by Jo Crompton
Fresh out of film school with little more than the promise of a friend’s couch to crash on and an unpaid industry internship, Gold Coaster Mr Trevor Smith (Class of 2003) stepped off the plane in Los Angeles and stumbled into his dream career. Fast forward 15 years and the 37-year-old works with giants of the silver screen and runs a production company together with some of the world’s great documentary film and television creators.
Starting out as an assistant to the legendary director Mr R.J. Cutler, a pioneer of the non-fiction film and television genre, Mr Smith is now a sought-after creative producer whose long list of accolades includes being shortlisted for both an Academy Award and a BAFTA, as well as multiple Critics Choice nominations.
Mr Smith first started working with Mr Cutler on fashion documentary The September Issue, which followed arguably the most renowned editor of Vogue magazine, Ms Anna Wintour.
"As we were making the Belushi film and the Billie Eilish film anyone could see that the non-fiction landscape was significantly changing."
Mr Smith and Mr Cutler forged a creative connection that has led to some of the most successful collaborations in documentary feature filmmaking. From helping bring to life the glamour and drama of the fashion industry, the pair explored the many sides of late actor and comedian Mr John Belushi and, most recently, charted the journey of musician Ms Billie Eilish’s spectacular rise to fame with 2021’s Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry. Now, with the launch of the production company This Machine, the duo is embracing the rise and rise of streaming services as a way to break new ground and bring more diverse and exciting stories to even bigger audiences.
“As we were making the Belushi film and the Billie Eilish film anyone could see that the non-fiction landscape was significantly changing,” Mr Smith says.
“All of a sudden with the creation of streamers like Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+, HBO Max and Amazon, the appetite for non-fiction programming is significant. People are consuming this kind of content in ways that they haven’t before. R.J. and I partnered with another incredible producer, Elise Pearlstein, and together we are building a company that gives us this amazing opportunity to do more of what we love. The company is designed to work with all kinds of filmmakers whether they be well established directors like R.J. or exciting newer voices who can benefit from the kind of experience and infrastructure we can provide.”
Mr Smith says the opportunity to amplify fresh voices to new audiences is one of the most exciting aspects of creating This Machine. The change these new distribution models is bringing to the industry is ‘a wonderful thing’ he says.
“Not that long ago, the idea of a financially sustainable career in non-fiction felt like a myth, when even the most successful documentarians would pour years and years of their own resources into a film with the hope of a festival premiere or a very limited theatrical run. Today, the landscape and the opportunities are very different. It’s thrilling.”
One of the other great advantages of these kinds of distribution models, he says, is the storytelling freedom.
“Often the narrative is the guide for how long a project should be,” Mr Smith says. “We have some documentaries that are four parts and others that are six parts or eight parts. The divide between what constitutes a movie and what constitutes television is diminishing and I think that’s exciting.”
Having an already engaged audience with a passion for consuming the non-fiction genre is creating more opportunities to tell stories about and from diverse communities and creators.
“The demand for content from distributors is at a peak and I think everyone’s hope is that this increases the opportunities for storytellers of all kinds to tell stories to devoted audiences,” he says.
It also opens doors for different perspectives, he says, and This Machine wants to be part of supporting new voices and diverse filmmakers from all backgrounds.
“That’s a priority for This Machine and a priority for me as a producer. We want to work with the broadest possible group of creators who have unique and important perspectives and narratives the world wants to hear.”