Reaching The Silver Screen

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

Stallone, there was Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, 63, the original action hero. The former NFL gridiron star made his name on the silver screen in such blackploitation classics–but don’t let him hear you call them that–as Black Caesar and Three the Hard Way.

But the Hammer didn’t want Hollywood controlling his image–and, as a result, putting nails in the coffin of his budding film career. So he struck out on his own. “I had an image of myself that Hollywood would not adhere to,” he says. “Hollywood wasn’t ready for that, so I said, ‘Ok, fine. I’ll make my own movie.’ And I did.”

The self-described black Clint Eastwood launched Po’ Boy Productions in 1973, transforming himself into America’s most prolific contemporary black filmmaker. He has distributed, directed, produced, and starred in close to 40 films over the past 25 years.

Using his star status, Williamson turned to Europe. “I thought my best bet was to take my concept overseas because I knew that Europeans accepted blacks differently because I had traveled to Europe,” Williamson says. “So I started researching the film markets and festivals. I took my concept to Cannes, I set up posters, and I paid pretty French girls $25 to walk around in my T-shirts.”

The Hammer’s marketing savvy paid off: He presold his first film, No Way Back, financing the movie by selling overseas distribution rights. “The film cost me $75,000, and by the time I left Cannes I had $290,000 in presales,” says Williamson of the model he would replicate for his next two films, Mean Johnny Barrows and Adios Amigo with Richard Pryor.

Today, Williamson continues to make movies with an average budget of no more than $1.5 million and European gross box office receipts of $5 million to $6 million, financed mostly through foreign presales. According to Williamson, about 5% of his films play theatrically in the United States, with the remainder going directly to video or cable TV. In his latest Po’ Boy projects, On the Edge (2001) and Down ‘N Dirty (2000), produced with his wife and partner, Linda Williamson, he changed the financing equation. The productions were financed by Blockbuster.

Williamson’s success has made him a popular action-adventure figure overseas, and he argues that black films can be marketable and profitable in foreign markets. Williamson’s advice to black filmmakers who venture into foreign territory: “Understand the culture and understand the people you’re selling to, and it will influence the kind of films you make.”


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