Film Noir

Distribution is the key to box-office success. Here's how black filmmakers can capitalize on the existing Hollywood network and some innovative alternatives.

Hav Plenty is a quirky ’90s love story about two 20-somethings in denial about their obvious mutual attraction. It started gaining momentum last May after directors Bill Duke and Warrington Hudlin attended a private screening in New York. They were so impressed, Hudlin insisted Cherot debut his film at the Acapulco Black Film Festival. Hav Plenty won “Best Picture,” and the positive response from the crowd prompted Kenneth Lombard, president of Magic Johnson Theaters, to commit to show the film in Los Angeles despite its lack of a distribution deal.

Of course, Cherot’s experience is the exception to the rule. Black filmmakers rarely encounter such smooth sailing in getting their works to the big screen. Of the more than 400 films released in 1996 (which grossed a cumulative $5.8 billion), fewer than a dozen targeted black audiences. Yet, African Americans annually account for 25% of the industry’s box office, more per capita than any other ethnic group. So, why aren’t there more black-oriented films? Actually there are, but Hollywood doesn’t want you to see them.

Fortunately, black film festivals, independent distributors, cable television and video releases are helping to crack Hollywood’s closed door. These vehicles stand poised to increase the flow of Afrocentric films previously deemed too “culturally specific” for widespread theatrical distribution. In the pipeline is a broad range of films that challenge the myth that there is no market for positive black movies.

Moviegoers also play an important role in bringing alternative depictions of the African American experience to the big screen. By avoiding movies that portray only the lowest common denominator of black life and supporting the trickle of intriguing black films, audiences potentially have the greatest amount of leverage to affect studio releases. Baps, Booty Call, Juice and South Central needn’t be the only choices for black moviegoers. “If you see a film that you don’t enjoy, go to the box office and ask for your money back,” says one film industry executive.

COMING TO A THEATER NEAR YOU?
Large film distributors such as Universal, Paramount, MGM, Twentieth Century Fox and several “mini-majors,” including New Line Cinema an Miramax, play a huge role in determining whether a movie really is coming to a theater near you. But “the lack of enthusiasm that distribution companies–the overwhelming majority of which are controlled by whites–have shown for handling films controlled by blacks has meant paucity of black entrepreneurial and employment success in the Hollywood film industry,” writes Jesse Rhines in Black Film, White Money (Rutgers University Press; $17.95). For many independent films, a distribution deal covers some post-production costs, prints . and advertising. The print an advertising budget, known as P & A in industry circles, is the key factor in determining how widely a film is released.

Mainstream distributors’ disinterest in nonformulaic black stories has jeopardized black filmmakers’ ability to bring a diversity of African American experiences and culture to the world. “We still have to conform to the cultural beliefs of the people who control the distribution mechanisms,” says independent film pioneer Melvin

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