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.

experiences of a young model transported into a past life as a slave, maintained a screen at Magic Theaters in Compton throughout the summer of 1995. “It wasn’t because we wanted to do Haille a favor,” he adds, “but we left it there because it was successful and no amount of pressure from other distribution companies is going to make you take a film off line that’s generating big bucks.”
The visibility and recognition of Magic Theaters alone lets other exhibitors see that black films can be successful in their theaters, as well. But without enough marketing and promotion to guarantee “butts in the seats,” black films, independent or otherwise, vanish as abruptly as they appear. “The key concern is how people will be aware that these films are out and will be showing in our theater,” says Lombard. While Fox could afford a nearly $10 million P & A budget for Soul Food, independent distributors must come up with creative and cost-effective ways to promote their films on a shoestring budget–usually under $100,000.

In lieu of huge P & A budgets, black distributors have developed a “cultural event model” of distribution, which takes a grassroots community approach to promoting films. In 1994, Kay Shaw, a former political organizer, used this approach to market and promote Sankofa. Having been denied distribution by major and minor studios, Gerima sought Shaw’s help to self-distribute the film by marketing it to community groups, churches and schools.

Sankofa was screened throughout the country over a year and a half and grossed nearly $3 million. Shaw, along with KJM3, developed the cultural event model of promotion in 1993 while promoting Daughters of the Dust, which ran for 35 weeks and grossed $1.8 million. “We were able to recognize and tap into a cultural network that already exists. There is a whole circuit of black bookstores, radio talk shows and public affairs programming that is necessary to develop momentum for the film,” says Kathryn Bowser, vice president of administration for KJM3.

Although the cultural event model of distribution worked for Daughters and Sankofa, the grassroots strategy does not necessarily translate to more commercial films. “With Out of Sync, a very commercial urban drama starring LL Cool J, we found that none of the enthusiasm and grassroots marketing that we were able to generate with Daughters of the Dust existed for that film at all,” recalls KJM3 vice president of creative affairs Michelle Materre. The video distributor eventually found an audience for Out of Sync through video and cable outlets.

“A filmmaker who keeps his or her mind uniquely focused on theatrical release is almost doomed to failure,” says Rhines. “There is plenty of room for African Americans in the expanding cable, direct-to-video and CD-ROM/interactive video arenas. Electronics and telecommunications are already causing profound structural changes in the ways Hollywood does business.” According to V. Denise Bradley, director of international marketing for Warner Home Video, African American-themed or directed movies rent over 50% higher than the national

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