From West to Hollywood

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When you hear the story of Johnny Ryan Jr., a graduate of the class of 2000 at Cranston West, you’ll probably think it’s just another crazy – and lucky – Hollywood success story. But for Ryan, his plight to being a highly successful film producer, now one of the executive producers on the new Bill and Ted movie, was simple: he maintained his passion for film, he never stopped grinding, and, above all else, he followed the money.

Ryan tells his story with confidence, a character trait he credits to his theatre teacher at Cranston West, Nancy Vitulli. He said that he “owes his entire career” to Vitulli because she brought him into theatre in his freshman year of high school and “turned him onto his love of the industry.”

That industry, which he is now an 18-year veteran of, is the Hollywood film industry, which has a varying reputation depending on who you speak to.

For Ryan, the industry has been nothing but good to him, from the day he decided to leave college at the age of 18 and move into the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood with $10,000 saved up from working three jobs during high school, including at the old Hollywood Video store in Garden City.

He knew he wanted to get into the entertainment business, no matter how it happened. Turns out, a trip to a psychic led to his first producing job. He met with a psychic in downtown Los Angeles, which he said was strange for a Rhode Islander to do because “we don’t really believe in spirituality.” He saw an opportunity: he could turn this psychic, who was an eclectic and personable middle-aged woman named Serena, into a television show.

So, he and the psychic, along with her husband, created an online television show and got her onto various red carpets, which happen at a high rate in Hollywood, and made their big splash at the red carpet for My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Tom Hanks, who was a producer on the movie, gave them an interview, which ended up going viral. Ryan said he was then offered a contract from an online television network in London, and he continued producing red carpet shows for several years. The success of it turned it into a multi-million dollar enterprise, and Ryan formed his first production company.

“During that time, I really focused on networking,” Ryan said. “We became friends with a lot of celebrities basically because we weren’t dirtbags.”

After a few years, Ryan was bought out of that company by his partner and thought, “he’d be able to retire” after buying a house in the Hollywood Hills at 21 years old.

Instead of retiring, though, he decided to continue his passion for the film industry and, despite being looked down upon because of his youth, he used his connections to get a job at Paramount Pictures as a producer. After developing projects for them, however, he didn’t like working for a big production company.

“I realized I didn’t fit in, because I didn’t like having a boss,” he said. “I knew which movies would work and which wouldn’t, because I’m the demographic. And you have these old white executives saying what kids want to see, and I didn’t want that.”

After realizing this, he met with a former colleague who had formed his own production company, and, in true Hollywood fashion, used his celebrity connections to leverage a position in the company.

“I rolled in with Adrien Brody,” Ryan said. “And he gave me half the company.”

While there, he said he produced 12 movies, including the latter two movies of The Butterfly Effect trilogy. After a few years, he was once again bought out and left again to reevaluate the direction in which he wanted to take his career. He again used his connections and movie expertise to start his own production company, called Dial 9 Entertainment, along with his fellow Rhode Island native and Ryan’s cousin John Santilli. Santilli began his career in film production in Providence, working in the 1990s on films including There’s Something about Mary,” and still lives in Rhode Island, producing films here and in New York.

The two of them continued to work together, producing movies in the “5 to 50 million dollar range,” which Ryan said are easier to get financed than “$300,000” movies because the backers are more optimistic about those.

Through his time in the industry, Ryan has always put money at the forefront of his projects.

“Coming from Rhode Island, if you don’t pay some back you’ll pay for it,” he said, adding that movies “are a numbers game” and finances are always the most important issue.

“There’s not luck to it,” he added. “If we weren’t going to get at least 75 percent back on a project, we weren’t going to do it.”

Ryan said that the entertainment industry changes constantly, and has especially done so in the last few years with the “hundreds” of new platforms available for content production, including Netflix, Hulu and YouTube.

“Before you had seven big studios with about two dozen mini studios,” he said. “Now we have over one hundred platforms to distribute movies. There’s so many different avenues to do it now, and you just have to adjust to the times.”

He said the big studios are adjusting to the shorter attention spans of young consumers, such as Fox releasing movies in 10 minute increments on their website, which he said is working. He also said that “YouTube kids” are making $50,000 a week in some instances because they have so many viewers, even though their videos are so short.

He also talked about movie deals going straight to Netflix rather than doing theatrical distribution, with celebrities like Will Smith, Adam Sandler and Martin Scorsese doing “straight to Netflix” deals.

“The industry’s changing for the better,” he said. “Studios and filmmakers and festivals get mad because they say it takes a certain thing away from it, but you’re still bringing kids to love cinema again, just at their convenience. Most of the industry embraces it…I would prefer our shows to go on Hulu or Netflix because kids can find it. Eighteen to 35 has always been the key demographic.”

Ryan said he still loves going to a movie theatre and enjoying a movie there, but as a producer in the industry he must adjust to the times to make money, though his new Bill and Ted 3 movie, which he’s worked on with personal friend Keanu Reaves, will have a theatrical release as of now.

Ryan has in recent years, along with Santilli, branched off from movies to produces some of the most popular live shows in Las Vegas, including the money-making venture Magic Mike Live, which Ryan worked side-by-side with Channing Tatum to produce.

Ryan said he’s now in a much different place from when he first started nearly 20 years ago, since he has made a name for himself among the industry and can work his own projects and his own schedule. That schedule, he said, mostly includes meetings with other entertainment producers, whether they’re outside by his pool in his Los Angeles home or in New York, Toronto, Texas, Connecticut, or wherever else he needs to go to raise funds or manpower for his projects.

Ryan also makes sure to visit Rhode Island a few times a year, especially during St. Mary’s Feast in the summer, which was a huge part of his childhood. He said he’s brought celebrities such as Nikki Bella and Dave Bautista (when he was producing their live show) to places like Weinerama, Eddie’s Place, his nickname for The Thirsty Beaver, and Hasbro Children's Hospital when he visits the state.

Despite most of his schedule being fairly hectic, as one might expect with the film industry, he said he’s now in a position to pick what projects him and his partners want most, and the wealth/reputation he’s made for himself allows some flexibility.

And after all his time out in Hollywood, he harps on his childhood experiences in Cranston, from fighting with Vitulli in the theatre program at West to selling movies at Hollywood Video in Garden City, as beginning what has now been a successful career in Tinseltown.

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