Producer Kevin J. Walsh on How ‘Napoleon’ Achieved the Best of Both the Streaming and Theatrical Worlds

In 2015, producer Kevin J. Walsh was clearing out a last-minute parking lot location for Manchester by the Sea’s most memorable scene, and just seven years later, he found himself on one of several battlefields that would define Ridley Scott’s latest historical epic, Napoleon.

Financed by Apple Original Films and distributed by Sony, the Joaquin Phoenix-led film just outperformed expectations with $32.7 million over the five-day Thanksgiving window, and Walsh believes that Napoleon’s production and distribution arrangement is the ideal way forward for streamers who want to make big-budget plays. With the possible exception of Netflix, the remaining streamers haven’t been able to justify the expense of streaming-exclusive blockbusters, but Napoleon has now established that streaming services and traditional studios can work together in mutually beneficial ways.

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“We have two studios that are the best at what they do, and they’re working together. So, for us, all boats rise with the tide,” Walsh tells The Hollywood Reporter. “When you see a big billboard for [Napoleon’s] theatrical release, that’s going to hopefully drive not only money to the box office, but it’s also going to drive people to Apple TV+ [after the 45-day theatrical window]. We get to have our cake and eat it, too.”

Walsh launched The Walsh Company in early 2022 and signed a multi-year deal with Apple TV+, making Napoleon one of the final films that he produced for Scott during his tenure as President of Scott Free Productions. The duo made twelve films together, including three other films that Scott directed. Besides 2021’s The Last Duel and House of Gucci, Walsh first produced the Scott-directed All the Money in the World (2017), and in hindsight, he thinks the Herculean group effort to replace the embattled Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer at the eleventh hour bonded him and Ridley in a way that set the tone for the rest of their relationship.

“It’s something that no one else could do but Ridley, and I was happy to be at his side, helping pull the strings to make it happen,” Walsh says.

In the 2000s, Walsh cut his teeth in assistant roles to Tommy Mottola, Scott Rudin and Steven Spielberg, before eventually producing a trio of indie darlings: The Way, Way Back (2013), Manchester by the Sea (2016) and Thoroughbreds (2017). But it was Kenneth “Kenny” Lonergan’s Manchester that would go on to change his life with not only an Oscar nomination, but also a roundabout introduction to Scott.

Manchester’s most emotional scene between Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams also happens to be one of Walsh’s proudest moments as a producer. He first remedied the parking lot-adjacent set of a disruptive bystander, and then he offered a note to Lonergan that would ultimately tip the scales on the scene’s heart-wrenching quality, as the two estranged characters finally confronted their unimaginable loss.

“Casey, as he was playing it, kept looking down at his feet. He wouldn’t look up. I knew that he wasn’t going to emotionally break unless he made eyes with Michelle [Williams],” Walsh recalls. “So I said, ‘Kenny, please just have Casey look up and meet eyes with her.’ And when Casey finally looked up and met eyes with her, it was like the seventh or eighth take, and he started to cry and she started to cry. And that was the take that made it into the movie.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Walsh also previews his upcoming slate, before expressing his concerns about 2024 in terms of moviegoing and moviemaking.

So, like a lot of people, I’ve been using the phrase Napoleon complex for most of my life, and now I have the ultimate visual representation of what that means. 

Exactly. That ego of the character is unchecked, and it’s really amazing what Joaquin did to bring him to life. I’ve been reading reviews, and people really understood what he was doing in a great way. So we’re really happy with how it played.

What’s the backstory involving you and Ridley? What got the ball rolling on your first collaboration?

Chris Moore and I produced Manchester by the Sea with Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward and Lauren Beck. Chris’ wife, [producer] Jenno Topping, worked for [producer] Peter Chernin [at Chernin Entertainment]. They know Ridley very well, and after Jenno asked me to go oversee Greatest Showman, I got an incoming call, saying, “Ridley wants to meet you.” Ridley then said, “I’ll meet you whenever you want,” and I said, “Pick the day and I’ll fly wherever you are.” So I flew to London where I am now, and I promoted Manchester at a London Film Festival Screening. I then had a two-and-a-half hour breakfast with Ridley, and he hired me [as President of Scott Free Productions], which was a great boost.

I had made a bunch of small movies that were really successful and fun, but they were small. We made The Way, Way Back, Thoroughbreds and Manchester by the Sea, and those little movies were all under $10 million. And so, all of a sudden, I was turbocharged. I had six executives. I kept joking to everybody back then: “I felt like I was fighting a war with a knife and a gun, and all of a sudden, I have artillery, missiles and a whole army.” And so we made All the Money in the World first, and then we made The Last Duel, House of Gucci and Napoleon. But we also produced eight films together that Ridley didn’t direct. Everyone always talks about Ridley’s genius artistry, and while he really is a genius, he also has a massive work ethic. So to be able to work at that pace and keep up with him was really inspiring.

Christopher Plummer in <em>All the Money in the World</em>
Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World

The two of you solved a significant problem on All the Money in the World when you replaced an actor in seamless fashion, and I presume you were instrumental in that process. Did that cement your relationship with Ridley? Did that prove your mettle to him?

It certainly helped. We navigated that problem together. There are very few people that could do what he did. We were six or eight weeks out from release, and we were in a London hotel room when the story was breaking about [Kevin] Spacey. And it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. So I would say that I’m the person who can put the tools in place for Ridley to try and execute, but I can count on half a hand the number of filmmakers that could pull off what he did. And so it did cement our relationship in a way. I’ve never thought of it like that, but we did something that will forever be remembered in history. It’s something that no one else could do but Ridley, and I was happy to be at his side, helping pull the strings to make it happen. I would also tip my hat to Dan Friedkin, who was the financier and producer on that movie. That would have never happened if it weren’t for Dan and [producer] Bradley Thomas [at Imperative Entertainment]. They’re good friends of mine and good partners. Dan moved lightning quick, and he’s just a really honorable and great businessman. He made that happen in a great way with Ridley.

So you started The Walsh Company and signed a deal with Apple TV+ in early 2022. Had you already set up Napoleon at Apple by then? 

That’s right. We had already done the deal for Napoleon, and a big part of the deal process for Napoleon was led by [Apple TV+ co-head of worldwide video] Zack Van Amburg, [co-head of worldwide video] Jamie Ehrlicht, [head of features] Matt Dentler, Joaquin’s agent Boomer Malkin and I. Our relationship grew stronger through that process, but I knew Zack and Jamie from seven or eight years earlier. When I was partnered with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, I had a TV deal at Sony TV with them. So we had a relationship, but it really was forged through the process of the Napoleon deal, because a lot of people wanted the movie.

Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix on the Set of Napoleon

Dedicated streamers have always had a complicated relationship with theatrical, and I get it since their priority is to create value for their subscribers and shareholders. If you’re splitting box office with your competitors in a way, then you’re working against that priority. 


At the same time, theatrical is the preferred presentation among filmmakers and it just feels more meaningful and eventful. So, with Apple investing so heavily in theatrical, are they more able to do that since they have many other revenue streams besides just streaming? 

Absolutely. Apple and Amazon, compared to Netflix, have a different business model, and I think we’re getting the best of both worlds now. We have an incredibly supportive home studio paying for this movie, and they’ve let Ridley paint on this massive canvas. But then we have the great acumen of distribution release with [Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures’ Motion Picture Group] Tom Rothman and [president, motion picture group] Josh Greenstein. So we have two studios that are the best at what they do, and they’re working together. So, for us, all boats rise with the tide. When you see a big billboard for this film’s theatrical release, that’s going to hopefully drive not only money to the box office, but it’s also going to drive people to Apple TV+. And when I first made the move to Apple, that theatrical conversation wasn’t in the forefront. That’s been a development with Zack, Jamie, Matt, [senior VP of services] Eddy Cue and [CEO] Tim Cook over the last six to twelve months. So we really got the best of both worlds. We get to have our cake and eat it, too. The movie is going to do what it does during a good 45-day theatrical window, and then it goes on the service in January.

If Netflix had more arms to their business like Apple and Amazon, I wonder if they’d be more open to wide theatrical releases. 

I have a huge amount of respect for those guys. I know [Netflix Chairman] Scott Stuber really well. Ridley and I produced a film [Earthquake Bird] there with my other colleague, Mike Pruss. They have a killer business. They’ve won the streaming number. They have so many eyeballs, but they don’t have another side of the business. Apple’s primary business, as you know, is telephones and computers. Amazon’s primary business is toilet paper and tennis shoes. We’ve made movies for all these places, and we’re lucky to have them all in the business. They’re bringing more movies to the marketplace, and they’re supporting filmmakers in a way that we aren’t always getting these days. I don’t know that I’d get Napoleon done at the price that I got it done if it was at another home, and I don’t know if I’d have the full creative support that Zack and Jamie have given Ridley and me and everybody else.


As we addressed earlier, problem-solving is a huge part of your job, and when you’re making a film like Napoleon that has multiple epic battles, there’s likely a bevy of problems that come with them. So, take the showstopper, the Battle of Austerlitz, for example, what was the biggest production challenge you had to face on that one?

That was really a lot of planning. They’re all massive amounts of planning. Ridley leads like a general, and no one can pull these things off in the way that he does. We do a weekly page turn with all of our [heads of department], and each Monday, we go through the problems. But Austerlitz was unique in that we shot it at multiple locations. We shot it in the hillsides of the U.K. where he filmed something from Gladiator, and then we did the second half of it at an old airport field where we did a bunch of the snow sequences and underwater tank stuff. And so it’s really just watching Ridley mesh that stuff together. I’ve worked with very few filmmakers that can visually take different sequences and segments and make them look all seamless.

So that and figuring out the geography were the biggest challenges over the course of two locations with multiple different teams and crews. I’ve known my other creative producer, Mark Huffam, for over 20 years. When I was an assistant working for Scott Rudin on The Hours in 2000, Mark was the line producer. So I’ve known Mark for 24 years, and it was invaluable to have a partner like that to figure out these big battle sequences. We were tools in Ridley’s toolbox. Mark and I were at his disposal to figure out these issues, whether they’re logistical or creative, and that one just happened to come together beautifully. There were gasps at the Paris premiere when the cannon smashed into the ice. It was staggering to see it come to life like that with the challenge of those two locations.

I don’t expect movies like this to be historical documents, and even though there’s no Hunt for Red October-type transition from French to English, I can still imagine that the characters are hearing French while I’m hearing English. I just want to be entertained. So what’s your take on the fuss over historical accuracy?

If you analyze any film, especially any biopic, you’re going to see that there’s a rounding of corners. You have to take creative license to make these movies engaging. So there are certain things that are heightened, and if you Google the [Egyptian] pyramids, you’ll see that Ridley did something specific there that didn’t happen. But it’s engaging. So it’s important to pluck the right moments that you want to portray in these movies, and make them engaging and fun for the audience. We never intended to make a plain biopic, and the biggest influence of any film on this film is probably [Stanley Kubrick’s] Barry Lyndon. The comedy and the tone of that film really bleeds into this movie, and a lot of the reviews and reactions have cited the comedy and how it’s played. So we’re really pleased with that.

The original title of the film was Kitbag. Did you always know that it would be changed at some point?

Not always. Napoleon is just the connection that people know. Tom Rothman very wisely said that the star of this movie died 300 years ago. Everyone knows who Napoleon was, and it just has a much broader consumer-facing approach. But we loved the term kitbag. It came from the idea that every soldier had this baton in his kitbag and could go on to become the emperor. And that’s who this guy was. He started from nothing. He was a poor Corsican scoundrel and he rose to emperor. So we love that theory, but when it comes to marketing a movie of this size and scope, you want to capture the widest net. So that’s what we did with the title change.

It was probably devastating news when Jodie Comer’s schedule shifted, but by some miracle, Vanessa Kirby was available. Was that a huge sigh of relief considering how important Josephine is to the narrative?

Yes. Jodie is a staggeringly talented actress. We just saw her on opening night of her Tony-winning one-woman show [Prima Facie] in New York, and she was incredible. We obviously worked with her on The Last Duel, and it was a really unfortunate thing [when she had to drop out]. And it really was scheduling. There was a Covid delay, and so they wouldn’t let her out of the play. But Vanessa,  thank God, was available. When you look at people that can come in and play these parts, it gets really tight and specific. There’s not a lot of people that can pull off the sexiness and the power of Josephine and how she commands the relationship with Joaquin’s Napoleon. So it was a shortlist that might’ve been one of one, and it was one of those things that moved really quickly. And thank goodness she responded to it and wanted to meet, so it just worked out. We were able to kind of just swap the deals in and make it seamless, which is a rare thing.

Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon

Ridley is known for releasing alternative cuts of his films, and this movie is no exception. Did you guys know pretty early on that you’d be releasing a longer version of this story on Apple TV+?

That’s not official yet. The cut that is in theaters is the cut that’s going to stream on Apple. Downfield, there might be another thing to look at, and we have multiple longer cuts of the movie that are beautiful. But the movie that people see in the theater is the movie that’s going to stream on Apple in January.

Napoleon was one of the final projects you mounted when you were still at Scott Free. Have you talked about anything else now that you’re at Apple?

This and Boston Strangler were my final projects [at Scott Free], and I’m partnered with Ridley through my new company to make another film at Apple. We’re in the middle of it right now, and it’s called Echo Valley, starring Julianne Moore and Sydney Sweeney. It has a beautiful script by Brad Ingelsby. It’s the third film we’ve produced for Brad, and it’s directed by Michael Pearce, who did Beast. We had to go on hiatus because of the writers’ strike, but we have ten days left on it. So that’s a Scott Free and Walsh Company movie at Apple. Ridley and I are partnered on it with Mike Pruss, who’s the new president at Scott Free. But I’ve been so lucky to work with Ridley for this long. We’ve worked together for seven or eight years now and made twelve movies together. He directed four and we produced eight. He’s supercharged my ability to make big movies, and he’s taught me so much about making movies of this scale and scope. So whenever the phone rings, I’m available to him.

If a producer asks you for advice about working with Ridley, what would you tell them is the key to making his life easier?

I would just say to try to anticipate his needs and be over-prepared and work the hours that he works and constantly be available. I got great advice years ago from someone who said, “Whenever you get bad news, you have to rush it to the top. Make a problem that’s yours into a problem that you solve with your most trusted partners.” So I’ve always remembered that advice, and whenever I get a piece of bad news or a bad beat or a break on one of these movies, I go to my partner, the filmmaker, the other producer or the studio and say, “Here’s the issue and here are three solutions. What would you like to do?” So if you get bad news, come up with some solutions and then present them to everybody else. If you can do that, then you’re in good shape, and I think that’s why Ridley and I worked together so well. We were always sharing information.

I was just on the phone with him an hour ago about the reaction from last night’s premiere. So we still talk all the time, and I’m here to help him navigate whatever he needs, even when we’re distributing and marketing and releasing a film. And that’s what a lot of producers don’t do. They’re not in the guts of releasing these movies and being in the forefront of them. Scott Rudin taught me at a very young age that there are many stages of being a great producer. It’s not just finding a screenplay and developing it and producing it and casting it and making sure it’s really wonderful. It’s seeing it through to the screen, and that’s where you can forge a great relationship with a filmmaker.

How worried are you about 2024’s overall slate?

Well, I’m very lucky that I have two films in post, so they’ll be ready for next year. We have Doug Liman’s The Instigators, starring Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and Hong Chau. I also have Echo Valley, so I’m going to have a couple movies ready. We were very lucky to shoot two films in the first two quarters of this year, but I think there’s going to be a dearth of good movies. People didn’t get to make a lot of films, so I’m worried. I want everybody to win. I want movies to be in theaters. I want movies to make money. It’s good for business. So you’re going to see a big clog of movies shooting in the first quarter of next year. We have three films we’re going to make next year, and I’ll be scrounging for talent slots and crews. We have a huge sci-fi thriller that we’re going to try and make in the first quarter, a really big action comedy that we’re going to make in the summer, and then a drama-comedy in the winter.

You began this conversation with a reference to Manchester by the Sea. Were you on set for the famous lunch scene?

I was on set for the lunch scene, and I was on set for every single scene of that movie. The lunch scene is one of my proudest moments of producing, actually, because I was able to slip a note in that Kenny Lonergan actually took. We were scheduled to shoot that scene on three or four different days before we actually shot it. We were supposed to shoot it on a busier street, but the street was too busy for this very emotional scene. We couldn’t quite hear the actors over the traffic, so we moved up the hill to a back parking lot by a condominium and an apartment building.

I always keep a bunch of cash in my pocket when I’m making a movie, especially on these little movies. If there’s a problem, I can hopefully solve it, quickly. So a woman came out and started screaming in the middle of rehearsal. I think she was having some issues and may have been inebriated, so I quickly gave her some money. I paid for the parking lot location, and we got down to the scene. And Casey, as he was playing it, kept looking down at his feet. He wouldn’t look up. And I know Casey really, really well now. We’ve made three movies together, and I knew that he wasn’t going to emotionally break unless he made eyes with Michelle [Williams]. So I went over to Kenny, and it’s really hard getting notes to him. He’s a genius with how he writes and how he wants something relayed. He writes with ellipses and beats and breaks and dual dialogue and actors stepping on their own lines. It’s all rehearsed.

So I said, “Kenny, please just have Casey look up and meet eyes with her.” And when Casey finally looked up and met eyes with her, it was like the seventh or eighth take, and he started to cry and she started to cry. And that was the take that made it into the movie. So making that movie was a beautiful experience. It was a really, really hard shoot, but I’m so proud of it. I’m talking to Kenny about another movie he’s got. He’s writing it now, and we chatted last week. So I hope I get it, but we’ll see.

Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin and Olivia Cooke in Cory Finley’s <em>Thoroughbreds</em>
Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin and Olivia Cooke in Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds

Another one of my favorite films of the last decade is the aforementioned Thoroughbreds. The way Cory Finley walked that tonal tightrope remains impressive. What was your takeaway from that experience?

Trust young filmmakers. Cory and I just talked again last week. We’re going to do his next movie together. We’re out to an actor right now. He was an incredibly talented playwright who went to Yale School of Drama, but he had never written a screenplay before. So he gave me his play, and I read it on a plane. And when I landed, I called my executive at the time and said, “We’re making this movie this year.” And then Cory sat in my office and said, “I want to adapt it.” And I said,” Well, that’s great. You’re a great writer. You should do it.” And three weeks later, I had a Thoroughbreds screenplay, and it didn’t need to have a single word changed. It was perfect. Truly. No hyperbole. And then a couple weeks later, he was back in my office and said, “I want to direct the movie.” And I said, “Well, have you ever picked up a camera or been on a film set?” And he said, “No, but this is the way I would do it.” And then he walked through this very detailed presentation of how he would cast the film and how he wanted it to look. So I was blown away by how confident and prepared he was.

So the takeaway is to trust young filmmakers, and when you have a great voice, don’t dilute the voice. So many movies are poorly made, because an original voice with an original idea is watered down by a bunch of opinions. That’s how you get a bad movie. So protecting the filmmaker and protecting how they want to tell their story is the most important part of my job. And to do that for Cory was an honor, and I’m thrilled to do it for him again. He’s just written a very daring new movie about loss and how people process grief. It’s about these two men who lose people in their lives. So, trust young filmmakers and don’t dilute their vision.

Napoleon is now playing in movie theaters.

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