After directing three “Night at the Museum” movies, Shawn Levy didn’t want to be confined to directing family comedies for the rest of his career. If you’re doing something successfully, he told IndieWire, it’s easy to be “pigeonholed” by Hollywood into that one thing.

But he’s been far from limited under the banner of his own production company, 21 Laps. Levy and his company have been prolific hit-makers since it launched in 2006, and he has produced and directed everything from indie darlings (“The Spectacular Now”), ambitious Best Picture nominees (“Arrival”), studio blockbuster satires (“Free Guy“), prestige limited series (“All the Light We Cannot See”), Stephen King horror movies (“The Boogeyman”), and the biggest Netflix show ever (“Stranger Things”), all of which depart from the family-friendly event movies on which he cut his teeth.

“You need to refuse to be limited by everyone else’s assumptions,” Levy told IndieWire during a recent interview. “Everyone assumed, oh, it’s Shawn Levy’s company. It’s going to do family event comedies. So the first thing is we just ignored all presumptions about what we were and weren’t.”

21 Laps has brought in $3.2 billion in global box office and some of the biggest streaming hits ever. Yet for as many franchises as the shingle has to its name, next year’s “Deadpool 3” and a secretive “Star Wars” feature film Levy is developing are the first time 21 Laps have been entrusted with the keys to major, established IP. That’s just another example of how Levy believes they’re debunking assumptions.

“For the better part of our company’s existence, no one ever gave us shit. We made shit. We made our own destiny,” Levy said. “We made original movies and shows that ended up becoming franchises. But no one was watching. No one was helping. It was just something we latched on to and believed in and we made it happen.”

Levy named 21 Laps for his firstborn daughter who, in a charity jog-a-thon, managed to outperform her dad’s expectations by running 21 times around a track, rather than six or seven. “People can surprise you,” Levy said. “The goal for 21 Laps was always that this company has a chance at surprising people.”

Sure enough, 21 Laps found box office success primarily from Levy’s own movies, including “Real Steel” ($299 million), “Date Night” ($152 million), and the “Night at the Museum” franchise (over $1 billion globally). But the company found a new gear when both Dan Levine and Dan Cohen — or Levy’s producing partners, aka “The Dans” — each joined 21 Laps within a week of each other in 2010.

Levine, who had brought in movies like “Fight Club” and “L.A. Confidential” at New Regency and worked on “Cloverfield” and “Friday the 13th” at Paramount, said he found a “soulmate” in Cohen when it comes to their shared love of elevated genre. Cohen, meanwhile, who was an executive in the indie space at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, bonded with Levy over a love of “Rocky IV” and “Jerry Maguire.” Plus, he knew Levy would never tell him “no.”

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Alp/Global Produce/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5855411a)
Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley
The Spectacular Now - 2013
Director: James Ponsoldt
Alp/21 Laps/Global Produce
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“The Spectacular Now”Alp/Global Produce/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

As Cohen puts it, they’ve now been together for the production company equivalent as long as U2 has. But championing the book “The Spectacular Now” and the short story (Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”) that would become “Arrival” helped define that 21 Laps voice.

“We are always looking for character-anchored and thematically rich stories. It’s elevated genre or high concept with heart,” Levy said. Releases like “The Spectacular Now” and “This Is Where I Leave You” aren’t quite high-concept, but the characters and themes are broad and big enough that you can feel that same ethos in “Free Guy,” “The Adam Project,” or their most recent Golden Globe-nominated WWII drama, “All the Light We Cannot See.”

“You could go through each of those titles and we could say the theme in a sentence or two, and it’s betting on a project having something to say that touches you,” Levy said. “You’re betting on the fact that if it touches me this deeply, it’s going to touch a lot of other people too. That’s the big bet we always place.”

Levine said they’ve found a sweet spot at 21 Laps with “emotionally grounded sci-fi,” making them ideal candidates to take on Marvel and “Star Wars.” Each of those franchises, though, has seen better days. The strikes pushed back the release of “Deadpool 3,” for which Levy is now in London resuming filming, and after some box office woes for “The Marvels” and “Ant-Man 3,” it is now the only MCU movie being released in 2024. A series of starts and stops on a number of “Star Wars” projects has meant the last new film in the saga was 2019’s “The Rise of Skywalker,” and the next won’t arrive until at least 2025.

But Levy sees this moment as an opportunity to put his own stamp on the material and imbue each with the character-driven, heart-on-its-sleeve emotionality for which 21 Laps has become synonymous.

“We don’t rely on the IP to make the movie great. We get the story great. And then we take advantage of the IP mythology, world history, timeline, all of those things, but we start with character and story and the rest is bonus, not the other way around. Because I know that so many big IP movies if they let us down, it’s because they feel character-light, story-light,” Levy said.

"Deadpool 3"
Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman in “Deadpool 3”Marvel/Deadpool Movie Twitter

The trio hesitates to reveal too much about either “Star Wars” or “Deadpool” except to say that they’re not looking to reinvent either franchise. And in the case of Star Wars, Levy said they’re “going to develop the hell out of the screenplay” and only shoot when the script is great.

Between that though, they still want to make original stories they can mold into the next franchise. Levy said it is “one of the great gratifications” in the history of 21 Laps to have found a pilot script by two twins that no one wanted and see them grow into the Duffer Brothers and “Stranger Things.”

“It never feels easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it,” Cohen said. “You get a couple things that work in your rearview mirror and you get the confidence of saying, well, we believed in that when no one else did, and it worked out, so who’s to say this isn’t one of those as well?”

“That kind of bet requires a lot of confidence in your instincts,” Levy added. “You’re not going to get it right all the time, but we’re going to keep betting on emerging voices and visions.”

Even for producers with their clout, that’s getting harder every year. 21 Laps has an exclusive, overall TV deal with Netflix, and for films, they more than most have been able to split the difference between success on streaming and theatrical. But that hasn’t made them immune from the demands of the industry.

“We’ve spent our career making originals when no one else was. And trust us, it’s not like that’s all we want to do. We’d love some big, fat, juicy IP, and we’re finally getting it. But it’s harder to get [originals] mounted,” Levine said. “You have to push yourself in that area to deliver for that. There’s much less a want for original ideas and much more a want for what are the known names that we can put on big IP, and that’s a muscle we have to use more and more.”

All the Light We Cannot See Netflix Marie actress Aria Mia Loberti
Aria Mia Loberti in “All the Light We Cannot See”Courtesy of Katalin Vermes / Netflix

One solution has been for 21 Laps to experiment with form and genre. “All the Light We Cannot See,” originally developed by other filmmakers as a feature, succeeded by becoming 21 Laps’ first limited series, and it won’t be its last. The company is in the works on another limited series, “The Perfect Couple” starring Nicole Kidman and Liev Schreiber and directed by Susanne Bier, and is currently shooting its first docuseries in partnership with The Verge.

“We’re dipping into things that if you asked us even a year ago, let alone several, we would be like, I don’t think so, it doesn’t seem like something,” Cohen said. “But it’s also why we’re saying more humanity, heart, high concept, these things, because it’s that alchemy that makes up the stuff that we love and that takes us across different genres.”

Cohen teases wanting to wade into biopics that can be staged as character-driven thrillers, Levy said its upcoming “Stranger Things” stage production is “fucking rad,” and the team gushed about one day working with everyone from Bradley Cooper to David Fincher to the directors of “Talk to Me” and “Dream Scenario.” The Dans told us they recently met with “Emily the Criminal” director John Patton Ford and hope to develop a film with him.

And don’t rule out a reunion with “Arrival” director Denis Villeneuve. Cohen said they see themselves as Villeneuve’s “gateway drug” into him becoming the new king of science fiction.

A child in a dirty, pale pink dress with a denim jacket, sporting a shaved head, nose bleed, and menacing expression; still from "Stranger Things"
“Stranger Things” Season 1Courtesy of Netflix

Regardless of the form, 21 Laps consider themselves “grinders,” filmmakers who love doing the work because they’re fans first and producers second. They don’t care about solidifying one singular strategic vision that can define them for the next decade, and their motivations haven’t changed, even if the IP has gotten much, much bigger.

“Our job day in and day out is pretty much the same, which is, shut out all that outside cultural noise, look at the latest draft, how could it be better,” Levy said. “This is what we asked again and again and again, long after other people would tap out or fall down from exhaustion: the push for how can it be better?”

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