Reaching The Silver Screen

There are plenty of black films. The problem is getting them shown. Black filmmakers arefinally taking on the distribution challenge.

take the longer a movie stays in a theater. For example, by the sixth week of the release, depending on the box office gross, the distributor could receive only 35% of the box office receipts.

Let’s go to the third reel. Not only do most distribution companies make money once a film reaches the silver screen, they also obtain significant earnings from merchandising, as well as ancillary rights to distribute the movie on video, DVD, cable TV, broadcast TV, and in foreign markets.

In this process, many black movies–defined here as those with predominantly black casts created by African American filmmakers–never make it off the shelf. Major studios and distributors maintain that such fare has narrow appeal domestically and fails to attract the lucrative foreign market.

Says Marvinia Anderson, president of Anderson International, a Saugus, California-based film and TV sales distribution company: “Films with a universal theme that are easily understood by all cultures will have a better chance of success anywhere in the world. Comedies, black or white, perform well domestically, but have traditionally had difficulty traveling outside the United States.”

But there are exceptions to the rule. Comedies like The Nutty Professor with Eddie Murphy and Keenan Ivory Wayan’s Scary Movie were blockbusters outside the United States. And, on the independent side, Fred Williamson’s Po’ Boy Productions (see the sidebar
“‘The Hammer’ Nails Hollywood”) and Reid’s New Millennium were able to make inroads into foreign territory. In fact, Reid had a better reception overseas when he released his first feature film, Asunder, a thriller starring City of Angel’s Blair Underwood and soap opera star Debbi Morgan, in 1998. “We raised half the $2 million budget in foreign markets but weren’t able to secure domestic distribution,” says Reid. “I traveled to Europe and Africa and met with the buyers. Because of their long and successful track record in TV, Blair and Debbi have high recognition value in certain territories.”

Black film entrepreneurs have taken a page from the scripts of Reid, Lee, and the legendary Oscar Micheaux: Get your movie in theaters by any means necessary.

CREATING THE PIPELINE
One way to ensure that black films reach the silver screen is through the creation of your own pipeline. That’s what Stacy Spikes did.

Leveraging the success of the 5-year-old Urbanworld Film Festival, and backed by a $15 million investment from Sony and equity from the Black Enterprise/Greenwich Street Fund (co-owned by Earl G. Graves Ltd., the parent company of this magazine), the former Miramax and October Films executive launched a distribution company called Urbanworld Films in the fall of 2000. Urbanworld Film’s mission: acquire independent, commercially viable black and Latin films and distribute them in limited release.

In running his small, nimble operation, Spikes does not offer huge advances to filmmakers but commits to projects not readily accepted by the Hollywood establishment. The reason: Urbanworld’s break-even business model allows for “output deals” with Sony’s Columbia Tri-Star division and HBO Home Video. This enables it to sell ancillary rights prior to the acquisition of a film. Asserts Kheil McIntyre,

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