WHEN INDEPENDENT FILMMAKER CARL SEATON RAISED MONEY from investors in his native Chicago, he had the same dream as many other would-be Spike Lees--transforming his vision into Hollywood glory. Yet, despite winning awards and fans at major film festivals in Acapulco, New York and Chicago, the 29-year-old filmmaker was unable to find a movie studio willing to distribute One Week, his comic drama about a bachelor caught in an unexpected fix a week before his wedding. Even solid endorsements from such luminaries as director Robert Townsend didn't sway Tinseltown's powers that be.
"The studios told us that the film was too intelligent for black people; that black people wouldn't get it, and that they didn't know how to market it," says Seaton. "Also, there were no stars."
Enter Film Life Pictures, the New York-based distribution company started by Jeff Friday this past January. An entrepreneur, Friday had launched the 6-year-old Acapulco Black Film Festival with advertising agency Uniworld Group Inc. (No. 2 on the BE ADVERTISING AGENCIES list with $245.79 million in gross billings) and the Black Filmmaker Foundation, the nonprofit organization that supports black independents. After studio executives passed on the film, Friday struck a deal with One Week's producers, Griot Filmworks. Film Life pumped an additional $1 million into One Week--initially budgeted at roughly $1 million--to cover, among other items, advertising and distribution costs. As part of the deal, Film Life and Griot agreed to split box office receipts and ancillary revenues.
To build audience demand and convince theaters to carry the film, Friday employed guerrilla tactics to generate buzz and gain critical marketing data. Through his "micro-cinema" arm, Black Cinema Cafe (BCC), he held free screenings of the film in restaurants, bars, and colleges, sponsored by such major companies as Grand Marnier and the Ford Motor Co. "BCC appears to be just a social event, as there are free drinks and a DJ. But the event is really a test screening," says Friday, who requested audiences to fill out surveys. "Across 12 cities, the screenings generate approximately 2,400 surveys per film. Nielsen [the media research firm] tabulates the results, and the filmmaker and BCC have firsthand knowledge of what people think of the film." One Week received a rating of nine out of 10, giving Friday just the ammunition he needed to persuade exhibitors to show the film.
Friday, who invested $1.5 million in personal savings in Film Life, is thoroughly convinced that his novel approach will work. Maintains the budding mogul: "Because Hollywood passes on films like One Week, it leaves good films on the table for us to distribute."
BREAKING THE CELLULOID BARRIER
Friday sounds like a character out of a film he may well distribute one day: a brash entrepreneur who takes on the establishment so that his vision, and those of others, can reach the widest audience possible. Call it Mr. Friday Goes to Hollywood.
But he's not alone. Never before have so many African American entrepreneurs taken up the mission of breaking the last celluloid barrier: distribution. Using creativity, technology, business know-how, and loads of moxie, a new wave of black distributors is seeking to revolutionize cinema. "We must control our images, our copyrights, and the means of production," says actor-director Tim Reid, who launched Petersburg, Virginia-based New Millennium Studios in 1997 and now sees his company serving as a production, acquisition, and distribution entity for new filmmakers. "I want to work with young black creative talent, creating distribution opportunities that will allow us to share in revenues in a fair manner."
So you can fully appreciate the overwhelming challenge that black filmmakers face, let's cut to the players. For the most part, major studios own the distribution companies--Buena Vista is Disney's; then there's Universal, Warner...