Reaching The Silver Screen

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

of feature film production, used the medium to sell the popular animated Web series Undercover Brother to Universal Studios and Imagine Entertainment for $3 million. Budgeted at a reported $35 million, the live-action film version of the series was produced by UE and Imagine’s Brian Grazer. The creative talent includes director Malcolm D. Lee, who helmed The Best Man, and the film’s star, comedian-actor Eddie Griffin. Through the use of Macromedia Flash animation, Jenkinson wanted to make UE a distribution and audience-building vehicle for creative properties on the Web and, at the same time, a tool to move them into other media. “My aspiration was to put together experienced storytellers with technicians to produce content that was more compelling than anything else I was seeing on the Web,” says Jenkinson.

In order to develop such vehicles, Jenkinson used his Rolodex of A-list talent. He contacted John Ridley, writer of Three Kings and supervising producer of Third Watch. “My script for Undercover Brother sat on my shelf for years,” says Ridley. “Despite my very successful past, Undercover Brother would have never happened without Urban Entertainment.”

As in a typical studio deal, UE, Ridley, and Lee received fees for services. Universal will distribute the film, cover all P&A costs, and reap box office receipts from the June 2002 release. The film is expected to open on about 2,000 screens. UE, however, is eligible for bonuses based on box office performance, and will participate in such ancillary revenue streams as merchandising and soundtrack sales.

Jenkinson is using this model to gain financing and distribution for other UE animated series in film development, including Ridley’s Those Who Walk in Darkness, which is in development at Warner Brothers, and There Goes the Neighborhood, which is being developed by Alcon Entertainment for Warner Brothers.

Jenkinson was able to make a dotcom model work when most companies imploded, including the much-publicized Pop.com multimedia venture led by über-directors Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, Grazer’s partner. He initially financed the lean, 10-man operation with $500,000 in personal savings. In late 2000, UE closed its first round of strategic funding from media conglomerate BMG Entertainment and Provender Capital, a minority- and women-controlled venture capital firm in New York. During the summer of 2001, AOL Time Warner purchased a $4.5 million minority stake in UE, and Provender invested another $1 million. asserts Provender partner Derek Jones; “Unlike other companies in the urban space, they have created a brand and been successful with [few] resources.”

UE has entered into lucrative “first-look” deals with New Line Cinema and Warner Brothers Online. Jenkinson has deftly developed a team of well-connected ex-studio execs, including UE President Damon Lee, a former vice presid
ent of production at MGM. And, most important, he’s formed partnerships with such ace talent as directors John Singleton and Reginald Hudlin.

From the Web to independent distribution, more doors may be swinging open for black cinema. If successful, you’ll be able to see a new filmmaker’s vision at a theater near you.

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