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.

isn’t going to do it,” says Marlin Adams, KJM3 vice president of legal affairs. “You need $4 million or $5 million to do 400-600 prints for a wide release to make commercial independent films successful.”

“The key to the success of these films is finding the right distributor to provide them with the right level of expertise and who has the right kind of relationships with theater owners,” says Lombard of Magic Theaters. With major studio releases, the exhibitor pays a fee known as “film rent” to the distribution company for the privilege of showing the film on their screens. According to Lombard, the relationship usually works out to a 60/40 box office split between the theater and studio, respectively.

Independent distributors, on the other hand, must often pay exhibitors a “house allowance” to have their films shown. The house allowance, which varies widely between $1,000 and $17,000 per week (depending on the season and venue), is a rental fee for the actual film. Once the allowance is paid, the balance of the box office gross is split on a percentage basis, with the independent distributor usually recouping the majority of the profits. Yet, the possibility of being bumped from theaters in favor of major studio releases always looms over independent films.

The Keeper and Follow Me Home, a film about racial healing that follows four young men on a cross-country Journey, are just two of the many independent films pulled from screens to make room for Hollywood releases. To compete for screen space with the summer blockbusters, Lombard says independent films must gross a minimum of $20,000-$25,000 per weekend. “Opening weekend is especially important for black films because if they don’t do extremely well, they won’t be around for a second and third weekend,” says Haynes, echoing filmmakers Spike Lee, Warrington Hudlin and others.
The Keeper was replaced by another movie after grossing $10,000 its opening weekend. “Black films are required to succeed in order to stay in the theaters,” says publicist Kay Shaw, who was hired by Kino to help market and promote Brewster’s film.

“Because of limited marketing budgets, independently distributed black films must rely heavily on word of mouth and need to be in theaters for a long period of time in order to generate a healthy return.” says Henri Norris, founder and manager of New Millennia Films, which distributed Follow Me Home. The movie, which stars Alfre Woodard, was bumped from two screens in California’s Bay Area after grossing only $84,000 in five weeks. “Unlike the typical six-week run of most movies, we need to run our films for six to nine months since they won’t run in 10 cities simultaneously,” says Brewster. Consequently, independent distributors have forged relationships with art houses and second-run theaters, which are more likely to keep independent films on the screen.

“We have relationships with the major distributors and owe it to our operation to show films that are going to generate the greatest box office [gross],” says L
ombard. Haille Gerima’s Sankofa, which chronicles the

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