THE BUZZ ABOUT THE ROMANTIC COMEDY Hav Plenty started in June at the first-ever Acapulco Black Film Festival. From a "simpatico" Mexican backdrop, Chris Cherot--the writer, director and star of the movie--embarked on a roller coaster ride across North America, trekking between New York and Los Angeles before heading for the Toronto Film Festival to shake hands on a $1.5 million distribution deal with Miramax president Harvey Weinstein.
Hav Plenty is a quirky '90s love story about two 20-somethings in denial about their obvious mutual attraction. It started gaining momentum last May after directors Bill Duke and Warrington Hudlin attended a private screening in New York. They were so impressed, Hudlin insisted Cherot debut his film at the Acapulco Black Film Festival. Hav Plenty won "Best Picture," and the positive response from the crowd prompted Kenneth Lombard, president of Magic Johnson Theaters, to commit to show the film in Los Angeles despite its lack of a distribution deal.
Of course, Cherot's experience is the exception to the rule. Black filmmakers rarely encounter such smooth sailing in getting their works to the big screen. Of the more than 400 films released in 1996 (which grossed a cumulative $5.8 billion), fewer than a dozen targeted black audiences. Yet, African Americans annually account for 25% of the industry's box office, more per capita than any other ethnic group. So, why aren't there more black-oriented films? Actually there are, but Hollywood doesn't want you to see them.
Fortunately, black film festivals, independent distributors, cable television and video releases are helping to crack Hollywood's closed door. These vehicles stand poised to increase the flow of Afrocentric films previously deemed too "culturally specific" for widespread theatrical distribution. In the pipeline is a broad range of films that challenge the myth that there is no market for positive black movies.
Moviegoers also play an important role in bringing alternative depictions of the African American experience to the big screen. By avoiding movies that portray only the lowest common denominator of black life and supporting the trickle of intriguing black films, audiences potentially have the greatest amount of leverage to affect studio releases. Baps, Booty Call, Juice and South Central needn't be the only choices for black moviegoers. "If you see a film that you don't enjoy, go to the box office and ask for your money back," says one film industry executive.
COMING TO A THEATER NEAR YOU?
Large film distributors such as Universal, Paramount, MGM, Twentieth Century Fox and several "mini-majors," including New Line Cinema and Miramax, play a huge role in determining whether a movie really is coming to a theater near you. But "the lack of enthusiasm that distribution companies--the overwhelming majority of which are controlled by whites--have shown for handling films controlled by blacks has meant a paucity of black entrepreneurial and employment success in the Hollywood film industry," writes Tesse Rhines in Black Film. Money (Rutgers University Press; $17.95). For many independent films, a distribution deal covers some post-production costs, prints and advertising. The print and: advertising budget, known as P&A in industry circles, is the key factor in determining how widely a film is released.
Mainstream distributors' disinterest in nonformulaic black stories has jeopardized black filmmakers' ability to bring a diversity of African American experiences and culture to the world. "We still have to conform to the cultural beliefs of the people who control the distribution mechanisms," says independent film pioneer Melvin Van Peebles. Alternative stories, not comedic, violent or sexual parodies of black life, are wanted, and needed, on the silver screen. But because of recent commercial successes, the varied nuances of African American culture are slowly making their way to theaters.
THE HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE
Before coming up with the recipe for Soul Food, George Tillman Jr., the film's writer and director, had another Hollywood experience not quite as palatable. In 1995, at the urging of producers George Jackson and Doug McHenry, Savoy Pictures bought Scenes for the Soul, Tillman's first independent feature, for revising the film after selling it. "I gave up a lot to get Scenes for the Soul made. I deleted scenes, changed music, did whatever they told me to make it more commercial, and it never came out," Tillman recalls.
In spite of his changes, Scenes--a movie about urban life in Chicago--tested poorly with audiences in pre-release screenings. The studio eventually lowered its target from 800 to 20 screens, but Scenes was never released. Savoy Pictures' feature film division folded while Tillman was in Chicago completing the script for his next project, Soul Food--a movie about a middle-class black family held together by a wise matriarch and her down-home Sunday dinners. Several studios passed on the script because "it was a positive black film that didn't have an urban backdrop--no action, no killing and therefore wasn't `black' enough, or commercial enough for widespread release," says Tillman, 28. First Look Pictures, a small independent distributor, expressed an interest in Soul Food and offered to produce it for $2 million. But because of its size, First Look would have released the film on fewer
Hoping to draw attention to the film by attaching a high profile soundtrack, his agent sent the script to Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and his wife, Tracey, owner of Yab Yum Records. Impressed by the script, the Edmonds lobbied to produce the film through Edmonds Entertainment, their film and television production company. They signed on as executive producers and began pitching the film to larger studios that could provide full-scale nationwide release. Studio execs were not swayed.
A first-look picture deal between twentieth Century Fox and Edmonds Entertainment set the table for Soul Food to begin production late in 1996. Fox's $67 million success with Waiting To Exhale, another film at odds with Hollywood's current formula, also played a part in the studio's decision to green light Soul Food. Despite Exhale's success, Fox studio executives still projected preconceived notions of `blackness' onto the Soul Food script. "It's difficult when you have white executives advising you on how to make a black film and wanting to change or delete characters we felt were essential to the flavor of the movie," says Edmonds. "A lot of times they just don't get black humor or black culture and their suggestions take the reality away from the film." This time, Tillman says the changes he made to the script were for the better. On September 26, Soul Food opened on 1,238 screens across the country and grossed $11 .3 million its opening weekend.
GOING FOR SELL
For every Soul Food funded and distributed by a major studio, dozens of black filmmakers must follow the examples set by pioneers Oscar Micheaux, Van Peebles and Spike Lee, all of whom financed their own releases when Hollywood wouldn't believe in their vision. "Van Peebles' $500,000 production, Sweet Sweethack's Bandasssss Song (1970), changed the course of African American film production and the depiction of African Americans on screen," writes Rhines. The film's $10 million gross proved that successful movies could be made without Hollywood. However, "the challenge today is not making films but getting them distributed," says Van Peebles.
Aspiring filmmaker David Talbert raised $1.5 million in 1996 from friends to finance his first feature film, A Woman Like Than a romantic comedy about unrequited love starring Tyra Banks and Malik Yoba. Talbert, 31, who also produces gospel plays, expected his film to get picked up by a major distributor on the strength of its script and recognizable cast. "We went into this film thinking we were doing certain things right by getting actors like Tyra, who has crossover appeal, as well as those more specific to the black community like Malik," says the writer/director. He was mistaken. Paramount, Miramax and most other studios balked at distributing the film.
Talbert believes the lack of sex and violence and a divergence from other established industry parameters for commercial black films played a role in the studios' decision not to pick up A Woman Like That. "They said the film had no audience, but if I had shown Tyra's breasts or Malik's body, they would have jumped at this film." Now, Talbert invites studio acquisitions executives to screenings that include a black audience so they can see the potential market for his film and feel the response. "I don't send out any videotapes [to potential distributors]," says Talbert. "It's too easy for studio executives to pick a film apart in an office."
VIVA LA FESTIVAL
To gain exposure, Talbert frequents various film festivals, such as Cannes, Sundance and Toronto. These testing grounds are where both studio-funded and independent films are judged on their merits by film industry professionals, major studios and independent distributors. "Young directors have to understand the game, and entering these film festivals is part of getting a distribution deal," says Joe Brewster, writer and director of The Keeper, a psychological prison drama starring Giancarlo Esposito, which opened in New York in September. Screening a film at a festival can cost upwards of $5,000 apiece, including entry fees, travel and expenses. "Film festivals provide a sort of pedigree," says Brewster, who has shown his film at festivals around the globe. "You're getting attention based on quality, ability to complete a project and commercial viability." However, mainstream distributors are not always receptive to alternative depictions of black culture.
Even though The Keeper was well received at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, it did not emerge with a distribution deal. "It is not a genre they [distributors] felt black audiences would accept," explains Brewster, a psychiatrist turned filmmaker. Other black films have had similar experiences at prestigious festivals, gaining acclaim but no distribution channel. Black film festivals have gained popularity in recent years and play a crucial role in securing distribution for black films. "They [black film festivals] are important because they give black audiences a chance to validate our own films," explains Eugene Haynes, director of Urban Acquisitions and Productions at October Films. "Cannes and the rest are good exposure for black films, but distributors can't get the audience validation that would make it worth their while because we aren't well represented in those venues.
The Milano African Film Festival (in Italy), the Pan African (Los Angeles) and the African Diaspora (New York) film festivals, are just a few of the black festivals held throughout the year. "Black journalists and professionals in the industry who saw our film at these festivals began to sing our praises, which started a buzz in the black community. That's how we got our film distributed," adds Brewster, whose film was eventually picked up by Kino International, a small independent film distributor based in New York. In 1997, the Acapulco (Mexico) Black Film Festival (ABFF) and the Urban World Film Festival (UWFF), held in New York, were the two latest additions to a plethora of black festivals held around the country (see sidebar).
Hav Plenty attracted the Edmonds' attention at the ABFF. They later arranged a private screening and signed on as executive producers. Talbert's A Woman Like That won the Best Dramatic Feature award at the UWFF, but didn't attract a distributor. Two weeks later, the determined director entered the film in the Independent Feature Film Market (IFFM) in New York, one of the country's premier events showcasing independent films, and was nominated for the Gordon Parks Independent Film Award. At press time, Talbert still hadn't found a distributor and was considering alternative outlets for his film, including cable television.
THE DISTRIBUTION SOLUTION
Prints--copies of the film sent to the various exhibitors, Cineplex Odeon, Sony Theaters, AMC, etc.--cost between $1,500 and $4,000 each. Therefore, releasing a film simultaneously on 400 screens, considered a limited release, could cost a distribution company over $1 million for prints alone. It also requires considerable marketing and advertising efforts to get a film noticed in today's competitive movie market. In 1996, the average P&A budget for major studio releases was $16 million, giving them an enormous advantage in the marketplace. Smaller distribution companies, such as Kino, and black-owned KJM3 and New Millennia Films, often provide the only distribution outlet for non-stereotypical black films. "We don't have the same money [as the majors], but we have to be in the ballpark to be able to help filmmakers who are spending $1-$3 million for their films. We have to be able to offer them the opportunity to recoup their investment, and a $50,000 P&A budget isn't going to do it," says Marlin Adams, KJM3 vice president of legal affairs. "You need $4 million or $5 million to do 400-600 prints for a wide release to make commercial independent films successful."
"The key to the success of these films is finding the right distributor to provide them with the right level of expertise and who has the right kind of relationships with theater owners," says Lombard of Magic Theaters. With major studio releases, the exhibitor pays a fee known as "film rent" to the distribution company for the privilege of showing the film on their screens. According to Lombard, the relationship usually works out to a 60/40 box office split between the theater and studio, respectively.
Independent distributors, on the other hand, must often pay exhibitors a "house allowance" to have their films shown. The house allowance, which varies widely between $1,000 and $17,000 per week (depending on the season and venue), is a rental fee for the actual film. Once the allowance is paid, the balance of the box office gross is split on a percentage basis, with the independent distributor usually recouping the majority of the profits. Yet, the possibility of being bumped from theaters in favor of major studio releases always looms over independent films.
The Keeper and Follow Me Home, a film about racial healing that follows four young men on a cross-country journey, are just two of the many independent films pulled from screens to make room for Hollywood releases. To compete for screen space with the summer blockbusters, Lombard says independent films must gross a minimum of $20,000-$25,000 per weekend. "Opening weekend is especially important for black films because if they don't do extremely well, they won't be around for a second and third weekend," says Haynes, echoing filmmakers Spike Lee, Warrington Hudlin and others.
The Keeper was replaced by another movie after grossing $10,000 its opening weekend. "Black films are required to succeed in order to stay in the theaters," says publicist Kay Shaw, who was hired by Kino to help market and promote Brewster's film.
"Because of limited marketing budgets, independently distributed black films must rely heavily on word of mouth and need to be in theaters for a long period of time in order to generate a healthy return," says Henri Norris, founder and manager of New Millennia Films, which distributed Follow Me Home. The movie, which stars Alfre Woodard, was bumped from two screens in California's Bay Area after grossing only $84,000 in five weeks. "Unlike the typical six-week run of most movies, we need to run our films for six to nine months since they won't run in 10-cities simultaneously," says Brewster. Consequently, independent distributors have forged relationships with art houses and second-run theaters, which are more likely to keep independent films on the screen.
"We have relationships with the major distributors and owe it to our operation to show films that are going to generate the greatest box office [gross]," says Lombard. Haille Gerima's Sankofa, which chronicles the experiences of a young model transported into a past life as a slave, maintained a screen at Magic Theaters in Compton throughout the summer of 1995. "It wasn't because we wanted to do Haille a favor," he adds, "but we left it there because it was successful and no amount of pressure from other distribution companies is going to make you take a film offline that's generating big bucks."
The visibility and recognition of Magic Theaters alone lets other exhibitors see that black films can be successful in their theaters, as well. But without enough marketing and promotion to guarantee "butts in the seats," black films, independent or otherwise, vanish as abruptly as they appear. "The key concern is how people will be aware that these films are out and will be showing in our theater," says Lombard. While Fox could afford a nearly $10 million P&A budget for Soul Food, independent distributors must come up with creative and cost-effective ways to promote their films on a shoe-string budget--usually under $100,000.
GUERRILLA MARKETING 101
In lieu of huge P&A budgets, black distributors have developed a "cultural event model" of distribution, which takes a grassroots community approach to promoting films. In 1994, Kay Shaw, a former political organizer, used this approach to market and promote Sankofa. Having been denied distribution by major and minor studios, Gerima sought Shaw's help to self-distribute the film by marketing it to community groups, churches and schools.
Sankofa was screened throughout the country over a year and a half and grossed nearly $3 million. Shaw, along with KJM3, developed the cultural event model of promotion in 1993 while promoting Daughters of the Dust, which ran for 35 weeks and grossed $1.8 million. "We were able to recognize and tap into a cultural network that already exists. There is a whole circuit of black bookstores, radio talk shows and public affairs programming that is necessary to develop momentum for the film," says Kathryn Bowser, vice president of administration for KJM3.
Although the cultural event model of distribution worked for Daughters and Sankofa, the grassroots strategy does not necessarily translate to more commercial films. "With Out of Sync, a very commercial urban drama starring LL Cool J, we found that none of the enthusiasm and grassroots marketing that we were able to generate with Daughters of the Dust existed for that film at all," recalls KJM3 vice president of creative affairs Michelle Materre. The video distributor eventually found an audience for Out of Sync through video and cable outlets.
BEYOND THE THEATERS
"A filmmaker who keeps his or her mind uniquely focused on theatrical release is almost doomed to failure," says Rhines. "There is plenty of room for African Americans in the expanding cable, direct-to-video and CD-ROM/interactive video arenas. Electronics and telecommunications are already causing profound structural changes in the ways Hollywood does business." According to V. Denise Bradley, director of international marketing for Warner Home Video, African American-themed or directed movies rent over 50% higher than the national average. Films such as Boyz N the Hood (667%), Malcolm X(327%) and Glory (335%) have all performed significantly above the industry's 119% mainstream movie tally.
Percy Miller, better known as platinum-selling rapper Master P, sold over two million copies of his 1997 independent film I'm Bout It in less than 15 weeks. Unsatisfied with the offers he received from studios, he packaged the $1.5 million production for release in video stores. Leveraging his platinum rap status, Miller placed advertisements for the video in each of his CDs and cassettes. In light of his double-platinum success with his first film, Miller can pick and choose the right distribution deal for his independent follow-up, I Got the Hook Up.
Cable television, with access to over 70 million U.S. households, is another ripe outlet for black films. Spike Lee's documentary of the Alabama church bombings, Four Little Girls, was primarily distributed via Showtime, although it had a limited theatrical release during the summer. HBO-produced First Time Felon, directed by Charles S. Dutton, is another example of the growing opportunities to tell black stories outside the Hollywood studio system. Technological advancements such as pay-per-view, digital television and the Internet also provide viable alternatives.
While the major distribution companies may still have a stranglehold on the traditional means of film distribution, black filmmakers need not succumb to their grip. Films such as Soul Food and Sankofa, both of which took completely different routes to the silver screen, lend credence to the belief that black audiences want to see more than sex, drugs and violence. But the most important variable in the distribution equation is you. Whether through movie theaters or video sales, black audiences can vote with their dollars, ensuring a broad palette from which black filmmakers can paint our stories.