state-mandated quarantine in Montreal before vaccines and everything. When you went into Canada, you had to quarantine for 14 days, and so I was stuck in this tiny little apartment in Old Town Montreal. And my only portal to the world was the internet. So I was obviously paying attention to everything going on with the insurrection and the election and everything else, but then these weird stories kept popping up about this store that I knew from strip malls. And it was this GameStop thing. So I watched this stock just go insane, and it was impossible to escape because it was on every news outlet. I then started trying to figure out what it was and what was driving it, and that’s when I found myself on the Reddit boards and its subreddit WallStreetBets. So that’s exactly how I fell into this, and I had this brand new deal at MGM at the time. It had just started literally a week before, and then I got a call from the head of the studio [Michael De Luca], saying, “Have you been keeping up with this GameStop thing? We think there could be a movie here.” And so I just happened to be pretty well-versed in it by that point.

Dumb Money

Anthony Ramos in Dumb Money Courtesy of Lacey Terrell/Sony Pictures

You’ve probably been a part of some wild deals in your career, but as the stock’s drama was still developing, you became involved in the original MGM deal for Ben Mezrich’s book proposal that would later become The Antisocial Network. Was that one of the quickest agreements you’ve ever made? 

Honestly, the deal for Ben Mezrich’s book [The Antisocial Network] was probably one of the most exciting things that I’ve been through. Sometimes, you have these exciting deals happen when you’re in a condo in Sundance and you’re trying to sell your film to whomever. And that’s really intense and exciting, because the whole thing happens so quickly. By the way, in the film industry, let’s admit it: Nothing happens quickly. So when you do have these opportunities where you can feel the intensity and the heat of it, knowing a decision is going to be made super quick, I can’t think of anything more exciting. So to get the rights to Ben’s book and beat out the other competition and put ourselves in the pole position for all the other GameStop movies, I think it took place somewhere between six and seven days. It was intense.

You guys are probably sick of hearing about The Big Short at this point, but I have to imagine that it came up because it’s a recent example that audiences can handle financial jargon if it’s presented in the right way. Was that movie actually referenced as a comp? 

Of course. It was hard not to bring it up. There’s so many great things about that movie. It’s a phenomenally well-made film with a great cast, and it took a giant topic and made it fun. It didn’t feel like it was work to watch that movie. I like to think that our film is different in that we always approached it as being a little bit more punk rock. It’s a movie that has a very pronounced theme of David versus Goliath, and that is woven through the narrative of this. And that’s maybe not something that The Big Short had. It didn’t quite exist, and it certainly didn’t feel that way at the end. Whereas with this movie, it just felt like if we were able to service that theme throughout it, it might set itself apart from that film and other films. And plus, we just didn’t want to completely stand in the shadow of The Big Short, as great a film as it is. We wanted to feel like we had a different texture. So we made this movie not only about the people involved with this movement, but we also made it for them in a lot of ways.

Dumb Money

Nick Offerman (left) and Seth Rogen in Dumb Money. Courtesy of Lacey Terrell/Sony Pictures

Greed has been the root of most problems throughout history, but now, in all walks of life, it seems like it’s more prominent than ever. It’s inspired not only the short squeeze in your movie, but also the various labor movements across the country. Can this cycle ever be stopped? Or is the train too far down the track?

We live in a capitalist society, so greed is always going to be a part of that. It’s just how it works, unfortunately. However, there are moments in time where people stand up because they are tired of it, and so their voices become a little louder than they were before. They believe in change and they believe in a time to correct a system that has basically become unfair. And we’re living in one of those times right now, not only politically, but also the multitude of labor disputes happening right now. So this movie is so well timed in that it is the story of an everyman fighting against what is perceived as seemingly unfair odds and living with corporate greed. And to be honest with you, it’s overwhelming, and it’s overwhelming to a lot of people. But at some point, people want to stand up and fight against it. So we’re living in that moment, and we certainly didn’t plan it this way.

So prior to the double strike, what was the state of the midbudget movie? [Writer’s Note: This interview was conducted before the end of the WGA strike.]

I truly believe there is an underserved audience out there that is desperate for these movies. We all grew up loving movies like Heat and Beverly Hills Cop and Silence of the Lambs. They are these midlevel films that had movie stars in them and phenomenal directors at the helm. And at some point in the last five years or so, we just kind of stopped making them. Studios were making much bigger movies, and independents were making much smaller, very precious movies, which have a harder time finding success in the theatrical space. And right now, this year in particular, it’s shown us that there is an appetite for these commercially viable independent films, or at least films that uphold that balance of art and commerce. And I think we’ve done that with Dumb Money. There have been other films out there that are starting to prove that point as well. So my hope is that if the films are strong and they feel like they’re commercial and that they’re not going to feel like medicine or hard work, then people are going to come back to the movie theaters even more than they are now.

If the industry gets back on its feet sooner rather than later, studios are going to need films that they can potentially release in 2024. Do you think there will be a rush on low- to midbudget fare since something like Dumb Money can be turned around much quicker than some giant tentpole? 

Yes, and that’s an excellent question. We went through this just a minute ago with the pandemic. Everybody immediately wanted to get back into production as fast as they could. They could see that people were consuming media at such a high rate, and so, unfortunately, everything kind of rushed back. But the difference between then and now is that it was a slightly gradual buildup, because people started to climb out of the pandemic and gear up a little differently. In this case, when the strikes end, the floodgates will open and it’s going to be a bull rush. Everybody is going to greenlight everything immediately. Actors will be in high demand. Stages will be in high demand. Crews will be in high demand. So my fear is that quality could suffer, and I hope we don’t fall into that trap. I think quality suffered after the pandemic when people rushed things into production, trying to get as much out as fast as they could. And as a result, the movies were not as good and maybe some of the TV shows weren’t as good. So I hope that that’s not going to be the case here and that we can use this time that we’re in now as the incubation period of trying to make sure that things are going to be good and well designed and well planned. I hope we don’t fall into a trap of putting out a bunch of stuff just because we could get it made quickly.

In the summer of 1997, you were presented a script called Memento, and you then set it in motion at Newmarket. Could you remotely sense that you were helping launch the career of a future titan? 

So we were really close friends, and we spent a lot of time together. And it doesn’t take too much time with Chris to understand that he’s a very smart fellow. He has things figured out on a level that most people don’t, especially when it comes to movies. But, no, of course I had no idea that this would be the trajectory of his career, even though I would never bet against him. He’s a gifted, gifted filmmaker, and that was obviously an unusual script. It was not the easiest one to read just because there was a lot going on, and there was a density to it in trying to explain the black-and-white stuff and the color stuff. So it took a close eye to read it and truly understand it, especially for those of us who are not at that same level of intelligence. So I knew it was something special, but I don’t think anybody could truly predict the future that he would become one of the greatest and most successful filmmakers ever.

The film didn’t find its footing in the States at first, and it took a while to land U.S. distribution. During that time period, Steven Soderbergh not only championed the film, but he also had to urge Warners to even take a meeting with Chris for Insomnia. I know you then took distribution matters into your own hands, but were you pretty caught off guard by that collective cold shoulder? 

Oh my God, yeah. It was one of the most terrifying times of my life. If I had been older and known what I was doing, it would’ve been even more terrifying. But we tried to find distribution, and unfortunately, people just didn’t see it. We showed the movie to most of the studios and independents over the course of a weekend, and we didn’t get a lot of love. There were a few people that did like it, but they maybe weren’t best suited to distribute the film. And thank God for the champions that the film collected, Soderbergh being one of them and Elvis Mitchell being one of them. People really talked about it, and it began to just find itself in multiple conversations. And eventually, after what seemed like decades but was probably only months, we began to find an audience. That started at the Venice Film Festival, which was the first public screening we had after being told through multiple screenings that the film wasn’t good enough. We had our first big screening in Venice, and that truly was a remarkable experience. The movie was embraced with this huge ovation, and suddenly, it felt like, “OK, maybe we’re not crazy.”

You then reunited for what remains my favorite Nolan film, The Prestige. However, Batman Begins slowed down development on that one, so were there days where you doubted it would ever come together? Did part of you think he wouldn’t come back to this smaller, midbudget movie after Batman launched him into the stratosphere? 

As a producer, you have this constant fight within yourself where you wonder, “Is it too strong to die, or are you too weak to kill it?” And most of us always think that it’s too strong to die. And at the end of the day, the biggest reason that film was made after Batman Begins was because we got so close to making it before Batman. We put together the film and a production plan, and we really worked on the script and got it pretty far along. But then Chris and Emma [Thomas] went off and made Batman Begins, and when they got back, he was able to reapproach it. I think it felt like unfinished business to him. So he went back and worked on the script a little bit more, and he really got it to the place where we were ready to shoot it. So that’s what it was more than anything else. It was something he really wanted to make, and it still felt very much worth doing.

Were you aware that he first tested Imax on The Prestige? Apparently, it’s the scene where one of the Borden brothers cuts off the other’s fingers.

Well, he was always fascinated with that format. I was standing next to that [Imax] camera when we were shooting it, and it felt like I was standing next to a car. It was so big and loud. But yes, that was probably his first [Imax scene]. I didn’t make that realization at the moment, but I remember it.

Jumping ahead to 2016, you produced Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and that film led to him being mentioned in the same sentence as Chris. When you first saw a proper cut with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score and Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” cue, were you beside yourself?

In all honesty, I’m so proud of that film. There was such a great collection of people that made the movie, and it started from a really great [Eric Heisserer] script. But when you actually put it all together and you see a film for the first time, you’re always enamored with it. I am anyway. I see these things and it’s like, “Wow, we did that.” It’s never lost on me that a miracle may have just happened. 

And as you mentioned, Jóhann’s score was so powerful when I saw the movie for the first time, and he wrote so many of those cues before the film was even shot. In fact, Denis would listen to some of his cues as we were shooting certain scenes, like when the helicopters were coming in and seeing the orb for the first time. Denis was literally listening to the score of the movie he was making before he even shot it, and so the score was such a huge part of it. When you saw those images married with those incredible ominous sounds, it kind of shook you. So that was the one thing that made all of us say, “Wow, we really have something special here.” And when we saw the movie for the first time, most of us felt like we hadn’t seen an emotional science-fiction film in a very long time, maybe even since Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So that was what we set out to do, and in those early screenings, we felt like maybe we actually did it.

Were you apoplectic when Amy Adams didn’t land an Oscar nomination? It’s one of the most egregious snubs of all time. 

I still can’t figure that out. For the life of me, I do not understand it. That, to me, was one of the best performances in the last couple decades, not just that year. So it’s still a bit surprising to me that she was somehow left out of that [best actress] category. It’s a complete mystery.

Dumb Money is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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