Boosting black films

First Weekend Club ensures movies by African Americans are well attended

In August 1998, Magic Johnson Theatres in Los Angeles had sell-out crowds on all seven screens for the opening of the film How Stella Got Her Groove Back. This box office bonanza was proof that the efforts of an organization called the First Weekend Club (FWC) worked. The Los Angeles chapter, which is 4,700 members strong, came out to help the film reach an opening weekend gross of $11.3 million.

In 1997, FWC was launched by the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center (BHERC). This L.A.-based, nonprofit organization wants to ensure the success of African American movies by encouraging moviegoers to see black films and films that support diversity during their opening weekends.

FWC has grown from a handful of people to 37,000 members nationwide and is still climbing. There are chapters in Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., L.A., San Francisco and Oakland, California, and Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. Membership is free and each member vows to go to key movies on their first weekend and to try to recruit 10 others to do the same.

BHERC President Sandra Evers-Manly, former president of the Beverly Hills, California, chapter of the NAACP, started the club in response to the box office failures of Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus in 1996 and John Singleton’s Rosewood in 1997. Had blacks turned out en masse during opening weekend, explains Manly, both films might have been more successful. Generally, an African American film (defined as a movie where a majority of the cast is black) is considered a success if it grosses $40 million to $45 million, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. Opening weekend box office receipts can make or break a film. They determine how widely it gets distributed and advertised and how long it stays in theaters. “The first weekend is crucial, especially for black films,” says Manly. Filmmaker Millicent Shelton, the writer-director of 1998′s Ride, agrees. “Black movies are often in limited release, opening on a small number of screens. Studios wait to find out the first weekend [box office] numbers before deciding if the film goes into wide release,” says Shelton. “Studios care about the bottom line. If a movie does poorly the first weekend, it’s considered a failure.”

And when black films fail, there will be fewer of them in years to come, says BHERC Program Director Ralph Scott. Thus, the club encourages attendance for all movies that feature not just black actors, but black directors, writers and personnel in significant roles behind the scenes. “We encourage a diversity of films, for all tastes and ages,” says Scott. After a film is targeted and before it hits the theaters, information about it gets posted on the organization’s Web page (www.bherc.org) and the hotline (323-957-4747). Members are contacted by phone, fax, e-mail, mail and, most important, word of mouth.

After seeing films, members rate them on comment cards and offer suggestions, which are sent to the studios. The get-out-and-vote-at-the-box-office philosophy has had an impact in Hollywood. Studios are now turning

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