Motley Crue, Papa Roach & More Feature on Both Screen & Soundtrack For ‘The Retaliators’: Producers & Stars Discuss New Film

“I don’t understand why more labels aren’t in film,” Allen Kovac, founder-CEO of Better Noise Films and Better Noise Music, tells Billboard. “Apple still doesn’t have their music division talk to their film division. Why not? They’re in the same business. They should be working together … and labels should be doing films and using the music and the movies to help each other.”

Kovac knows this from experience.

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With the The Dirt, the 2019 adaptation of Mötley Crüe’s band memoir and the first production by Better Noise Films, Kovac — who also leads the 10th Street Entertainment management company — had not only a Netflix hit, but also a soundtrack that gave the band its first top 10 entry on the Billboard 200 albums chart in 11 years. The project put some rocket fuel behind the Crüe’s catalog — which the band sold to BMG earlier this year — and its success is credited with spurring the quartet to reunite for this year’s co-headlining The Stadium Tour with Def Leppard. The outing did great box office: The tour’s 35 shows (it ran June 16 through Sept. 9) grossed $173.5 million and sold 1.3 million tickets, according to Billboard Boxscore.

Better Noise Films’ second effort, 2020’s Sno Babies — a drama about addiction issues in a middle-class neighborhood — was another pairing of movie and music, accompanied by a soundtrack loaded with Better Noise Music and 10th Street artists. Crüe leader/bassist Nikki Sixx put together a supergroup called Artists for Recovery to record the film’s signature track, “Maybe It’s Time,” a song Sixx originally recorded with his side project Sixx:A.M. Artists for Recovery included members of Def Leppard, Slipknot, Five Finger Death Punch and Bad Wolves, as well as Slash and country hitmaker Brantley Gilbert.

Now Better Noise Films is coming with The Retaliators, a horror thriller that has been getting raves at film festivals and opens today in theaters for a monthlong run before moving to on-demand platforms. It, too, comes in tandem with a 19-song soundtrack (out Sept. 16), but takes the synchronicity a step further by featuring Better Noise Music artists as characters in the film. Among those making appearances are Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, Papa Roach’s Jacoby Shaddix and members of Five Finger Death Punch, The Hu, Eva Under Fire, From Ashes to New and Ice Nine Kills.

“Music and movies have always gone together for me,” says Sixx — who along with Sixx:A.M. bandmate James Michael penned “The Retaliators Theme (21 Bullets)” for the end credits, featuring Mötley Crüe, Asking Alexandria, Ice Kills Nine and From Ashes to New. “It’s fun as a songwriter to write within guidelines and then hand it off to the producers. It’s great for an artist because it brings your music to a whole new audience.”

That symmetry and symbiosis is, in fact, what drives Kovac’s philosophy as a music executive working in the film world to create mutually beneficial vehicles.

“They fit together because the algorithms talk to each other,” Kovac explains via Zoom, alongside The Retaliators’ star and co-producer Michael Lombardi. “It’s all about taking your time, using your gut but also using data. If you know the psychographic and demographics of your artists, you know how they can fit with the movie. And then you can go to the guy from Ozark [Marc Menchaca] and see if he’ll take a part, and now you’ve got a way to communicate with the Ozark audience. You can take a guy from Game of Thrones and be able to communicate with that audience.

“So it’s really about taking the music side and using data to be able to lift the songs up and lift the movie up and have them all work together.”

The Retaliators reached Better Noise Films via Lombardi, a musician, actor and producer who also worked on Sno Babies. The story came from songwriter brothers Darren and Jeff Allen Geare, based on their emotions after their sister was violently assaulted; in the film, Lombardi plays a pastor who enters a dark, violent criminal underworld while seeking justice and vengeance.

“The musical aspect just jumped off the page,” Lombardi recalls. “The script was a wink at the ’80s and ’90s, whether it’s The Lost Boys, Judgment Night, The Crow — all those films jumped out at me when I read the script, and Allen said he saw it, too. Allen told me from the beginning, ‘Let’s make a good movie first.’ And once we knew we had that, all these other things, obviously, fit perfectly into Allen’s wheelhouse with Better Noise Music.

“So he said, ‘Let’s put our musicians in it… Let’s make sure we’re not making a giant music video, but we’re making a film with real actors and our musicians have an opportunity to act, so it’s more of a symbiotic relationship.’ ”

However, the music selection was made concurrently with the film production, as Kovac, Lombardi and company began to get a sense of what might work best for specific sequences. They also brought in the Stranger Things team of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein to write the score, netting, as Kovac notes, yet another potential audience for The Retaliators.

“We worked and waited till we had the right songs,” says Kovac, a process that continued until the middle of August, with original choices swapped out and replaced by others. “We’ve been filming for a few years,” says Lombardi, referring to a process that leaped among five different locations during the pandemic — and was, in fact, one of the last films in production before everything shut down during the spring of 2020. “So we have songs in there that have performed wonderfully through the festival run, but when Allen comes in with something new and says, ‘This song is badass, I want it in,’ we find a spot where it fits… Ultimately, it’s all the same artists he’s always wanted in it, but we might’ve changed a song if they came up with a new one that might work better.”

The Retaliators soundtrack is marked by collaborations that the Better Noise team put together. In addition to the end-credits theme, Crüe’s Vince Neil joins Classless Act on “Classless Act,” Crüe guitarist Mick Mars and Asking Alexandria’s Danny Worsnop pair with Hyro the Hero for “Who’s Playing That on the Radio?,” and Lee gets help from Push Push on “Tops.” Shaddix guests on The Hu’s “Wolf Totem,” Within Temptation is featured on Asking Alexandria’s “Faded Out,” Nothing More contributes “Tired of Winning,” and former Five Finger Death guitarist Jason Hook, and Ice Nine Kills’ Spencer Charnas jumps on both Eva Under Fire’s “Blow” and Bad Wolves’ “If Tomorrow Never Comes.”

Songs and videos started being released in mid-August, with almost all of them reaching seven- and eight-figure views on YouTube. “Wolf Totem,” whose official video has earned over 77.5 million views since being released nearly four years ago, has gained another 30.7 million with the version that features Shaddix.

“Those music videos and the social media [the bands] are doing, along with radio playing the music … it promotes the film,” Kovac says. “And now when the film comes out, it will push the songs, some of which may be 2 years old by now.” To date, 16 tracks that are affiliated with the film have amassed a combined 537.8 million global on-demand audio and video streams, according to Luminate.

Lombardi adds that more videos will be released after The Retaliators hits theaters to help cross-promote its subsequent digital, on-demand and home video releases. “Everything supports everything else,” he notes. “We use scenes from the movies in the videos or the actors or one of the sets, and it promotes the movie. Or people will say, ‘Hey, that actor was really good,’ and look him up and [say], ‘Omigod, that’s Jacoby Shaddix! That’s [Five Finger Death Punch’s] Ivan Moody [and] Zoltan Bathory!’ and go check out the music.”

As for the musicians’ acting chops, Lombardi crows that “across the board, every single cameo they made were fantastic — not that I thought they wouldn’t be, because they’re storytellers and they perform onstage. What they needed to do was hone it in so it’s a little smaller than how they’re used to performing. But they all came to play. They were all well-informed and prepared. They know their characters’ point of view and objective, and were all really good.

“If you weren’t a fan of Papa Roach, you’d think Jacoby Shaddix was just an actor in the film. Same with Five Finger Death Punch; they look the part, per Allen saying, ‘Hey, these guys are a motorcycle gang!’ They’re all fantastic.”

All of this, according to Kovac, supports his contention that music and film can piggyback off each other to their mutual benefit. He confesses to being a zealot about that idea, and professes confusion and disappointment that more of his colleagues don’t see the same potential.

“I have these conversations with all of the majors, and they say, ‘We’re not filmmakers,’ ” Kovac says. “I’m not a filmmaker! I don’t even go to the set… I look at the algorithms and I figure out what will work well together and make it happen. I really care about the industry, and I don’t understand why more of [the labels] aren’t doing that. I think we still operate in quarterly billing to help banks sell to analysts without thinking about the long-term. I think by [combining] film and music there’s short-term and long-term gains for everybody.”

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