THE INDEPENDENT Lee Daniels
Lee Daniels, who was Oscar nominated for directing Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, has been described as a celluloid revolutionary. It’s surprising to many that his dark dramas have been so widely heralded and, in the case of Precious, financially profitable. “I think that safe is always better from a studio perspective and safe equals comedy and safe equals action in regards to [black] people,” says Daniels. “If you are real and honest and making a true story it is hard to penetrate white America.”
Daniels, 50, avoids innocuous fare and still profits. Produced on 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. Daniels was also able to gain support from industry heavyweights such as Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry as executive producers. And he tapped celebrities such as Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, and Mo’Nique, who won an Academy Award for best supporting actress, to join the cast.
When it came to financing, Daniels was able to acquire capital from hip-hop impresario turned movie financier Damon Dash for two film productions, including Monster’s Ball, which starred Halle Berry in her Oscar-winning role. He has also found inexpensive, inventive ways to market his films. Since Precious didn’t have a huge marketing budget, the enterprising filmmaker was able to spread the word using themes from the movie to rally support groups within the HIV, incest, and literacy communities.
THE INNOVATOR Ava DuVernay
Spreading news and building brands within the entertainment industry is Ava DuVernay’s forte. For more than 15 years, she has handled the marketing and publicity for more than 80 films, including such hits as Dreamgirls, Collateral, and Invictus. So when DuVernay, 36, 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 distribution.
Most independent filmmakers produce a motion picture and then seek out a studio for the production’s release. When DuVernay hit the film festival circuit with This is the Life, her documentary about West Coast underground hip-hop, she was offered distribution deals from studios, but she declined them all except for a limited license with Showtime Networks Inc. It turned out to be a profitable decision. Not a single deal came close to the revenue she eventually gained through self-distribution—and she hasn’t stopped receiving checks.
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