Reel Soul

African Heritage Movie Network finds niche in syndication of black films

Frank Mercado-Valdes has gone from sleeping in the park to living in the plaza–Trump Plaza, that is. And it hasn’t been because of luck or inheritance. Instead, Mercado-Valdes turned his love for old black movies into a film production and syndication company that has earned $10 million in just four years.

“I loved watching old black movies,” says the 35-year-old transplant from Miami. “But I never could find any of them on local television.”

With a $25,000 investment and a $350,000 loan from the Pro-Line Corp. (No. 39 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE TOO list), Mercado-Valdes launched the New York-based African Heritage Movie Network in 1993. The company purchases 30-day syndication rights to many black classics, including Cotton Comes to Harlem and Car Wash, blaxploitation epics like Coffy and shaft, ?and more recent pictures such as Glory and Crooklyn. Mercado- Valdes pays anywhere from $5,000-$100,000 per title. “The first movie we ran was around $40,000 and the most we’ve ever paid for a title was $450,000 for Glory.

The films are distributed and aired through the company’s “Movie of the Month” series hosted by film legends Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and “Primetime Presentations,” a quarterly special. Both appear in 125 markets nationwide.

Mercado-Valdes says starting the company was no easy task. Like many entrepreneurs, he lacked the initial capital. “I moved to New York in 1987 and didn’t even have a personal checking account,” he remembers. “And the friend that said he was going to let me stay at his house suddenly was nowhere to be found.”

Undaunted, Mercado-Valdes ran into a former colleague. This meeting gave him a place to stay and the time he needed to prepare his presentation to Pro-Line. “They had been advertisers on two shows I was doing with World African Network, The Miss Collegiate African American Pageant and S.T.O.M.P! [a national television step show among black fraternities and sororities],” he recalls. “So when I was ready to launch African Heritage Network, they were among the first people I tried to establish a partnership with.”

Competition for ad dollars was a big challenge, says Mercado-Valdes “We were going up against people who had been in the syndication business a while. If you’re a new program, you re always lighting against people who are used to getting these dollars and who will fight like hell to keep them.”

Since inception, he has purchased the rights to over 100 black films. The network airs about 20 movies per year and has acquired the weekend syndication rights to the popular Fox police drama, New York Undercover. As to the future, Mercado-Valdes is looking forward to becoming a cable service. He also recently purchased the rights to Kensington Publishing Group’s Arabesque Books, the first and only romance line from a major publisher to feature African American characters in books written by black women. “I do believe that the company is now in a position to have greater credibility to do even bigger deals.”

African Heritage Movie Network, 295 Greenwich St., Suite 368, New York, NY 10007;

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