Coming soon to a theater near

BET moves ahead with plans to create movie production company

It’s been an idyllic fantasy of black entertainers in Hollywood for decades–a black-owned and -controlled movie studio that would focus on creating projects for African American actors. The fantasy might become reality as Black Entertainment Television’s Robert Johnson is targeting nothing less than the creation of the first black-owned and – operated film studio.

Johnson didn’t wait long to set his sights on lofty undertakings for BET following a stock repurchase earlier this year that sent the company back into private ownership. Now unfettered by the quarter-to-quarter profit mentality of nervous shareholders, Johnson says he can finally focus on the long term. “So we plan on committing to this venture over a long period of time,” says Johnson, who owns approximately 64% of BET, while Debra Lee, the company’s president and COO, owns 2%. White-owned Liberty Media Group holds the other 34%.

Specializing in small, independent films, Johnson’s target is three features a year, with costs (between production and prints and advertising) capped at $5 million. Johnson has said he’ll use about $35 million in equity and borrow $75 million from banks or investors to finance the venture.

BET is also intent on bolstering its supply of original content for its cable properties. Earlier this year Johnson tapped producer-director Roy Campanella II to head up production of 10 African American romance movies to begin airing on BET next year. The movies will be based on black romance paperbacks published by Arabesque Books, which BET purchased earlier this year. Production is scheduled to begin next summer.

Wall Street analyst Baunita Greet of Cromwell, Miller & Greer Inc. believes that while the $100 million initial investment for the film studio is a staggering sum, “because the movies are low-budget and because there’s a market out there for African American movies, there’ll be more than enough revenues to make it profitable.”

“They’ll cover the range of black life,” Johnson says. “These are movies that will tell the black middle-class story, for which there’s definitely an untapped market.” He hopes to produce the first film in early 2000.

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