In the previous installment, we examined Sam Greenlee’s paradigm for double agency through tokenism as expressed in his book, THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1969) and the 1973 film adaptation directed by Ivan Dixon.
I used the figure of Tyler Perry as a current model of tokenism that could be used to establish an African-American Entertainment complex that would rival the American Entertainment complex and allow African-Americans to have the same artistic freedom, funding and access to global distribution that White filmmakers take for granted. What will follow in this next installment is an examination of the structure of Hollywood and several peculiar practices used to alternately curtail, control and defeat African-American filmmakers. In a recent post, Tambay Obenson pondered, ”the seemingly dismal outlook for Black filmmakers working within the Hollywood Studio System,” [March 16, 2012]. I will try to add to Obenson’s astute observations and convince us here that 1) our lack of historical knowledge about how the Hollywood system maintains its power and 2) how as African-American filmmakers/spectators we are so easily and too often seduced to play against ourselves are respectively what that keeps the outlook dismal for all African-Americans vis-à-vis the Hollywood Studio System.
It is widely known that the business model of Hollywood is rapidly changing from the effects of new technology and massive global expansion and consolidation, but the purpose of this essay is to provide a “snapshot” approximation of the business structure of Hollywood for the purpose of exposing the lines of power that stereotype and undermine African-American filmmaking. For although new technology has provided the means through which we have the power now to make films, collectively as African-Americans we still lack the power to get our films shown. It will be argued in this essay that power is not monolithic and static, but instead that power moves and changes to protect its interests in blocking others from attaining power. In Hollywood power is exercised in the control, constriction and domination of African-American filmmakers and their ability to fund, produce and distribute their work in all markets domestic and foreign. Hence, this essay will be more of an exploration of “how we can” as opposed to “why we cannot”. We should begin our examination at a pivotal juncture in Hollywood history: the 1948 Supreme Court decision, The United States v. Paramount Pictures.
Prior to 1948 all Hollywood studios were vertically integrated, meaning that each studio controlled the means of production, the lines of distribution and owned the movie theatres where in which their films were shown; ownership was complete from top to bottom and this is described as vertical integration. After the landmark 1948 Supreme Court decision, the five major Hollywood Studios were forced to sell off their movie theatres which in turn leveled the playing field and allowed more independent filmmakers/producers and studios to release their product on screens across the country. Yet, the ending of vertical integration led directly to the birth of a more powerful and incontestable consolidation of major Hollywood Studio power through what I will call,” Horizontal Affiliation”. In short, Horizontal Affiliation allows the studios to work in collusion with the major theatre chains, domestic and foreign, to control screen ratios and block book films several years before the films have actually completed production. If a film like THE HUNGER GAMES opens at 4137 theatres and your film opens at 500 theatres, which film is more likely poised to have the biggest opening weekend box office? The maintenance of screen ratios throughout the domestic and foreign marketplace is a major key in Hollywood’s overall power structure supported by the studios and the exhibitors.
What makes Horizontal Affiliation so incontestable legally is that it is sustained by a tacit agreement amongst the parties involved. The tacit agreement is an informal contract affirmed through head nods and handshakes rather than on paper, legal documents, stocks and other legally traceable evidence that brought about the end of vertical integration. There can be no coincidence that the first multimillion dollar Blockbuster of American film history after the 1948 Supreme Court decision was a film that itself was about “tacit agreements” sustained and broken through violence: THE GODFATHER (Francis Coppola, 1972). THE GODFATHER was a test run of the viability of a tacit agreement between Paramount pictures and the Loews theatre chain which exclusively screened the special world premiere of the film in New York in five different theatres and later raised ticket prices to increase the “take” in box office receipts. (See: pages 201-204, The Godfather Legacy by Harlan Lebo) It is the strength of the “tacit agreement” and the faith upon which it is based that must be fully understood and accepted by all African-American filmmakers if we wish to create and sustain an African-American Entertainment Complex.
In a democratic society the tacit agreement is the most effective means through which laws and government regulations can be subverted by groups of individuals or groups of corporations (who for tax purposes are treated as individuals). The tacit agreement to subvert democratic laws and government regulations goes as far back as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865 as a consequence of the advocating voting rights for Negroes and the senate’s passage of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. While just several months later, six confederate veterans in a boarding house in Pulaski, Tennessee entered into a tacit agreement to form an organization to retract the freedoms granted to Negroes through violent terror tactics: The 1st Ku Klux Klan. The very purpose of this later tacit agreement was born out of fear of Black competition in business, labor and politics. When we consider how in 1973 the U.S. Government pressured theatre owners to pull Ivan Dixon’s film, THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, from the theatres, in the documentary INFILTRAITING HOLLYWOOD: The Rise and the Fall of THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, author Sam Greenlee reveals the result of the tacit agreement between Universal Pictures and theatre exhibitors who waited exactly two weeks to pull the film which was just enough time for Universal to recoup its distribution costs for acquiring the independently financed film. The film would not be seen again until almost 30 years later.
Although Hollywood tacit agreements are incontestable in legal courts for a number of reasons (bribery, horizontal affiliation among the studios and legal institutions, political contributions) we can find trace evidence of its existence. The celebrated documentary, THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED (2006) by Kirby Dick exposes for us a vast horizontal affiliation that includes the major national theatre chains, film studios and the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). With breath-taking audacity within the film, Kirby reveals that Hollywood’s attempt to regulate itself via a Movie Rating System (G-through NC17) is nothing more than a tacit agreement between the major studios and the national theatre chains to manage the content of their competition by harshly judging independent films and films made by smaller less powerful producers. Films that receive the dreaded NC17 rating cannot be advertised in Newspapers, on Network Television and Radio; this interdiction itself reveals the vast horizontal affiliation and tacit agreement among movie studios, print media, television and radio that subverts Freedom of Speech laws, Free market regulations and the notion of freedom upon which this country was founded. Yet, membership in the MPAA is secret and under the ruse of self-regulation the Hollywood Studios have created a legally incontestable means through which to “regulate” anyone who might be their competition.
More trace evidence of Hollywood’s tacit agreements can be found in the success of Tyler Perry. As a recognizable brand, Perry’s films are consistently released within a two to four week window from any other competing African-American themed film from a competing Hollywood studio. His recent release, GOOD DEEDS, was preceded by the smaller art-house African-American film PARIAH several weeks before and the Denzel Washington vehicle SAFE HOUSE released just 15 days before. Perry’s films rarely, if ever, simultaneously compete with another rival African-American film from another major studio and this is evidence of horizontal affiliation and tacit agreement among Hollywood studios to diminish the significance of African-American filmmakers while using Perry’s success and token status as a defensive strategy to retain their power as well as their profits. Without any major competition it is useless to complain about the quality or the content of Perry’s work, because at the end of the day the Hollywood studios have entered into a tacit agreement to “kill” any competing African-American filmmakers whose work might challenge the box office of their token. Hence, Perry’s success is a wholly manufactured product of Hollywood’s power and control over its audiences through its incontestable horizontal affiliation. If the voices of dissent concerning the dearth of African-American films being released each year as compared to what must now be looked upon as “the golden era of the early nineties”, publicity announcements are made about a known Black director being attached to a high profile project or a first look deal for a Black filmmaker with a major studio- only we find out several months later that the deal has “fallen through” or that that first look deal is really a “no look” deal with a major studio.
Along with our snapshot of the business structure of Hollywood we have to acknowledge that there have been quite a few steps taken towards what might be defined as,” vertical re-integration”; that is, Hollywood studios (and huge media conglomerates like Clear Channel or Comcast) are purchasing Network television companies, cable channels and considering purchasing cell phone and/or internet service providers. Such purchases would provide the studios with direct access to the spectator as they once enjoyed in the good old days before 1948. For instance, Sony has just recently announced its Sony Movie Channel which will run many of the films from Sony’s vast library of over 3500 films for years and years to come. Now Sony can recoup theatrical losses and augment its profits directly through its own cable channel which amounts to being an exhibitor within the context of the home theatre market. Vertical Re-integration is an insidious form of oligarchy capitalism that strengthens the power of Hollywood studios by increasing the ubiquity of its product.
Another example is Walt Disney Studios which owns the ABC network and in turn this direct ownership allows Disney to reduce the costs of marketing and advertising its films and films released through its subsidiary studios. For instance, Disney’s recent box office flop, JOHN CARTER was heavily advertised on ABC and on the Disney cable channel. Yet, advertisements by the parent company on its subsidiaries are not truly paid advertisements. That is to say, these advertisements are what are known as promotional ads. Here Disney has the option of writing its advertisement costs on the books for the profits/losses of JOHN CARTER, but in actuality these are “ghost costs”- they don’t actually exist because any ads that ran on ABC or the Disney Channel are “promos” or promotional ads of the parent company. Rest assured JOHN CARTER will eventually make a profit because cable fees for the Disney Channel where the film will run indefinitely will offset its initial short-term box office disappointment.
If we want establish an African-American Entertainment Complex –and we must do so if only to allow ourselves the freedom to represent ourselves onscreen with the power to show our films in international markets as well as domestic markets- we have to utilize the tools of horizontal affiliation, tacit agreement with the aegis of tokens (who are aware of their token status) to lay the foundation. Those African-Americans (Sean “P-Diddy” Combs and Magic Johnson) who have been offered cable television channels as tokens must be encouraged not to sell when the going gets manipulated into being rough and to realize the importance of horizontal affiliation with African-American producers and studio owners worldwide. But none of these tools can work if we are too easily seduced and distracted by tokenism (false power through wealth and celebrity); if we are deliberately pitted against one another through industry manipulated egoism [Spike Lee/Tyler Perry]; or if we continue to pursue the illusion of a Hollywood Contract which in actuality keeps more African-Americans from producing and releasing films consistently than it does to secure their careers. The true power that we lack is a certain “faith” in ourselves as a people and “they” [define “they” as you wish] know this. They know that if you make one of us extremely rich others will be quiet and follow. They know that if you pit one of us against the other you can weaken them both and keep the profits. And finally, they know that the illusion of Hollywood success is more powerful than any drug and that we are all addicts looking for another hit.
I believe that “faith” that allows competing Hollywood studios to enter into a tacit agreement with their competitors and preserve strong horizontal affiliations with other businesses is founded upon what H. Paul Jeffers enigmatically describes as, ”that Religion in which all men agree ,” in his discussion of Free Masonry. (27, Freemasons)
By the same token, if we continue to act in “bad faith” with one another we will never be able to build the foundation for an African-American Entertainment Complex.
The third installment of these NOTES will concern the financial structure of the American Entertainment Complex and the full preliminary blueprint for an African-American Entertainment Complex. I would also like to answer some very significant questions posed in the comments of the first installment concerning who would be interested in seeing films from this proposed African-American Entertainment Complex. I hope the proposed answers surprise us all.
Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.