Reaching The Silver Screen

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

Urbanworld’s chief financial officer: “I can acquire a film knowing that I have value coming from our ancillary deals and I can leverage those funds to release the film theatrically. This minimizes our downside risk because we’ve already established a revenue stream value for the film.” To reduce costs and ensure profitability, McIntyre says Urbanworld’s movies will not likely be released to more than 300 screens nationwide. But even in this model, each film needs a different rollout strategy–a hard lesson Spikes learned after the inaugural launch.

This past April, Urbanworld released The Visit, a drama starring Billy Dee Williams and Hill Harper that cost $1.2 million and received four prestigious Independent Spirit Award nominations and two NAACP Image Award nominations, as well as the National Board of Review’s Special Recognition Award. Despite the acclaim, the film grossed a puny $180,000 in domestic revenues.

“We opened the film on 135 screens and our audience didn’t have time to catch up with the film,” admits Spikes, who believes Urbanworld should have employed a “platform release” model and shown the film in a few select cities so it could build momentum through strong word-of-mouth.

The disappointing performance of The Visit is representative of the challenge of bringing small black dramatic films to the screen when audiences continue to appear hungry for comedies. During the same period, Fox Searchlight released Kingdom Come, a comedy budgeted at $7 million that starred Whoopi Goldberg and LL Cool J. It grossed $23 million.

To meet this challenge, Urbanworld will offer a diversified slate of films, including Punks, a film produced by Tracey and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds (who also produced the box office hit Soul Food) for less than $1 million and described as a gay Waiting to Exhale, and the urban drama King of the Jungle with John Leguizamo and Rosie Perez. Says Punks director Patrik-Ian Polk: “We were seen by every major distributor at Sundance but no one stepped up to the plate. The studios automatically assumed that it’s not going to be profitable. Add to it that its black gay characters and they feel that the potential is even more limited.” Punks is slated for release this month.

Urbanworld also has plans to release Fidel, a documentary on the Cuban leader, For Da Luv of Money, starring the comedian Pierre, and Higher Ed, with rapper-producer Pras and Aries Spears of MAD TV.

To succeed, Spikes concedes that Urbanworld will need marketing muscle. To better position its films, he’s tapped New Jersey-based Bazan Entertainment Marketing and Los Angeles-based the DuVernay Agency, two firms with extensive experience in promoting films to black audiences.

A number of black filmmakers will continue to look to major studios for financing and distribution. But the Web may be vital to making the pitch–and the sale.

Take Urban Entertainment (, the first company ever to sell a Web-based property to a major studio. The Los Angeles-based company, launched in January 2000 by founder and CEO Michael Jenkinson, a former Fox Films vice president

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