How ‘Strays’ Filmmakers Convinced Universal to Make the R-Rated Comedy

Producer Erik Feig could have been describing “SuperBad” or “Good Boys” when he outlined his new movie to Universal, pitching them on backing his mid-budget film with a detailed slideshow that included everything from ideas for TikTok promotions to potential merchandising. “This is a raunchy, cinematic comedy with heart, about finding your people and your purpose,” a slideshow for the Picturestart founder’s new project, “Strays,” read. Except, in this case, there’s a twist. “It just happens to star a pack of dogs.”

It’s getting harder and harder to convince studios to take the plunge when it comes to movies that aren’t based on toys or comic books. That’s something Feig knows all too well, having previously served as the head of Lionsgate’s film division.

“It’s always a challenge to get a ‘yes,’” Feig says. “It’s a hard job and there’s a reason why people lean back on things that are pre-branded. But when I look back at the projects I greenlit that had the most success — whether it’s ‘John Wick’ or ‘Twilight’ — the ones that worked best were often the riskiest.”

In the case of “Strays,” Universal’s top brass was ultimately convinced that the movie could be both heart-warming and subversive after Feig, director Josh Greenbaum and writer Dan Perrault positioned the film as a furry, foul-mouthed companion to “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” “A Dog’s Purpose” and “Stand By Me.” It helped that their slideshow also included data about the commercial success of comparable R-rated comedies like “Ted” and “Sausage Party,” while reminding the executives that “btw dog movies do really well at the box office.” Case in point: “Marley & Me” and “101 Dalmatians.”

Of course, Disney probably didn’t decided to make “101 Dalmatians” because some producer sold them on the merchandising potential of a branded, limited edition dick protector. That was a faux product that Feig’s team dreamed up for the executives they were hoping to excite — it’s a reference to the genital-oriented punishment that the dogs in “Strays” hope to inflict on an abusive owner.

The general public isn’t usually invited into the inner sanctums of studio decision-makers, but as “Strays” is getting ready to open in theaters on Friday, Feig has shared both his pitch deck and a video that his team prepared for Universal. That included a rundown of why they wanted to make the movie, as well as a spec trailer. As a proof of concept, they enlisted a visual effects company to create a demonstration of how they would have the dogs talk in the film. That was important, because part of the plan was to have famous comedians and actors like Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx provide the voices of the pooches.

“We wanted them to know this isn’t some crazy idea,” Feig says. “This is real and here’s how we’re going to pull it off.”

Click here to see the “Strays” pitch deck

Part of that was leaning into the expertise of the filmmaking team that Picturestart had assembled. That included emphasizing Greenbaum’s experience getting laughs with previous work such as “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” and Perrault’s talent for border-pushing parody that he’d demonstrated with the true crime spoof “American Vandal.” And it also entailed enlisting Chris Lord and Phil Miller, the team behind “The Lego Movie,” and “Now You See Me” and “The Hulk” director Louis Leterrier as producers. In the case of Leterrier, the group planned to rely on his experience with visual effects work. The filmmakers stressed to Universal that they could tell the story with a certain kind of sweep by shooting it in Atlanta and finding an exciting way to capture a dog’s perspective.

“We wanted to show this could have a cool style and not cost a fortune,” says Feig. “Since our lead characters are dogs, we wanted it to be told from their point of view. And that meant that their lower heights gave everything an epic scope.” (To illustrate the look of the film, the producers included a shot from “Lord of the Rings”).

Not everything has gone according to the plan that Feig and his team laid out for Universal. The actors and writers strikes have meant that the cast isn’t available to plug the film on late night shows or in magazine pieces. It’s also upended the filmmaker’s plans to enlist lots of dog-loving social media influencers to talk up “Strays” to their followers.

“It turns out a lot of these influencers are members of the Screen Actors Guild,” says Feig. “So not only can the actors not promote the film on social media, a lot of these dog influencers can’t either.”

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