These days, an Academy Award is not the only prize that eludes black filmmakers. Getting a film made and distributed has become a rare occurrence as well. Of the 558 feature films that were released in 2009, eight were filmed by black directors and two of them were creations of stage and big screen powerhouse Tyler Perry, who has directed eight movies since 2006 alone, including Why Did I Get Married, Too, which brought in $60 million. But Perry isn’t the only one setting the stage for a second act. BlackEnterprise.com talked to eight filmmakers who can identify with the challenges black filmmakers face in Hollywood, but who strategized their efforts and are primed to do big things in the next few years.
THE VETERAN: John Singleton John Singleton, 42, is one of the few directors whose name can sell a movie. Since becoming the first African American and youngest filmmaker nominated for a Best Director Oscar for his masterpiece, Boyz N the Hood, he has produced a range of movies, from mainstream blockbusters like the 2003 hit 2 Fast 2 Furious, which earned more than $236 million in worldwide box office receipts, to small, independent films like the Oscar-nominated, Hustle and Flow, which he produced with $5 million of his own money in 2005.
But even Singleton has faced resistance when it comes to getting studio financing. “If I aspire to make movies with mostly African Americans in them, it is harder to get studios to finance them,” says Singleton who was recently granted a budget of close to $40 million from Lionsgate to direct the anticipated blockbuster, Abduction. “For those kinds of movies you have to find the money and go do them. We are going to need more black entrepreneurs investing in films with [black] filmmakers.”
THE GLOBETROTTER: Sylvain WhiteFrench-born director Sylvain White, 35, may have found the right formula for connecting with foreign audiences. Take, for example, his breakout feature film, the hip-hop college drama Stomp the Yard, which grossed $75 million worldwide — $61 million domestically and a respectable $14 million overseas. It was intended to target black audiences domestically, but Rainforest Films, a black-owned production company, urged the studio to market the movie abroad as a dance film. As a result, it performed well in Europe, the Middle East, South Africa, and Japan. Not bad for a film with a $13 million budget.
White thinks the Hollywood notion that foreign audiences will not be attracted to black-oriented films or movies with black lead actors “is just the most ridiculous thing ever. As an African American filmmaker, one of my agendas is to prove that point wrong. Movies can connect people from different walks of life, different cultures, and have them share a similar emotional experience.” Unfortunately, his latest movie, Losers, an action adventure adapted from a graphic novel of the same name, did not perform as well as his debut. Despite its multicultural cast led by three black actors, the movie, which began its run April 23, only brought in $22 million domestically and nothing overseas. Based on its $25 million budget, it posted a deficit.
THE INDEPENDENT: Lee DanielsThe road to redemption for racists, pedophiles, and abusers are the types of stories that Lee Daniels has helped bring to the big screen. It’s surprising to many that Daniels, 50, has been so widely heralded–and financially profitable in the case of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire–considering the dark nature of his movies. Produced with a $10 million budget, Precious grossed $60 million worldwide, $47 million at domestic box offices, and $13 million in foreign receipts – a blockbuster performance for an independent film. The movie outperformed The Hurt Locker, which won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture and grossed $40 million worldwide. (Photo source: Renaud Corlouer)
Daniels was also able to gain support from industry heavyweights such as Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry who served as the film’s executive producers, and convince celebrities like Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, and Mo’Nique, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, to join the cast. “I think that safe is always better from a studio perspective and safe equals comedy, and safe equals action in regard to [black] people,” says Daniels. “It is always that fine line of trying to get the real with the commercial. It’s really up to the filmmaker to come up with a smart, innovative, fresh approach to a story that tells our truth the way we want it to be told, but in a commercial way.”
THE INNOVATOR: Ava DuVernayFor more than 15 years, Ava DuVernay, 36, has handled the marketing and publicity for more than 80 films, including hits such as Dreamgirls, Collateral, and Invictus. So when she decided to cut her teeth as a filmmaker, she applied her insider knowledge of the motion picture industry and digital technology to take control of the film’s distribution. “I can do whatever the studios do and more because I am more agile, and I can reach more people who are interested in my film,” says DuVernay, who teaches a class on self-distribution and who has been commissioned by Agate Publishing to write a book on the subject. “Digital is allowing people to have more control over their films after they make them.”
Most independent filmmakers produce a motion picture and then seek out a studio for the production’s release. DuVernay hit the film festival circuit with This is the Life, her documentary about West Coast underground hip-hop, and was offered distribution deals from studios. She declined them and recouped three times the budget of the documentary without a studio partner by executing her own do-it-yourself model. First, This is the Life had a limited theatrical release in a Los Angeles theater. Next, it was aired on cable television through Showtime Networks, rented at Netflix, and sold on iTunes and on DVD via the film’s Website and retail vendors. DuVernay is currently using profits from the documentary to make her next movie, I Will Follow, a drama starring Blair Underwood and Tracie Thoms.
THE IMPRESARIOS: Will Packer and Rob HardyProducer Will Packer, 36, and Director/Producer Rob Hardy, 37, have produced a string of hits over the past decade based on one simple premise: Know what studios want and give it to them without compromising your vision. The two launched Rainforest Films while attending Florida A&M University in the mid 1990s with Chocolate City, a film they shot with money from campus organizations at FAMU. Later they shot, produced, and self-distributed Trois in 2000, which landed them a distribution deal with Sony’s Screen Gems for $1 million.
Packer and Hardy have produced several studio films, including 2007’s This Christmas, a family drama starring Regina King and pop/R&B singer Chris Brown that grossed about $50 million worldwide, and 2009’s Obsessed, a thriller directed by white filmmaker Steve Shill starring superstar Beyonce Knowles. It grossed about $74 million worldwide. “What Rob and I have done is [show studios research on] how we can produce a film at a price point that helps to minimize the chances of failure,” says Packer, who has produced films with an average budget of $14 million. “Make your film for whoever you want to make it for. I think that is a filmmaker’s right. Just understand … if you are able to make your film appeal to a broader audience, the business model for your film stands to be more successful.”
THE ICONOCLAST: Sanaa HamriFor years, Tinseltown has embraced movies about relationships with all-white lead. Sanaa Hamri, 35, wants to make room for a greater multicultural representation in mainstream fare. “There should not be any reason why we can’t have Sex in the City with either an all-African American cast or different people who kind of represent the cross section of America. There is not enough material that is really representing what is going on in this country,” says Hamri, who was raised in Morocco until she came to the United States to attend Sarah Lawrence University at the age of 17. “I was born and raised in North Africa. Does that mean I cannot tell a story that is an American story?”
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 — Hamri’s 2008 movie, which showcased a multicultural cast that included Latina actress America Ferrera and three leading white actresses — grossed $44 million worldwide and is an example of the type of movie Hamri says will help break down the walls of exclusion in Hollywood. The movie’s success made her the top-selling black female director that year. With her newest movie, Just Wright, a romantic comedy that stars producer Queen Latifah and rapper Common, Hamri wanted to tell a universal story of love that just happened to star black people. She says that creating such stories will require directors, studios, and producers to work together to ensure tone, language, and themes that are inclusive but still unique to cultural expression.
THE AUTEUR: Rick FamuyiwaRick Famuyiwa, 36, director of Our Family Wedding, which starred Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker and America Ferrera, understands that the recipe for success in Hollywood is learning how to balance art and commerce. He is fortunate that all of his movies have received the green light from a major motion picture studio, and he credits his continued employment in Hollywood to his ability to write and develop screenplays on his own. “Because I write, I can come in and put my spin on [a screenplay] and bring my vision to the project,” says the Nigerian-born Famuyiwa.
Famuyiwa has written and directed films such as The Wood (the screenplay that got him noticed at the Sundance Film Festival), Brown Sugar, and Talk to Me, which starred Don Cheadle. While his films have not been box-office smashes, they have been profitable. The average budgets for his movies have been $8.8 million while the average gross receipts have been $24 million per picture. Yet, despite his proven track record, Famuyiwa has not been given the opportunity to showcase his skills on a big-budget film. “Even though I work in the Hollywood system, the budget levels I am at, the schedules I am given, the margins that I have to work within, still feel very much like independent cinema,” he says. “I think that is part of the dynamic that makes it more challenging to compete. If your film doesn’t make the amount of money that people think it should, it makes it harder to get the next film made.”Marcia Wade Talbert is a writer and content producer for BlackEnterprise.com.