Facebook, Kickstarter, Demand It and other social media platforms have created a viral movie-loving audience, making 2011 an explosive year for the independent Black filmmaker. Online options are proving fruitful for movie producers with their backs against the wall and no distribution deals on the table. PR icon, Ava DuVernay used $50,000 of her own money to produce and release her film, I Will Follow, independently through AMC Independent after a social campaign couldn’t contain the demand for more Black films. First-time filmmaker, Qasim Basir, wrote and independently produced Mooz-lum, which he released domestically last February and beat out films like Justin Bieber: Never Say Never in per screen earnings. With the International Black Film Festival of Nashville declaring October Black Movie Month, BlackEnterprise.com highlights 10 of the top-grossing independent Black films. —Darralynn Hutson
SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG
Produced, written, directed and starring Melvin Van Peeples, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was made in 19 days with a budget of $500,000, raised by Van Peeples’ family and friends—one of which was Bill Cosby who contributed a $50,000 loan to the making of the project. Although only two theaters in the United States would show the controversial picture—one in Detroit and the other in Atlanta—it went on to reportedly gross over $4 million domestically.
SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT
Shot in 12 days during the summer of 1985 on a budget of $175,000, She’s Gotta Have It was director Spike Lee’s first feature length film. The young auteur made the movie thanks to loans from his grandmother and investments from folks like culture writer Nelson George. Island Pictures later bought the film for $400K and released it domestically in August of 1986. Over the course of the past 25 years, She’s Gotta Have It has grossed over $7 million in the US.
Released in 2000 by Rainforest Films, a start-up film company created by FAMU friends Rob Hardy and Will Packer, Trois was shot with a budget of $200,000 that the partners raised independently. The film wound up grossing over $1 million domestically. The next year, Rainforest moved to Atlanta and brokered a deal with Sony’s Columbia Tri-Star to produce and distribute urban films, including Trois’ sequel The Escort, as well as The Gospel, Motives, This Christmas, Takers and Obsessed. The production company recently signed a deal to produce Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Woman, Think Like a Man.
Released independently by Mypheduh Films in 1993, Sankofa was filmed at the former slave castles in Cape Coast, Ghana. Shirikiana Aina and her husband, Haile Gerima, pleaded for foundation grants, bartered for plane tickets, lodging and crew and charged supplies on their credit cards to get the film made. After endless showings at film festivals around the world, the producers still couldn’t get a distribution deal and were in debt. Undeterred, Gerima screened the film from city to city. During a fundraiser screening in Washington, D.C. the couple raised $20,000 that used to rent a theater to show the movie for 11 weeks. Eventually brokering similar deals in 16 other cities, they were able to gross around $3 million in the process.
Based on the novel Push by Sapphire, Precious was released domestically in 18 theatres by Lionsgate Films. Produced by Lisa Cortes and director Lee Daniels, the film received a large investment boost from Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness, a Denver, CO-based couple who believed in Daniels’ vision. Having a $10 million production budget, Precious garnered an Academy Award for Mo’Nique and grossed over $63 million worldwide.
Despite being released in only seven theaters domestically and drawing $110,999 its first weekend, Hotel Rwanda was an Oscar contender in 2004. During pre-production, potential investors and interested studios wanted Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, and even Will Smith to play the lead role because of their suggested bigger drawing capacity at the box office. But due to ultimately producing the film independently and coming up with the money himself, director Terry George was able to go back to his original choice of Don Cheadle. The film wound up grossing $33 million worldwide.
PAID IN FULL
Produced by Damon Dash’s Roc-A-Fella Films, Paid in Full was based on true events that occurred in Harlem, NY during the rise of the crack epidemic in the early 80s. Independently shot by first-time director Charles Stone III, the completed film was distributed by Miramax in 2002 in over 200 theatres nationwide and had an impressive $1.3 million opening weekend. The final domestic box office numbers were just over $3 million.
Despite the fanfare upon its release and Oscar win for Jamie Fox’s portrayal of the legendary singer, Ray took over 15 years to make it to the big screen. Writer/director Taylor Hackford secured the rights for Ray Charles’ story in 1984 but couldn’t get a studio to finance the project, so he decided to do it independently. Receiving funding from Philip Anschutz’s Bristol Bay Productions, Hackford debuted Ray at the Toronto International film festival in 2004. Universal Pictures later signed on to distribute the film, which earned over $124 million worldwide.
DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST
Written, directed and produced by Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust is a story told by an unborn child of three generations of Gullah women. Over the course of six years, she raised money to complete the film by showing the work in progress to raise seed money. The final film was distributed by Kino International in December of 1992 and went on to generate over $1.6 million domestically. In 2004, The Library of Congress placed Daughters of the Dust in the National Film Registry joining the other 400 American films preserved as National Treasures.
I GOT THE HOOK UP
Starring A.J. Johnson and Percy “Master P” Miller, I Got the Hook Up was the debut project from Miller’s No Limit Films. Distributed by Dimension Films, the crime drama was released in 1998 and practically made back its estimated budget of $3.5 million in the opening weekend, pulling in $3.3 million in ticket sales across 655 screen in the opening weekend. When the final ticket total was tallied the film earned $10.3 million domestically.