Tell me if you’ve recently had this experience: You’re browsing the web, catching up on the very specific two-and-a-half-minute art form that is movie trailers, when you see a preview for a film called The Little Mermaid.
“The Little Mermaid,” you think to yourself. “Wasn’t Sofia Coppola going to direct that? I thought it wasn’t happening?” Thinking back on fond memories of “Under the Sea” and vague intimations of the terror you felt at the hands of Disney animated movies like Mermaid, Pinocchio and Fantasia — not to mention the disorienting, uncanny-valley nightmare of watching the Beast, aka mo-cap Dan Stevens, and Emma Watson fall in love — you click on the trailer, eager and somewhat nervous to see what a big-budget, star-packed, live-action version might look like, only to find ... something else.
This summer’s Little Mermaid is not a Disney movie. It’s the work of Conglomerate Media, a company based in Miami, with one previous title to its name: Walt Before Mickey, a biopic of Walt Disney’s early life based on Timothy Susanin’s book of the same name. Directed by a first-time feature filmmaker and starring a relatively unknown cast — apart from Napoleon Dynamite star Jon Heder, who plays Walt’s brother Roy — Walt Before Mickey received a small theatrical release, earning it just five reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and is now streaming on Netflix.
The key figure linking Walt Before Mickey and The Little Mermaid is Armando Gutierrez, who offered Polygon a glimpse into how a young company, with just a single film under its belt, made a Little Mermaid that landed an exclusive run at AMC Theatres, and already sold its worldwide streaming rights to Netflix, building on the relationship that began with Walt Before Mickey. His experience shines a light on what it’s like to work on the fringes of a radically different Hollywood, where, thanks to the streaming platforms, there’s been a new evolution of the direct-to-video titles that seemingly died with DVD.
Gutierrez’s background is not in film — but it is in just about everything else. The son of a lobbyist and a former chairwoman of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, and the grandson of Cuban immigrants, Gutierrez grew up in Miami, graduated from the University of Miami and the Harvard Extension School, operated in commercial real estate, and even made a brief run for Congress as a Republican in 2010, when he was still in his 20s. But throughout those experiences, he says, he’s always harbored dreams of working in film.
“I did want to move to Hollywood when I graduated undergrad, but didn’t have the finances at the time,” he says, “so I started to work in real estate until I could pursue my dreams when the timing was right.”
A few years ago, Gutierrez met another Floridian named Arthur Bernstein, who had more experience in the industry than he did, not to mention one hell of an IMDb photo gallery. Together, they tackled the script, produced and both acted in Walt Before Mickey. For The Little Mermaid, Gutierrez again found a producing partner to help him pull the film together: Robert Molloy, grandson of the late George Steinbrenner, former owner of the New York Yankees. (Molloy’s mother, Jessica Steinbrenner, is listed as an executive producer of The Little Mermaid.)
“I had met them through other friends through the years, and they also had a very big interest in creating art,” Gutierrez tells me. “We all knew the story of The Little Mermaid, and we thought the possibility of turning that into a live-action version was very, very unique.”
Molloy, who recently started a company called Pinstripe Productions in the hopes of building on his experience with The Little Mermaid, says he got to know Gutierrez — who, according to Molloy, is also a part-owner of a Yankees’ minor league affiliate, the Tampa Tarpons — during spring training. They first discussed doing a biopic about Lou Gehrig focusing on the later part of his life, including his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; that project is still in development, and in the meantime, Gutierrez had another idea.
“We knew it was going to be a long process, so Armando was like, ‘Well, do you want to get your feet wet, no pun intended, and learn about the industry?’” Molloy says. “I hadn’t done a film yet, so I said yeah, absolutely, and he sent me the script for The Little Mermaid and I fell in love with it — I read it in an hour and was just like, ‘I’ve got to do it.’”
Though Gutierrez’s love for Disney beams through his project choices, and even Conglomerate Media’s website — the about page prominently displays Walt Disney’s quote “if you can dream it you can do it” — his version of The Little Mermaid has no connection to the animated Disney musical. It’s the 1837 fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen that has been adapted for film on multiple occasions, including a number of Andersen fairy-tale anthology films, the Hayao Miyazaki anime Ponyo, and the wild 2015 Polish movie The Lure, which was recently added to the Criterion Collection.
Andersen’s story, having long since passed into the public domain, is fair game for anyone with Final Draft and a camera. Blake Harris, another person making his feature debut, wrote the script and co-directed it with Chris Bouchard, with Gutierrez and Molloy serving as the producers. Harris’ prior work includes a Chinese music video connected to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story starring Donnie Yen’s character Chirrut Imwe, and Bouchard, whose credits are mostly in visual effects, wrote and directed a short called “The Hunt for Gollum,” along with a feature, London’s Finest.
“It’s a whole new twist on the story,” Gutierrez says. “Obviously, a live-action version that takes place in a Mississippi kind of environment is a completely new retelling, but it’s still got the main points of the mermaid and the villain and the love story.”
In many ways, Gutierrez’s approach caters to the new world of the streaming services, which have a desperate need to provide their subscribers with options, particularly as films and television produced by other companies are increasingly siloed off by the spread of proprietary platforms like Disney’s upcoming Netflix competitor. While there are similarities to the old direct-to-video model, the dynamics are different: Those films required a monetary investment, either through purchase or rental, meaning that, most likely, a prospective viewer would look for some prior ingredient that they’d enjoyed — a star, say, or a franchise — before paying for the movie.
With subscription streaming platforms, however, the barrier to entry is much lower; a viewer can always just turn the movie off and choose one of the thousands of other options available. That means the association of Disney, or the story of the Little Mermaid, could be more than enough to make a title appealing. Gutierrez cited other hooks, like holiday movies, that work similarly well for streaming services.
As long as budgets stay low, thematically recognizable productions can be a viable approach to recouping costs for even a small company without a long-standing industry legacy. Gutierrez says that some of Conglomerate’s strategies for keeping costs low include avoiding complicated visual effects and post-production needs, writing the script with an eye toward practicality, and trying to reuse locations and minimize changes to sets while still maintaining story integrity. The homespun, DIY approach also allows for plenty of opportunities to learn on the job: Molloy ended up working as the second-unit director on The Little Mermaid, receiving a crash course in filmmaking.
“A friend of mine once told me, ‘You can make any movie for any budget — it’s just how it’s going to look. You can make Avengers for very, very little, but it’s going to look differently,” Gutierrez says, laughing. “It’s kind of like real estate. If you build a building at a certain price, but you know you can rent it at a certain price, you’re trying to mitigate your risk. There’s still risk, don’t get me wrong — there’s no movie made that doesn’t have a lot of risk — but you’re trying to mitigate it by doing it at a number where you feel like you can be successful.”
While Gutierrez credits the streamers’ insatiable hunger for content with allowing him and his collaborators to get their foot in the door — as well as tackling subjects with worldwide appeal, providing the opportunity to sell lucrative foreign rights — he’s still trying to pursue theatrical windows for his films. The Little Mermaid opened over the weekend in 200 theaters thanks to a partnership with AMC. (A lack of box office data leaves the film’s weekend success unclear, although reports suggest a run in Portugal earlier this month netted $44,670.)
Beyond that, Conglomerate seems to be doubling down on its hopes of becoming a sort of budget Disney, providing a new spin on public-domain stories. Its next film, also written and directed by Harris, is a version of the Anastasia Romanov myth, which received the animated treatment back in 1997. As with The Little Mermaid, which features Poppy Drayton (The Shannara Chronicles) in the role of the mermaid, Gutierrez and Harris cast an actor with some solid credits as the lead: Emily Carey, who recently appeared as both young Wonder Woman and young Lara Croft.
And apart from the freedom to pursue what you want, the control over every aspect of the process, and the opportunity to break in without any prior experience, there’s another advantage to coming at the movie industry from the outside: You get to cast yourself in your films. Guess who’s playing Rasputin.
Kevin Lincoln has written for the New York Times Magazine, New York, Grantland and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.