Black Film White Money

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Jesse Algeron Rhines

In the 1970s, the major studios had yet to recover completely from the debilitating effects of the Paramount Consent Decree, the advent of competition from the recently invented television technology, and the doubling of film production costs between 1962 and 1972. In the 1960s, the first two difficulties caused a crisis in the industry. 1 Between 1959 and 1970, the majors’ combined distribution of four hundred dropped to an average of only 250 films per year. This low supply of films hurt exhibitors. 2 The majors’ incomes were declining.

To combat this decline they changed their strategies, Mass communications scholars Garth Jowett and James Linton observe that there are two strategic options to making money in the feature film industry: 1) minimizing production costs, that is, making a smaller, more specialized movie, or conversely (2) maximizing potential appeal, that is, making a blockbuster,’ Blaxploitation films are extreme examples of the first strategy, Shaft and Superfly were very low-budget features targeted at a very narrow market, the African American audience. Between 1970 and 1974, many white filmmakers made handsome profits from the blaxploitation genre film.

However, says film scholar Ed Guerrero, “when Hollywood no longer needed its cheap, black product line for its survival, it reverted to traditional and openly stereotypical modes of representation, as the industry eagerly set about unplugging this brief but creatively insurgent black movie boom.” 4 From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, blockbuster after blockbuster was released by the majors. The Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones quartet, Jaws 1 2 3 and The Deep were but a few features with elaborate special effects, shot in exotic locations and paying stars enormous sum of money. However, the films themselves are not the real story of the majors’ phoenix-like recovery in the 1980s, Rather, their success is the Product of applied research used to promote these films, Film industry insider James Monaco observes, for example:

The real secret to Columbia’s success in 1977 was not Close Encounters at all; it was The Deep, a more conventional package, pre-sold by Peter Benchley’s novel follow up to Jaws. It had a Couple Of stars, some acceptable adolescent sex (Jackie Bisset in a wet tee-shirt), and an outrageously racist plot, where not only are the villains all black but they do strange voodoo sex things to our Jackie. 5

At $31 million from its June opening to the end of the year, it was the sixth-highest-grossing film of 1977. Success was based on the way producer Peter Guber sold it.

Guber spent nearly two years devising The Deep’s marketing strategy First hard cover, then paperback books were published, Magazine excerpts and condensations followed, Publicity on the set was constant, and journalists were enticed with a junket to Bermuda, Guber wrote the gossipy Inside “The Deep, ” which was full of being I ” The first printing of this book was 124,000 copies released the final two days before the film’s premiere. Since most workers get paid on the fifteenth, The Deep opened June 17, 1977; Research told Guber that by now each potential moviegoer would have been hit television, or other media exposures of the film.

Saturation booking of eight hundred theaters, or about 6 percent of total America opened The Deep on the same day Guber getting theaters filled quickly would protect the film from bad word of mouth or bad reviews. Monaco says the theory is to “get in quick, get the money, and get out before the bad news trickles down….A see-through blue-vinyl soundtrack album, a treasure-chest contest at supermarkets and shopping malls, department store mannequins dressed in The Deep teeshirts,” and products from boat, watch, and cosmetics manufacturers tied the public imagination to the upcoming film In June, while a merchandising campaign was building steam, for advertising as well as to make money from tie-ins, Guber, the film’s director, Peter Yates, the book’s author, Peter Benchley, and the stars were on all the talk shows.

Columbia allotted $1.5 million for print and $1.3 million for television advertising. Their objective was for the nation’s fifty top markets to receive two and a half billion visual advertising impressions during June. The publicity, marketing, and distribution campaign for the Deep set the mold for the modern blockbuster film. Another Columbia blockbuster, Close Encounters, used a similar strategy with an advertising budget of half the film’s $9 million production costs. “Saturation marketing” and “saturation release” were the keys to blockbuster success. As a result, distribution’s share of the domestic market increased from $500 million in 1972 to $1,215 million in 1978 or 143%, while the gross U.S. box-office figures grew only 67%.” 7

The Mass Audience

The Peter Guber marketing approach is a wonderful example of the operation of the mass audience model. Clint Wilson and Felix Gutierrez, the authors of Minorities and Media, describe this model as one in which racial minorities are seen at the margins of a coveted American mass audience where they are ignored not only by those in the movie industry but by other media that seek a mass audience as well.

In 1978, Otis Chandler, then publisher of the Los Angeles Times, was quoted as saying “We cut out unprofitable circulation, and we arbitrarily cut back some of our low-income circulation.” In 1978, a Detroit News editor ordered his staff to “aim the newspaper at people who made more than $18,000 a year and were between the ages of 28 and 40.” Such stories, the editor wrote, “should be obvious: they won’t have a damn thing to do with Detroit and its internal problems.”

Wilson and Gutierrez argue that newspapers seek a mass audience at the demand of their advertisers, who want to reach more affluent, now suburban readers. They say that some newspaper circulation strategies were designed to make it “difficult, if not impossible for residents of ghettos and barrios to subscribe to newspapers at the same time they were starting or expanding new editions in outlining areas. The strategies were defended as being based on economics because the low-income characteristics of blacks and Latinos made them undesirable newspaper readers.” 8

This approach also states that media seeking a mass audience will look for “commonalities” or “themes” to which large majorities will respond. Again, racial minority groups and their peculiar “cultures and traditions” will be ignored or, where used, will be presented so as not to offend the mass audience. Minorities will be pictured as “seen through Anglo’s eyes” or stereotyped to present a “common content denominator” to potential viewers,’ However, the most effective way to avoid confronting nonwhite peoples is to avoid employing members of nonwhite races as much as possible.

In line with the least-common-denominator approach to reaching a mass, mostly Anglo audience, the majors either avoided depiction of non-white ~e domestic cultures or stereotyped individual minority group members throughout the blockbuster period, Use of a fairly uniform, generic cultural environment aids in appealing to the largest audience possible, which since the 1950s has been about 75 percent under thirty with the greater portion between fourteen and twenty-five years old. 10

American Film magazine reported that in the 240 films released in 1981 there were only a dozen major roles for Blacks. Of all “on camera parts in the 4th quarter, ten and two-tenths percent went to blacks and Hispanics,” Brock Peters, who starred with Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mocking Bird (1962), stated, “The only leading roles offered to blacks [were] those that support a white lead, There is a false theory that audiences will not go to see a black star unless that star is accompanied by a white counterpart.” Yaphet Kotto, who have played significant roles in such films as The Thomas Crown Affair, with Steve McQueen, and Alien, with Sigourney Weaver, says it’s not racism, it’s economics: “People want to be involved in fifteen- to twenty-million-dollar movies, and they want their returns guaranteed. So they go for the Redford, the Connerys, the Brandos. If they ever scale their expectations down and return to modest, low budget films, they might just turn to me.”

Janet Wasko, the author of Movies and Money, appears to support Kotto’s view that race is not the real issue. She says that the movie industry does not produce pure art or pure communication but, rather, commodities that are produced, distributed, and exhibited under market conditions. Market scrutiny “inevitably” influences which make films, the type of films made, and the manner of public distribution. James Monaco says investors are more likely to “throw in for a share or two” if, by appealing to a minority audience, a film promises to “make back its investment plus a small profit in a relatively short space of time,” So casual a strategy is impossible for the blockbuster, however, because the risks are too high: production and marketing costs of up to $30 million, $50 million, even $100 million demand that research virtually guarantee a market before a film is made.”

Jowett and Linton observe that the producer knows that his or her films will be viewed by individuals. But as a marketer, the producer must group these individuals into “diverse ‘publics . . . ‘ ‘ for each specific movie.” Producers try to routinize actions required to make a profit on new movies by using actors and ideas already proved to attract an audience.

Faced, with [high] uncertainty, movie makers have generated an implicit philosophy or ideology about movie-making which provides them with an image of their audience and their viewing interest. This “audience image” has tended to narrow the range of subject matter and forms that movies employ, and has caused money makers to invoke formulaic approaches and engage in imitations of “breakthrough” successes, in what are known as movie “cycles.” As innovations are introduced, and the environment changes, the “landscape” of the industry adapts, with the chameleon-like majors managing to maintain dominance in the marketplace.

…Advertising campaigns [sometimes] cost as much as the actual production of the movie itself, and “some recent marketing campaigns have cost as much as twice the negative cost” 13

In her book American Film Distribution, Suzanne Mary Donahue says that large-scale publicity can so whet public anticipation that feels that it is a social necessity to see a film.” 14 In recent years even box office grosses are published and touted in advertising to draw further attention to a film. The popular belief, generated by high grosses that everyone else has seen a movie may make more people feel that seeing it is a social necessity. 15

The early distribution experience of the 1973 independent film Hester Street demonstrates how the majors’ preconceptions and risk aversion can miss the opportunities presented by a small film. Director Joan Micklin Silver made this Elm for only $356,000, but it was very well received at the Cannes Film Festival, From Cannes Hester Street sold well in several foreign countries, But in the United States, the film made the rounds of the major Hollywood distribution studios three times and was rejected.

When Silver and her husband were informed that the film’s black-and-white cinematography, low budget, and ethnic orientation caused the majors to predict a box office failure, they decided to distribute it themselves. Because of the film’s success at festivals, some exhibitors were willing to book the picture in a few theaters. When Hester Street actress Carol Kane received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination, however, hundreds of smaller exhibitors opened up to it, The picture finally grossed more than $4 million.”

Despite such rare stories of success and the general profitability of the blockbuster technique, industry professionals still point out that meeting the public’s tastes at a particular time remains a crap shoot, Even big-budget films-Ishtar and Hudson Hawk, for example-can fail, because the public taste is fickle and what seems a sure bet when shooting starts can be the last thing the public wants to see one year later when the film is released.”

The mass audience approach dictates that cultural out-groups will be stereotyped or depicted in ways that will not offend the majority of viewers, John Sayles, producer of such low-budget independent features as The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Brother from Another Planet, and Eight Men Out, who left a prosperous and productive career as a Hollywood writer to become an independent producer, says, “I co-wrote one movie called The Challenge, and the director said, ‘Well, I know they’re all Chinese in the script, but let’s make them all Japanese because I can get Toshiro Mifune and who knows the difference anyway?”

The primary mission of studio heads and those white males responsible for hiring, and against whom many equal opportunity suits are filed, is to design a homogenized film image that will draw the greatest number of viewers, Ironically, as Monona Wali points out in Block Film Review, Hollywood may be missing an opportunity to reap even larger profits. “Commercial cinema also ignores one of the fundamental realities of America today-it is increasingly a multiracial, multicultural society, and the various races and cultures seek to have their images represented in their HI and true dimensions.” 19

Since the mid-1970s, as major distributors have reduced the number of films they finance and/or release per year in an effort to release larger-budget films with greater Anglo, mass appeal and a correspondingly greater short-term box office potential, the use of both nonwhite actors and themes derived from nonwhite people has been deemed potentially alienating to this mass audience and therefore avoided or homogenized, that is, depicted in a way distributors project will be non-threatening to the greatest pool of potential ticket purchasers.

From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, major studio concentration on blockbuster production and mass marketing techniques ended the industry’s financial crisis, This focus on so called high-concept, almost mono-racial movies also limited nonwhite people’s access to lead roles, to film production financing, and to channels designed to get film products shown in American theaters, Hollywood executives did not realize, however, that by reducing the number of films released they had provided rare opportunity to a new breed of independent producers and distributors.

Independent distributors do not start out competing with the majors, Mass marketing is the furthest thing from their minds and abilities, Independents operate in niche or specialized markets normally ignored or serviced by the majors with “B~” or genre films, The market at which a film is aimed is very important, especially for the first time producer and the small distributor. An astute assessment of the types of productions a particular audience will find entertaining and, therefore, will pay to see is the primary task of the specialized marketer, In fact, what is entertaining to a specialized market is rarely entertaining to a mass audience.

Genre marketing is the independent distributor’s equivalent of the majors’ mass marketing technique, Success in this area comes from developing a sustained following for films because of specific attributes, whether or not the film is a critical success. Martial ads and horror are genre categories that have developed such followings, A few of these, Night of the Living Dead and Rocky Horror Picture Show, for example, have also developed a cult following, which ensures a long-term revenue stream, Chieftain types of comedies do as well, the Airplane and Police Academy series, for example, The majors secure a devoted following from mass audiences by featuring big-name actors, stars whom large audiences are inclined to see regardless of the film’s quality.

Genre films are not “art” films, however, Art films pose a greater risk for distributors since they present a filmmaker’s very personal vision for which no audience has been developed, Early John Waters films fit this category, as do The Producers, El Norte, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, and, some say, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. Art films have a more narrow, less predictable market than genre films and ale frequently shorter lived and less profitable. They rarely contain elements intended for, or conducive to, sequel development: for example, Night of the Living Dead, an early 1970s release, led to sequels into the 1990s; yet none of the films Spike Lee has produced sequels his first, She’s Gotta Have It, because they do not use elements developed in his original success.

Barbara Kopple’s documentary Harlan County, USA is said to be the avatar and the beginning of a wave of late-1970s independent American feature film.

There are several reasons for this sudden surge of activity. The proliferation of film schools in the late sixties flooded the market with ambitious, often socially conscious, young talents. At the same time, the conglomeration of Hollywood reduced the number of low budgets,

“experimental” studio films, Unable (or unwilling) to crack the industry, aspiring filmmakers e forced to create their opportunities. The movie had achieved a certain prestige as tax write-offs and, for a time, tax shelters-and, even more important, there, as an increasing amount of foundation funding available. 20

Independent productions of the 1980s differed from films released by the majors both in terms of the amount of money spent on their products and in the way they “imaged” colored people and or women, Films, like Who, Killed Vincent Chin?, El Norte, Do the Right Thing, and Desperately Seeking Susan all challenged the dominant feature film industry’s portrayal of nonwhites and/or women and were deemed socially conscious” for this reason, Independent filmmakers like Peter Wang or Wayne Wang they are not related) and the Hudlin brothers do not want to make the same kinds of films Hollywood is making. Hollywood’s preference for already proven audience-getters is, generally, not in accord with a social consciousness that seeks to overturn the views on race, class, and gender most white American audiences have traditionally supported at the box office, Examples of the views these new filmmakers wish to express are: female independence in thought and action is good; cross-class unity among Blacks aimed at improving conditions for all Blacks should be encouraged; African America continues to be oppressed by white America, and this oppression has always been the reason for most Black poverty and vice; Black Americans retain and celebrate an African heritage; white supremacy is bad; corporate and financial profiteering continues to divide and impoverish the working class; cultural and racial differentiation is acknowledged and accepted, Therefore, non-Europeans need not assimilate European racial or cultural norms to be co-equal within American pluralism.

Reginald Hudlin, a graduate of Harvard University’s film program who is sometimes called the “intellectual gremlin of black independent cinema,” makes the point: “For a whole year after its release] I was asked, ‘You’re a black filmmaker: What do you think about The Color Purple? And I’d say, ‘I think you ought to go see a black independent film: That’s what’s happening.” The Hudlin brothers are among a growing number of young Black and non-Black filmmakers who refuse the Hollywood approach to film production.

The Black Filmmaker Foundation

By the late 1~970s, Black film distributors TAM and Cinematic International were dead, Over the next decade, Third World Cinema, Women Make Movies, and other nonprofit organizations began to distribute non-commercial and art films by people of color, but their focus was significantly more independent than Hollywood oriented.

In 1978, Warrington Hudlin, a 1974 graduate of Yale University co-founded and became president of the Black Filmmaker Foundation BFF, an incorporated, nonprofit arts organization headquartered in New York City, Warrington Hudlin’s film career began with his documentary Black at Yale (1974) and his undergraduate thesis project, Street Corner Stories (1977), a cinema verite piece on the Black community in New Haven, Connecticut. BFF’s original mission was to distribute films made by African Americans to libraries, museums, and colleges and to create a dialogue between Black filmmakers and their audience by showing films at community centers and on community access cable channels.

By the mid-1980s, it also served as fiscal agent and was commissioned to administer funds awarded to Black film makers by other nonprofit organizations. Author and filmmaker, Trey Ellis say that BFF is “one of the first blacks. Arts organizations that couple the creativity of the new black artists themselves with the insider’s knowledge of high finance from the current flood of young black investment bankers and lawyers.” 22 In fact, Black graduates of both Harvard and Yale law schools and Blacks employed on the business side of corporations such as Home Box Office have been BFF board members since the group’s inception. Ellis says that BFF’s relationship with these professionals is probably what has made it last so long.

Warrington Hudlin became an outspoken critic of Hollywood’s continued reluctance to hire African Americans either as actors or behind the camera. He championed the independent spirit exemplified by Melvin Van Peebles’s release of Sweetback, BFF became a major influence for aspiring filmmakers, such as Spike Lee, whose giants the organization administered. Warrington and other BFF officers became well-known spokespersons before the media and funding sources, as well as at conferences and film festivals where African American or third world film making was concerned.

Spike Lee’s NYU student films were also distributed by BFF. Lee gave talks, showed his films, and participated in panel discussions set up by Warrington and the BFF staff. In fact, BFF members, including Reginald Hudlin, appear in Lee’s first feature, She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and helped him mount the production. Proceeds from the New York premiere were donated, at least in part, to BFF. This film’s box office success made it the model for other African American filmmakers and white film financiers and distributors.

Island Pictures and She’s Gotta Have It

Lee used “creative financing” to produce She’s Gotta Hove It on a low budget of $175,000, and the independent distributor Island Pictures opened the film in a few theaters nationwide, This film tells the story of Nola Darling, who is romantically involved with three very different men who openly resent one another, Jamie is matter of-fact and appears steadfast. Greer drives a fancy car, knows he’s good looking, and cannot understand why Nola doesn’t settle down with him alone. Mars is a wisecracking, bicycle-riding, gold-necklace-wearing, unemployed home boy who keeps Nola laughing. Russell Schwartz, then president of Island Pictures, released She’s Gotta Have It as a comedy feature in 1986, and this affected the American film scene like few art releases before or since,

Though written, produced, and directed by African Americans, She’s Gotta Have It had its initial critical success at the San Francisco Film Festival, where it played before an audience that was more than 90 percent white, Success in this venue was a primary determining factor in Island’s picking up the film and in the structure of its release pattern. Although impressed by Lee’s vigorous promotion of a Black middle-class audience hungry for a feature depicting their race/class image, even before meeting with Lee, Island executives had “a hunch that there was a segment of America that was not being catered to in terms of movies, and we identified that as a Black middle class that we felt was out there…And after speaking with Spike about it, we said that this makes a lot of sense.” 23 Releasing this film downtown demonstrated a successful attempt to bring the distribution of Black films in line with a new and untested American attitude toward race relations:

The whole idea was to find and test the limits of a black audience and to expose them, for the first time in many years at that point-to a film that spoke about relationships, and not one that was standard blaxploitation Further the reason the film was opened in the Lincoln Center area was to avoid the film being “ghettoized.” This was done in full consolidation with Spike Lee. The surprise was not that Blacks came, but that WHITES came. Based on this successful opening, we, ere able to give the film a more commercial playoff throughout Manhattan (including Harlem) and the rest of the country, In effect, She’s Gotta Have It was a breakthrough film because it not only attracted a black middle-class audience but a white one as well, If we had opened the film in Harlem initially, we would never have gotten it to cross over.”

Although Island was a young company in the mid-1980s, it was a profitable corporation and had built a reputation distributing some well-received art films. Statistics and demographics, however, are not the tools relied on by successful distributors, Dennis Greene, former vice president of production at Columbia Pictures, says, that Motion Pictures are not made by the audience. They’re made by who you want to be in business with.” 25 What stars or director seem to be up-and-coming is more important to a financing company than the statistics say an audience is likely to pay for. This recall, the statement that nothing to do with Island’s decision to distribute She’s Gotta have It. In fact, the decision was based on Island’s people having seen the film, Lee’s conviction that the film would make it, and a “hunch” that the movie would exhibit “legs,” or be able to stand on its own.

Starting with a budget Of $3,000, Robert Shay, son of a grocer, created New Line Cinema and distributed foreign films to college audiences in the mid-1970s. In the early 1980s, he bought the expired copyright for a 1940s-era government production aimed at young people and designed to discourage their use of marihuana. For late 1980s youth this film, Reefer Madness, was a tremendous, unintentionally comedic success, and its distribution was so profitable that Shay expanded beyond the campus into movie houses.

Real success began for Shay with the production and distribution of the horror-film-genre Nightmare on Elm, then the Friday the 13th series. The audience for these films included college-age youth but extended New Line’s reach to younger audiences who were even more dedicated moviegoers. These films developed a cult following sufficient to sustain many profitable sequels. Emerging film companies like New Line stick to producing films in a limited number of genres, that is, films with particular, predetermined or formulaic attributes and elements demonstrated to have appeal for a certain audience segment. New Line booth financed and released the Hudlin Brothers’ first feature film, House Party, in 1990 as one in a series of rap music comedies.

The Hudlin brothers’ financial success with House Party was, in large part, the product of close attention paid to the economic structural developments in the U.S. feature film industry. As they worked for ten years distributing Black independent films through the Black-Filmmakers Foundation, they studied the distribution and marketing aspects of the business. Warrington Hudlin, intimately aware of the difficulties Lee encountered in producing the “no-budget” She’s Gotta Have It, used this knowledge to advantage in negotiations with potential financiers.

Recommended by Lee to film financiers and distributors after his film’s success, the Hudlin brothers got their House Party produced by independent distribute, New Line Cinema for $2.5 million, In March 1990, the film opened in five hundred theaters nationwide with a television, print, and newspaper advertising budget Of about $4 million, House party, a feature-length version of, short film Reginald had made as an undergraduate at Harvard, grossed over 30 million in its first six months, It was perhaps the first Black independent feature to attempt to make use of the saturation release and advertising techniques developed by Peter Guber as part of the blockbuster marketing approach. As a result, Warrington Hudlin says, the film grossed more than any other film by a first. Time Black feature director and more than any other Black independent film except Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing through 1991, The result of this success was quick action on the part of the entertainment industry. The June 27, 1990, issue of Variety reported Hudlin brothers contracts with both Tri-Star Pictures and NBC television for multiple productions over the next two or three years. 21

African Americans, as an audience for the feature, films, are variously defined and delimited. Jacqueline Bobo reported at the 1992 “Available Visions” film and video conference that in 1988 Blacks spent $1.1 billion on theatrical films; This constituted about one-fourth of $4.5 billion spent nationally. 21 Spike Lee saw She’s Gotta Have it, marketable to a Black middle-class audience, Island Pictures opened it near Lincoln Center to boost its crossover potential. In order to avoid competition with the majors in the current period, many small companies avoid the inner-city or underclass audience to whom, they say, the majors are addressing their Black films, For example, KJM3, which was the marketing company of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and has now become a film distributor, believes that having to market to the Black urban underclass would put them in direct competition with the majors.” 28 KJM3 does not expect to cater to the Black middle class either because they choose to market films that they call “authentically Black.” 29 Professor of African American studies Talmadge Anderson says, “Black arts and literary works are truly authentic when they reflect the condition and experience of African Americans in relation to the broader society and the world,” 30 KJM3 defines a Black film as one in which all three positions of authority (screenwriter, director, and producer) are held by Blacks, and the story content presents a “representation of how Black people interact” that is believable to the general African American audience.” Michelle Materre, vice president of KJM3, says that “African American media is that which is produced by African American film and video makers, rather than that which is produced by others about African Americans.” 32 Thus, for KJM3, the cultural circumstances within which characters interact are important and must ring true for Black viewers,” Such films are not expected to cross over to a white, general audience.

KJM3’s commitment to the Black audience is a cultural imperative, Our specialized focus on the need, and tastes of the Black audience as a hole puts us in a position to satisfy, its entertainment needs, The general market competitors, and the specialized “art house” distributors, are very skilled at targeting the general and specialty markets, However, their traditional approach to reaching out to the Black audience results in those films which reflect the African and African-America experience never achieving their potential performance levels, and an audience hunger that remains unsatisfied Our releases will be marketed on a market-by-market basis, utilizing a strategy which cross-references the tastes, habits, and opinions of the African and African-American viewing, audience in order to reach the broadest potential market.”

Julie Dash provided the chance to demonstrate the validity of this view by bringing KJM3 and Kino International, distributors of Daughters of the Dust, together. Dash’s lyric storytelling shows how an extended family of Geechees, Blacks descended from Africans who largely remained on the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina after slaves, decided to migrate north. In their local Gullah dialect of mixed English and African languages, generations of Black women powerfully narrate, debate, and act out their forceful, emotional, and secret responses to years of rape and other oppressions by local whites, Two hallmarks of Daughters are a clear, celebrated memory link between enslaved Africans and post-slavery Blacks and presentation of both familial and romantic love between young and old, male and female.

KJM3 marketed Daughters to a core audience via their “surgical marketing model,” a method of cross-referencing tastes, habits, and entertainment consumption patterns of that core audience, A major component of this model is a profile of an identifiable, targetable market segment called the cultural grassroots. 35 Persons who fit this category may be in the economic underclass, the middle class, or even the small Black upper class, They may be well educated or have little formal training. They may learn African dance or wear traditional African attire and have a strong image of themselves as African. This target group comprises a comparatively small audience and for this reason may not have been respected by general product and media distributors, Yet, in New York and other major American cities, this audience numbers in the millions, and while many of the cultural grassroots will not attend a film for years at a time, they will stand in line for hours to see a film they have heard delivers a representation of African American culture likely to make them feel comfortable. KJM3 used both traditional and non-traditional marketing techniques not only in New York but in New jersey and Connecticut to promote the film to the cultural grassroots. It arranged interviews on Black radio and television programs, placed stories in major Black mainstream and arts newspapers and magazines, and enlisted the support of many Black social and political organizations, Materre noted that “KJM3 was able to promote Daughters of the Dust to Black churches because they contacted the ministers one on one and had them talk it up to their congregations.” 31

Several advance word-of-mouth screenings were held for influential Black people from diverse backgrounds. In addition, KJM3 distributed leaflets describing the film at a variety of venues-at New York-area Black professional organization events normally held during the Kwanzaa-Christmas holiday season, such as the annual Black Expo and the Malcolm X Cultural Conference, both held in New York City, and other events likely to attract Blacks interested in the cultural and political history of Africa and African America, The opening of Daughters was scheduled for January 15 to coincide with the nationwide celebration of the Rev, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy and to precede February’s annual nationwide celebration of Black history ]

KJM3 executives say that they employed this marketing strategic because Daughters of the Dust was conceived and funded as a non-commercial, independent work, Materre defines an independent work as one that is “produced primarily as a result of the vision of its director or producer and is usually funded ‘catch as catch can,” Hollywood has released so few films that carry cultural and sociopolitical content derived from the lived experiences of diasporic Blacks in Africa, Europe, and the Americas that it has no method for reaching the core audience for Daughters, Daughters of the Dust presents such experiences, and white-American-controlled major and “mini-major” distribution companies have not proved competent to reach an audience for them, One might say that a diasporic African work of this type eschews negative stereotyping of Blacks and is opposed to both implicit and explicit inferences of non-Black and Eurocentric domination in any guise, Such works, even as comedies, are likely to support community, communal defense, and development among Black people in any part of the world.

Although KJM3 handled marketing for Daughter, of the Dust, its premiere distribution effort was with the film Neria (1992) by Zimbabwe-born director Godwin Mawuru, which opened at the Biograph Theater in Washington, D.C., in early April. The film follows Neria’s fight to hold her family together in the face of traditional cultural customs and rituals of inheritance, It is a modern Zimbabwean story, which the distributor’s literature quotes Variety as saying “looms as an unusual attraction for African American audience tired of Hollywood exploitation…heartwarming.” In April and May Neria played to sellout crowds at the Lincoln Center’s “Modern Days, Ancient Nights: Thirty Years of African Filmmaking” festival in New York City. Another culturally authentic film, Neria was promoted using the same marketing strategy that KJM3 used to promote Daughters: events attended by the core audience were initially targeted, and word-of-mouth advertising spread interest in the film.

Crossover: Content and Marketing Structure Conflict

Eddie Murphy, one of America’s most successful screen personalities, enlisted the Hudlin brothers directing production team for his film Boomerang, to be distributed by Paramount, a major studio. Given the tremendous success of Murphy releases such as 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop I and 11, Boomerang received perhaps the largest budget, just under $50 million, of any Black production in history. Although the initial Boomerang screenplay was written by whites to attract Murphy’s normal audience, Reginald Hudlin altered the film to such an extent that the story became more accessible to Blacks than to whites. The result was that Blacks turned out for the film in large numbers while whites were significantly less inclined to see it, Los Angeles Times film reviewer Kenneth Turan, for example, said:

You can tell a performer is in trouble when his legal entanglements are more entertaining than his movies watching Murphy in “Boomerang” it is almost impossible to remember the sharp, high-spirited exhilaration he brought to comedy in films like “48 HRS” and “Trading Places [T]he character he plays is no hustler, no scrambler, after respectability, he is a polished and successful director of marketing for a successful cosmetics corporation…Watching the best wisenheimer the business determinedly turning himself into a sensitive, New Age guy is an exercise in sheer frustrations.

In Hollywood and the Box Office, John Izod says that a film must make two and a half times its production costs before it breaks even,” Grossing $70 million on a production budget of about $50 million, Boomerang is considered a domestic financial failure despite excellent reception in the African American community. Boomerang turned out not to be a crossover film. However, the final word on this is yet unspoken.”

This case provides evidence that culture has box office significance, It also demonstrates that there may be an upper limit on the size of the return that can be expected from a particular market segment. This has implications for how big a film production budget a market segment can support. In contrast to Dennis Greene and Island executives, KJM3 feels that if it is targeting the Black audience with an “authentically Black” product, it may be unwise to finance a higher budget than that audience can profitably reimburse.

Although on a creative plane screenwriters abhor the thought that audience and financial considerations determine their scripts, distributors and investors are naturally very concerned with who is likely to pay to see their releases. It is, therefore, the business side of filmmaking that tries to match a script with a profitable viewing audience. A major consideration in this regard is how accessible the film will be to a largely white audience approaching two hundred million persons, with potential single-film revenues (at an average four dollars per ticket in 1992) of $800 million, as opposed to a smaller Black audience that may number well under ten million with corresponding single-film potential revenues of $40 million, Thus, even before a production budget can be validly considered, the issue of crossover potential must be addressed.

In today’s film industry, crossover refers to the potential of a film addressing nonwhite Americans’ concerns to secure a significant financial return from white American viewers, While one might argue that a film addressing white concerns can conceptually cross over to a nonwhite audience as well, since the real issue is the film’s or moneymaking ability, the size of the white market can alone provide very strong legs, so crossover to nonwhites need not be considered seriously, Culture and finance are intimately interwoven within the crossover concept, and because whites control film financing, nonwhite filmmakers must consider their films’ crossover potential to attract white private financing.

Spike Lee says to nonwhite filmmakers, “No, you don’t have to cross over, Not at all, That depends on what the film is, There’s no law. Like School Daze, I knew going in it was gonna be very hard for a white audience to relate to what happens on a Black college campus. Whereas She’s Gotta Have It was more accessible to them. Same thing with Do the Right Thing.” But when asked why She’s Gotta Have It if it was so accessible to whites, was advertised as a comedy even though he had never viewed it as such, Lee said, “Anytime when there are Black people involved they, put comedy on it, Makes it more palatable for the white audiences.

Whereas drama, they might be uneasy, might be uneven,”” Whether or not there is truth in this statement, it indicates that African America’s number one filmmaker feels the need to fight industry stereotypes even before his films are written, Films such as Boyz -N the Hood and Menace 11 Society are condemned for catering to the Blacks-as-violent or criminal stereotypes like those dominant in the blaxploitation period. By contrast, movies featuring Blacks as neither violent nor comic, such as Daughters of the Dust and To Sleep with Anger, have been very poorly received in distribution circles,

Black films must be presented to white distributors in particular ways that are consistent with white audience stereotyping of Blacks to predict crossover success. Such predictions, of course, sometimes go awry, Despite the presence of Eddie Murphy, the crossover champion, for example, many observers believe that because he was in a Black business situation [similar to the Black college situation of School Daze, with 90 percent Black characters presented as successful professionals, white audiences found Boomerang inaccessible, which made it a crossover failure. Turan, for example, found that:

the most intriguing aspect of Boomerang turned out to be not its story but its racial composition This kind of cinematic affirmative action can be seen as very long overdue, but unlike the dramatically motivated all-black cast of A Rage in Harlem [ a gangster film in which Blacks mutilate each other] it feels in it own way as silly and arbitrary as mainstream movies without any people of color on screen.”

White audiences find Murphy accessible only when he is among 90 percent white characters in a story line aimed specifically at whites culturally Such films’ crossover revenues from a Black audience area mere bonus since Black cultural considerations are addressed only tangentially, if at all.

Warner Bros.’ 1992 release of Spike Lee’s film Malcolm ~X is a case in point. When Lee demanded $35 million from Warner Bros. to produce the film he said it deserved the same budget the studio had provided for Oliver Stone’s JFK. Warner Bros., thought otherwise on the basis that JFK as icon had a much larger potential audience than did Malcolm X. To paraphrase the famous Lloyd Bentsen quip, they were saying, “Spike, your Malcolm is no Kennedy.”

That Lee thought his film could command as large an audience as JFK reveals how much Malcolm X’s image has changed over the years, or at least the kind of image Lee was willing to fashion, Historically, JFK and Malcolm occupied entirely different political spheres. It’s hard to imagine any circumstance in which Malcolm would have been invited to tea at Camelot, Nor can we visualize Kennedy, rather than Martin Luther King Jr., smiling and shaking hands with Malcolm in that famous photograph Do the Right Thing’s Smiley lugged about. It’s also doubtful that Malcolm would have issued a “chickens coming home to roost” statement had King rather than Kennedy been assassinated in 1963.

Martin and Malcolm did not agree on strategies and goals, but they were not asymmetrical in the way Malcolm and JFK were. Malcolm and JFK had followings that differed radically in their racial composition, their long-range goals, and, most important, in numbers of persons, Something profound must have happened to the image of Malcolm and/or of JFK over the decades if, in the 19~90s, they were considered, by the commercial film industry, capable of attracting equivalent, much less the same, movie going audiences. Or perhaps it is the image of Malcolm as shaped by Lee that became compatible with the image of JFK as shaped by Stone.

The major consideration for Warner Bros., regarding Malcolm ~X, was whether or not it could get a crossover audience, How else could a $35 million, three-hour-plus epic bring in the nearly $90 million needed to make it a success Malcolm had been despised by the vast majority of whites during his lifetime and disliked by a majority of Black Americans as well, JFK, in contrast, had a reasonable chance for reelection, and his death transformed him into a national martyr on the scale of President Lincoln.

The conspiracy angle to JFK added additional dramatic dimensions that seemed lacking in the conventional version of Malcolm’s assassination. Put more simply, if one assumes an average national admission price of four dollars, and if 50 percent of all thirty million African Americans bought a ticket to see Malcolm X~, the box office return would be $60 million. If 50 percent of the two hundred million white Americans bought tickets, the return would be $400 million, This nearly sevenfold gap in returns determined Warner Bros.,’ consideration that a crossover audience, and not a Black audience alone, had to be the primary market for Malcolm X~,

To meet that need, Lee dampened every controversial aspect of Malcolm’s life as well as many of the period’s specifically Black cultural referents, Malcolm, for instance, is the only Black person in the film to use the term “Daddy-O,” This exemplifies the dilemma faced by any African American filmmaker who wants to attract mass, or crossover, market dollars, When he or she views while filmmakers and their works as the primary models, the tolerance level and cultural biases of the white audience become critical.

Unlike Warner Bros., however, KJM3 is not in the crossover business. It expects to get 100 percent of its revenues from the cultural grassroots, a segment of the Black audience numbering probably well under five million with a potential single-film revenue of $20 million maximum. Dividing this maximum revenue by the break-even ratio of 2.5 equals a maximum production cost per film of $8,8 million. Applying this same reasoning, with a budget of $50 million, projected revenues for Boomerang must have been $125 million. From an admittedly high ten-million-person potential Black audience, only a maximum of S40 million could be expected, Paramount must have expected the other $85 million to come from the white community. It did not, In fact, total first-year domestic receipts were $15 million short of the $85 million whites must have been projected to provide and double that expected from Blacks, At a cost of $800,000, by contrast, and revenues of $1.8 million in thirty-three rather than fifty-two weeks, with an audience that was perhaps 90 percent Black, Daughters of the Dust, exceeded expectations.

The need to cross over to satisfy distribution company demands for box office return impinges on African American filmmakers’ ability to depict African America’s political life and culture.

Reassertion of Major’s Dominance over Film Distribution

The majors’ neglect of exhibitor needs in the 1~970s allowed independent distributors and producers to gain ground, In the mid-1970s, the theatrical release of films written, directed, and produced by Blacks was virtually non-existent. The majors dominated film distribution with high-cost, culturally white blockbusters such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Now, in the early 1990s, by contrast, the success of tiny distribution companies, such as Kino International, has inspired the creation of still smaller, culturally focused companies such as KJM3. But this is by no means the end of the story, While only the majors can afford to experiment with the expense of making blockbusters, they are simultaneously enticing new Black filmmakers the independents have proved successful and buying existing independents and creating new, “boutique” distributors of their own.

The majors have also begun to experiment with hiring young Black filmmakers untested even in the independent arena, The best two examples of this are the Columbia Pictures financing of features by then-twenty-three-year-old John Singleton in 1990 and “twenty-

something” Darnell Martin (she won’t tell her age) in 1993, Singleton’s film, Boyz -N the Hood, grossed nearly $60 million on a production budget of between $6 and $~8 million, Martin’s I Like It Like That, which opened in October 1994, cost $5.5 million and grossed a very disappointing $1.2 million in its first year, It was the first feature directed by an African American woman with Hollywood financing and distribution. 43

Spike Lee says that a small distribution company is almost doomed to failure. Of KJM3 he says, “I don’t know how they are gonna do distribution, you gotta have tons of money. First of all, anytime you start out, especially if you’re Black, the majors, they’re gonna try to crush you. 1141 The reality of this threat is brought home by the fact that Island, which released She was Gotta Have It in 1986, has been forced out of domestic distribution due to severe competition from the majors. Orion, New World, and Vestron Pictures, all thought to be distribution companies with bright futures in the mid-1980s, have either filed for bankruptcy or significantly reduced their distribution activities. Samuel Goldwyn, Inc., which released Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuttle, has not proved to be an aggressive player in the logos Black film arena, In fact, since 1990 the major players in the distribution of Black independent feature film productions have been the majors themselves, The champion of all Black independent producers, Spike Lee, is a willing participant in this reaggregation of U.S. film distribution.

Since the independent Island Pictures released his first film in 1986, Lee has gone from one major to another: first Columbia for School Doze, Universal for Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, and Jungle Fever, Warner Bros., for Malcolm X, and back to Universal for Crooklyn (1993) and Clockers (1995). Of course, it is reasonable that a talented filmmaker will outgrow a company whose financing abilities are limited, but Island is no longer sponsoring up-and-coming filmmakers, It is, rather, out of the domestic film business altogether.

Lee has started to play executive producer for films by other filmmakers. He is neither writer, director, nor producer on these new projects. He merely approves a script and attaches studio production financing and distribution, as Steven Spielberg did on the Back to the Future series, Lee’s first executive production, The Drop Squad, opened in October 1994. It was financed and distributed by Universal’s new low-budget subsidiary, Gramercy Pictures, of which Russell Schwartz is president, Schwartz, formerly an independent distributor, is now part of the Hollywood establishment.

Like Spike Lee, the Hudlin brothers moved from independent to Hollywood distribution companies, They were with New Line for House Party, then a two-film deal with Columbia subsidiary Tri-Star was rumored but never realized, then they went to Paramount for Boomerang with Eddie Murphy and for their animated feature Bebe’s Kids, In 1994, the Hudlin brothers moved their offices from New York City to the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles. Their latest venture was Cosmic Slop, a ninety-minute special produced and aired on Home Box Office HBO), which is part of the Time Warner corporation, Cosmic Slop was described in the New York Times as something “more than a multi-cultural ‘Twilight Zone, with a bit of ‘Playhouse go’ and ‘Yo! MTV Raps!’ thrown in.” 15

With the success of House Party and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, New Line graduated to the category of mini-major and created its aft distribution subsidiary, Fine Line, In 1994, New Line merged with Atlanta-based Turner Communications Company.

Robert Townsend went from Samuel Goldwyn for Hollywood Shuffle to 20th Century Fox for The Five Heartbeats. Charles Lane went from Sidewalk Stories at Goldwyn to Disney, where he was hired to direct True Identity.

The majors, then, are not allowing the course of feature film distribution to be taken from their hands. Rather than shun Black filmmakers, they endorse and sponsor them, In this blockbuster period, the majors may be using generally low-budget Black film productions to pad the package offered exhibitors, Traditionally “B” and genre films were used as padding, Low-budget films by African Americans, however, provide the bonus of addressing racial inclusion complaints voiced by the NAACP and still serve the purpose of keeping the majors’ competition at bay.

In a sense, Black filmmakers may be seen as pawns manipulated in white distributors’ power games, While this may, in fact, be the case, the question from many African American filmmakers point of view is real to what extent can they manipulate the distributors to continue getting their productions seen and to gain more influence in the industry. At one time, Warrington Hudlin said that Black filmmakers were the exploited cheap laborers of the industry because their productions were financed at such a low level but gained such a high relative return. But the Hudlin brothers’ film Boomerang had a higher budget than a great number of white filmmakers have been allowed.

Though it was less profitable at the box office than had been expected, this does not appear to have harmed the brothers’ outlook for future production financing, In addition to the yet-to-be realized two-picture Tri-Star deal, the Hudlins still have television offers and are in the early stages of executive producing other filmmakers’ productions, Robert Townsend, whose Five Heartbeats also bombed despite continued good reviews from individual African American viewers, has completed his third feature, Meteor Wan.

For Gramercy, Mario Van Peebles directed Posse, the first Black western since the 1972 Buck and the Preacher, Independent distributor Miramax, now teamed with Disney, released the second feature by an African American woman, the low-budget just another Girl on the IRT. In fact, those “in the mix” generally feel that if you’re Black and not getting money out of Hollywood now, something’s seriously wrong with the van.

And, unlike the blaxploitation period of the 1970s, Black people are behind, and in front of the camera now, This means that Blacks have significant decision-making authority once a studio has decided to work with a picture. True, corporate board rooms and executive suites remain largely white and male, but the Spike Lee phenomenon has allowed a few Blacks a new level of entree into the film industry.

Although there are reasons for optimism, however, it is important to remember that Hollywood’s openness to African Americans is the result of a structural aberration. It is much too early to call this the norm. The majors may find new ways to make larger profits without Blacks, as happened at the beginning of the blockbuster period. The independent distributors who introduced most of the new Black filmmakers have largely joined the Hollywood establishment.

The resulting structural environment, where the majors own boutique distributors and are expanding their control of cable and theatrical distribution venues, is too tight to predict success for a new crop of independents, African American filmmakers who have distribution deals are likely to support this trend because it brings a higher level of professionalism to their projects.

 

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