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.

better. On September 26, Soul Food opened on 1,238 screens across the country and grossed $11.3 million its opening weekend.

For every Soul Food funded and distributed by a major studio, dozens of black filmmakers must follow the examples set by pioneers Oscar Micheaux, Van Peebles and Spike Lee, all of whom financed their own releases when Hollywood wouldn’t believe in their vision. “Van Peebles’ $500,000 production, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1970), changed the course of African American film production and the depiction of African Americans on screen,” writes Rhines. The film’s $10 million gross proved that successful movies could be made without Hollywood. However, “the challenge today is not making films but getting them distributed,” says Van Peebles.

Aspiring filmmaker David Talbert raised $1.5 million in 1996 from
friends to finance his first feature film, A Woman Like That, a romantic comedy about unrequited love starring Tyra Banks and Malik Yoba. Talbert, 31, who also produces gospel plays, expected his film to get picked up by a major distributor on the strength of its script and recognizable cast. “We went into this film thinking we were doing certain things right by getting actors like Tyra, who has crossover appeal, as well as those more specific to the black community like Malik,” says the writer/director. He was mistaken. Paramount, Miramax and most other studios balked at distributing the film.

Talbert believes the lack of sex and violence and a divergence from other established
industry parameters for commercial black films played a role in the studios’ decision not to pick up A Woman Like That. “They said the film had no audience, but if I had shown Tyra’s breasts or Malik’s body, they would have jumped at this film.” Now, Talbert invites studio acquisitions executives to screenings that include a black audience so they can see the potential market for his film and feel the response. “I don’t send out any videotapes [to potential distributors],” says Talbert. “It’s too easy for studio executives to pick a film apart in an office.”

To gain exposure, Talbert frequents various film festivals, such as Cannes, Sundance and Toronto. These testing grounds are where both studio-funded and independent films are judged on their merits by film industry professionals, major studios and independent distributors. “Young directors have to understand the game, and entering these film festivals is part of getting a distribution deal,” says Joe Brewster, writer and director of The Keeper, a psychological prison drama starring Giancarlo Esposito, which opened in New York in September. Screening a film at a festival can cost upwards of $5,000 apiece, including entry fees, travel and expenses. “Film festivals provide a sort of pedigree,” says Brewster, who has shown his film at festivals around the globe. “You’re getting attention based on quality, ability to complete a project and commercial viability.” However, mainstream distributors are not always receptive to alternative depictions of black culture.

Even though The Keeper was well received at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, it did not emerge with

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