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.

Van Peebles. Alternative stories, not comedic, violent or sexual parodies of black life, are wanted, and needed, on the silver screen. But because of recent commercial successes, the varied nuances of African American culture are slowly making their way to theaters.

Before coming up with the recipe for Soul Food, George Tillman Jr., the film’s writer and director, had another Hollywood experience not quite as palatable. In 1995, at the urging of producers George Jackson and Doug McHenry, Savoy Pictures bought Scenes for the Soul, Tillman’s first independent feature, for $1 million. He then spent eight months revising the film after selling it. “I gave up a lot to get Scenes for the Soul made. I deleted scenes, changed music, did whatever they told me to make it more commercial, and it never came out,” Tillman recalls.

In spite of his changes, Scenes–a movie about urban life in Chicago-tested poorly with audiences in pre-release screenings. The studio eventually lowered its target from 800 to 20 screens, but Scenes was never released. Savoy Pictures’ feature film division folded while Tillman was in Chicago completing the script for his next project, Soul Food–a movie about a middle-class black family held together by a wise matriarch and her down-home Sunday dinners. Several studios passed on the script because “it was a positive black film that didn’t have an urban backdrop–no action, no killing and therefore wasn’t `black’ enough, or commercial enough for widespread release,” says Tillman, 28. First Look Pictures, a small independent distributor, expressed an interest in Soul Food and offered to produce it for $2 million. But because of its size, First Look would eve released the film on fewer hen 400 screens.

Hoping to draw attention to the film by attaching a high profile soundtrack, his agent sent the the script to Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and his wife, Tracey, owner of Yab Yum Records. Impressed by the script, the Edmonds lobbied to produce the film through Edmonds Entertainment, their film and television production company. hey signed on as executive producers and began pitching the film to larger studios that could provide full-scale nationwide release. Studio execs were not swayed.

A first-look picture deal between Twentieth Century Fox and Edmonds Entertainment set the table 43 for Soul Food to begin production late in 1996. Fox’s $67 million success with Waiting To Exhale, another film at odds with Hollywood’s current formula, also played a part in the studio’s decision to green light Soul Food. Despite Exhale’s success, Fox studio executives still projected preconceived notions of `blackness’ onto the Soul Food script. “It’s difficult when you have white executives advising you on how to make a black film and wanting to change or delete characters we felt were essential to the flavor of the movie,” says Edmonds. “A lot of times they just don’t get black humor or black culture and their suggestions take the reality away from the film.” This time, Tillman says the changes he made to the script were for the

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