5 Rules for Making Money in Hollywood

Here's what it takes to get your film acquired and distributed

Rainforest Films cofounders Will Packer and Rob Hardy. (Photo by Lonnie C. Major)

Droves of African American directors, producers and screenwriters came to Miami Beach over the past few days to attend the 14th annual American Black Film Festival (ABFF). For filmmakers looking to break into the industry or obtain distribution for their motion picture, ABFF is the place to be. This year, as in previous ones, there were more than a score of screenings, master classes on filmmaking — one was led by Spike Lee, the godfather of black independent film — and symposiums.

I moderated this high-powered panel that included Rob Hardy, director and a co-founder of Atlanta-based Rainforest Films, producers of such smash hits as “Stomp The Yard,” which grossed more than $61 million, and “Obsessed,” which produced box office receipts of more than $74 million; Cindi Smith, executive director of theatrical research for Nielsen NRG; Valerie Watts-Meraz,  vice president of content acquisition for Showtime Networks Inc.; Brian Stevenson, senior vice president of film distribution & acquisition at All Channel Films; and Eva Davis, executive vice president and general manager at Warner Premiere, the studios’ direct-to-consumer content production division.

As the summer movie-going season kicks into high gear, year-to-date box-office receipts, from January t0 June 27, are neck-and-neck: $5.108 billion for 2010, compared with $5.114 billion in 2009. According to Smith, it is too soon to tell whether box office will surpass last year’s record $10.6 billion. Since theatrical releases only account for 25% of a film’s total revenues, filmmakers have a number of access points and potential revenue streams such as video (including DVD), which comprises 40% of sales; television, which makes up 28%; and ancillary vehicles which accounts for the remaining 7%.

The challenge for black filmmakers has always been gaining access to financing and distribution to fully participate in any industry segment. Panelists at the festival shared these five rules on how filmmakers can have their vehicles acquired and distributed in Hollywood:

1. Use the festival circuit. During his “starving artist” days, Hardy and his partner, Will Packer, had to flip a coin to see who could attend ABFF to promote their first major film “Trois.” (Packer won.) Hardy said they used the event to get valuable contacts and financing that led to the thriller becoming the fastest independent African American film to generate $1 million in revenues and build a relationship with Sony/Screen Gems. More than a decade later, Hardy and Packer were able to secure a $40 million budget for the soon-to-be released action-packed heist movie, “Takers.” In addition to establishing a network of valuable contacts, panelists maintain, festivals like ABFF attracts studio execs seek film acquisitions.

2. Do your homework. Before pursuing the production and distribution of a movie, Watts-Meraz says, filmmakers must conduct thorough research to identify “all the revenue-generating streams for films” and find out whether their vehicle is viable in theatrical release, cable television, pay-per-view (PPV), video- on- demand, straight-to–DVD and digital. Stevenson says filmmakers should “step outside the box” and create films for emerging distribution formats such as 3-D. “There’s a lot of cable systems looking for those films in much the same manner they were looking for HD a few years back,” he says. Hardy adds: “You have to look at the market and shoot films for a number of platforms.”

3. Casting counts. Whether it’s the big screen or straight-to-DVD, content acquisition execs like names attached to films. Except for documentaries, Watts-Meraz, Stevenson and Davis look for productions that are anchored by a solid cast. But how can struggling independents afford to get a name cast? “You’d be surprised who you can get for a film,” assets Davis, who urges independents to consult casting directors. The panel also promoted the concept of “back-end deals,” in which big-name talent can be paid if or when the film earns a profit. According to ABFF officials, Idris Elba, festival ambassador and star of “Takers” and the acclaimed TV series, “The Wire,” not only deferred compensation but made an investment in “Legacy,” a movie about an unstable Black Ops soldier, shown during the festival.

4. Test Your Film. Smith, who presents movies and trailers to test audiences, says filmmakers should find out an audiences reaction to their vehicle. She says being armed with such information could be critical to engaging studio executives and potential distributors. Davis adds that another vital part of the research is “knowing the performance of comparables,” how films of a similar genre or theme have been received by audiences or the dollars those movies produced at the box office or medium in which it was released.

5. Get buzz. Simply put, Hardy says filmmakers need “a plan to get their movie to the people.” Word-of-mouth can make or break a film regardless of how great it may be. That’s where social media can serve as a valuable tool in virally promoting a film. (For example, place a clip on Twitter and soliciting comments). It also pays to engage in some old-fashioned networking. Watts-Meraz recently acquired a new film for her network after viewing the vehicle based on the recommendation of a friend within the entertainment industry.

Derek T. Dingle is editor-in-chief of Black Enterprise magazine.

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