How Taylor Swift Ended Up at Searchlight

Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift at the 2022 MTV VMAs. Photo: Cindy Ord/WireImage
Matthew Belloni
December 11, 2022

I guess it was inevitable that Taylor Swift, who has been directing or co-directing her music videos since back in 2010, would try her hand at a feature. What might be a bit more surprising is that her untitled debut was announced this week by Searchlight, Disney’s arthouse label, and not Netflix, Amazon, Apple or even Searchlight sibling Disney+, which likely would have thrown tens of millions of dollars at a star this gigantic. After all, a Swift-directed movie—even if it’s terrible, and even if executives have to wait a year for her shoot after her 2023 tour—will eventually be marketed by T-Swift herself and gobbled up by the Swifties, making it a hot commodity for any well-funded streamer. But behind the scenes, the Searchlight move makes perfect sense.

Taylor developed a relationship with Searchlight president David Greenbaum while her boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn, was shooting The Favourite, the 2018 Oscar winner. She came to the New York Film Festival opening of that film, the two kept in touch, and Greenbaum, knowing Swift’s Hollywood ambition and her admiration for auteur filmmakers, introduced her to people like Guillermo del Toro, who made The Shape of Water and Nightmare Alley for Searchlight. I’m told Del Toro invited Swift to tour his creepy memorabilia house in the Valley, and he offered career advice. “I gave her a few books that I thought would be interesting for her—among them, very importantly, a book that was useful for me in creating Pan’s Labyrinth called The Science of Fairy Tales, which codifies and talks about fairytale lore,” del Toro told W this week.

Searchlight knew the streamers would shower Swift with money and let her make whatever she wanted, so the pitch was support and curation, its track record helping first-time filmmakers like Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) and Drew Barrymore (Whip It), and its core specialty: marketing tougher, smaller-budget titles, everything from Beasts of the Southern Wild to Nomadland to the current Banshees of Inisherin. While I don’t have details on the script, which Swift wrote herself, I know the budget is small and the subject matter intimate; this is not a Nightmare Alley-style production. (Searchlight declined to comment.)

Swift basically said as much during an appearance at the Toronto film festival in September, where she revealed a desire to direct something like Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story or Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir films while kicking off her long-shot Oscar campaign for All Too Well: The Short Film in the documentary short category. Swift attended the New York premiere of Banshees with Ethan Tobman, the production designer who has worked with Swift and Beyoncé, and who did The Menu, the current Searchlight hit. Searchlight also convinced Banshees director Martin McDonagh to do a recent Variety interview with Swift, lending her credibility during the Oscar season.   

Taylor is nothing if not the world’s greatest brand manager of her own personal brand—the stories about her micromanaging when she was repped at WME, before she brought everything in-house, are legendary—and in this sense, Searchlight is very on-brand for her. It’s not a perfect machine (see this weekend’s Sam Mendes flop Empire of Light), but for Swift, who wants a personal touch, an imprimatur of quality and specialty, who doesn’t need the Apple money, and whose two recent toe-dips into acting—Cats and Amsterdam—did not go well, the Searchlight relationship gives her a much better chance to succeed long-term in Hollywood.