Pondering The Seemingly Dismal Outlook For Black Filmmakers Working Within The Hollywood Studio System

Pondering The Seemingly Dismal Outlook For Black Filmmakers Working Within The Hollywood Studio System

Looking over the top 300 grossing films of 2011 released in the USA (via Box Office Mojo), just 6 of those 300 titles were directed by black directors – Madea’s Big Happy Family, Jumping The Broom, Laugh At My Pain, Shame, Pariah and Mooz-lum.

And of those 6 films, only 2 of them are what we’d call purely Hollywood studio-backed productions – Madea’s Big Happy Family (Tyler Perry’s deal with Lionsgate) and Jumping The Broom (Sony/Tristar).

Box Office Mojo lists a total of 598 movies released in theaters in 2011; however, I don’t think I need to go through the entire list of films to make my point, which should be obvious.

In recent days, we’ve seen projects from the likes of Spike Lee (Da Brick) getting passed over by HBO, and F. Gary Gray replaced as helmer of The Last Days Of American Crime (a project he’d been attached to direct since it was first announced early last year).

Other veterans like Antoine Fuqua and John Singleton have been attached to, and then later unattached from various projects.

Of course I should note that there are reasons why none of these *attachments* was seen all the way through; reasons that aren’t always necessarily made entirely public.

And these are just the men by the way; black women directors have fared even worse. They don’t even seem to get mentioned in “who-to-hire” conversations. When was the last time a black woman director’s name was on any short list for any studio-backed feature project?

I won’t bore you with info that you’ve likely already heard enough of – specifically, Hollywood’s so-called “diversity problem,” a topic that’s been discussed and analyzed ad naseam. One would think that black directors wouldn’t face similar hurdles that black actors do, if only because they are behind the camera; I’m of course taking into consideration Hollywood’s perceived *aversion* to casting black actors in especially lead/prominent roles, because black faces supposedly don’t sell as well.

But what about black directors?

Every week (if not almost daily), I read reports on Deadline, Hollywood Reporter or Variety announcing some young, relatively unknown, almost always white filmmaker, with often just a single feature film on their resume, getting the opportunity to direct some hefty-budgeted, high-profile, star-driven film, as their second feature. These opportunities just don’t seem to be as available/afforded to non-white (specifically black filmmakers).

I pause and think of all the young black directors we’ve profiled here on S&A in recent years, and, to be frank, I wonder what will become of all of them, given how challenging the climate seems to be for all filmmakers, but seemingly more-so for filmmakers of color, and even more specifically, filmmakers of color making films about people of color.

I’m sure some of them (certainly not all) aspire to work within the studio system, or some studio/indie hybrid, making films primarily about characters that look like them; and if that’s your goal, how do you maintain your optimism?

How do you observe the inconsistent careers of some of our most notable black directors, as you make advances (no matter how small) in yours?

Take into consideration the names I mentioned above (and others); the last time Antoine Fuqua was behind the camera for a feature film project was in 2008 for Brooklyn’s Finest (eventually released in 2009) – almost 4 years ago; Spike Lee’s last big screen project was Miracle At St Anna, which was released in 2008, although, really, it was shot in 2007 – almost 5 years ago (I’m obviously not counting the docs; and yes, he’s got Red Hook Summer coming up, which he shot last year; but really, it’s a mighty mess of a project, and Spike reportedly financed it from his own bank account); F. Gary Gray’s was in 2009 with Law Abiding Citizen; John Singleton’s most recent was last year – Abduction (which was terrible, though not entirely his fault; the script is where it begins). But the period before that movie, really tells the tale; before Abduction, Singleton’s last effort behind the camera was Four Brothers, some 5 to 6 years prior.

You have to wonder what happens during these large chunks of time between projects; meanwhile, Tyler Perry cranks out 2 (or more) a year.

And there are others – Kasi Lemmons, the Hughes Brothers (who’ve also been attached to a handful of projects since From Hell in 2001, later seeing Denzel Washington in Book Of Eli all the way through; both of them are currently attached to separate projects; but only Allen’s seems as close to a sure-thing right now, since it’s in post-production).

After Precious, Lee Daniels piled up on a handful of projects, and didn’t eventually go into production on any of them until 2 years after that film was released.

Salim Akil didn’t waste much time before diving into his Sparkle remake, after Jumping The Broom last year; although I’d have loved an original project based on an original idea, instead of a retread.

Of course, there’s Steve McQueen who’s on to his next project, post-Shame – the slave narrative with Chiwetel Ejiofor, which will be McQueen’s first film with a black lead.

Who else? Malcolm Lee, Tim Story, Carl Franklin, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Angela Robinson, and Chris Rock, who has gotten into the directing game himself, though nothing in the works currently.

There are others, but I think you’ll find similar stories of long periods of inactivity. 

And then there are talents like Seith Mann who’s been toiling away rather quietly in TV land, directing episodes of numerous television shows which certainly assists him in continuing to hone his skills, as well as put money in his bank account; however, Seith also has 2 feature film projects (1 he’s been trying to get financed and off the ground for a while now) that I’m sure he’d like to see realized sooner than later. And I have to wonder if he’s ever even considered for some of these director-for-hire studio feature films.

I’m obviously not including the names of those independent black filmmakers who’ve emerged in the last couple of years or so (we’ve written about, and continue to write about them all as they progress), working chiefly outside the studio system; despite any early successes, it’s not entirely certain what their individual careers will look like in coming years. But this post isn’t necessarily about them.

I’m really just looking at, and trying to make sense of the plight of those, what I’d call, primarily veteran, *industry* black directors/filmmakers; what to make of it all – their seeming lack of productivity; the lack of opportunities available to them compared to their white contemporaries. Because other than Tyler Perry, I think you’ll have difficulty coming up with another black filmmaker whose output has been as consistent, or even coming close to being as consistent as Perry’s has been since he first burst onto the scene some 7 years ago.

Since his debut, Diary Of A Mad Black Woman in 2005, Perry has helmed 12 feature films, all released in theaters. That’s more than John Singleton has done his entire career since Boyz In The Hood over 20 years ago. Comparisons between Perry and other filmmakers I’ve mentioned here will look very similar; in some cases, the differences in output are much more pronounced.

So it baffles me when I read about new projects like the Will Smith/Denzel Washington remake of Uptown Saturday Night (what we could call, for a number of reasons, a quintessentially black film) being given to white writers to pen the scripts for, and white filmmakers to direct, when there are more than capable black writers and directors who could most certainly use the work, as well as the paychecks.

It’s even more of a head-scratcher when you take into consideration the fact that the men responsible for the project becoming a reality – Will Smith and Denzel Washington (although primarily Smith it appears) – are on that really short list of elite, powerful industry talents (who also happen to be black), who are probably in a position to ensure that those key positions go to writers/directors of their choosing; or at least have enough leverage to fight for the hiring of talents they prefer to work with; after all, it’s not like the writer and director who were indeed hired to work on the project are what you’d call *names;* this isn’t a movie that will be sold on the strength of the names of the talents behind the camera, so why not push for any of the directors I’ve mentioned in this post (or *gasp* give a young African American up-and-comer with proven talent an opportunity, just as we’ve seen, and continue to see upstart white filmmakers get these kinds of career breaks).

I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers to this crisis – yes, I’m calling it a crisis, as extreme as the word might sound. The obvious solution is that these filmmakers (if they haven’t already) become more proactive in their efforts, as in looking outside the studio system for opportunities, or funding, for their own personal projects. But I understand that it’s much easier said than done; financiers everywhere still have strict rules that determine what projects they invest their money in; although I’d say that the rigid numbers game that seems to govern studio financing/greenlighting may not be as defined outside of that system.

Of all the directors I’ve named here (and others unnamed who fit the criteria), very few have definite projects in development right now – films that have been greenlit, cast, and are scheduled to begin production within the next year or two. Some may find themselves without work even longer – maybe settling for the occasional TV gig, commercial work, music videos and the like. Nice to have the paycheck at least; but not really the kind of directing I’d guess most of them would prefer to do.

We just want the same opportunities, and chances,” as I’ve heard/read some black filmmakers say.

An interesting note is that, if you take a look at the top 10 grossing films so far this year, 2012, none of them was directed by what we’d call a *name* director; in fact, I’d say that most of you wouldn’t even recognize the names of many, if not all of these directors – Chris Renaud, Michael Sucsy, Daniel Espinosa, Brad Peyton, Baltasar Kormakur, Josh Trank, Mars Marlind, Mike McCoy, William Brent Bell, and James Watkins.

Any of them sound familiar? Maybe Espinosa, since he helmed Safe House with Denzel Washington; and I should note that Espinosa is one of those aforementioned young directors given a mega-million dollar star-driven project to direct primarily on the strength of his last feature film – the Swedish thriller Snabba Cash (Easy Money) which hasn’t even been released in the states yet (it’ll be in theaters stateside in July). For his Hollywood studio debut, the 34-year-old was given an $85 million budget, Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds in what, as I said in my review of the film, was really a lackluster effort. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s soon announced that the young director is attached to helm another similar high-profile project.

How many black filmmakers/directors can you name who have been given that kind of opportunity (budget and star power) to prove themselves so early in their careers?

Do studios see black filmmakers as black people first, and as filmmakers second? Meaning, are black filmmakers only viewed as being suitable to direct “black films?”

Although, as we’ve seen in the past (and as I noted earlier in this post), even “black films” don’t always get the opportunity to be directed by black filmmakers. So what you’d think is sacred ground, where black filmmakers can at least guarantee that they’ll be considered for directing work, isn’t so sacred anymore, if it ever even previously was.

So as a black filmmaker, not only are you not on the short list of names to direct non-race-specific films, but you’re also not necessarily always in consideration to direct race-specific (black) films. What’s a black filmmaker working within the studio system to do?

I wish I had a direct line to some of these folks, so that I could just pick up the phone, call them and ask what each is up to currently, how they view the somewhat precarious industry situation they find themselves in, and how they plan to deal with it all; how does one eat and pay bills between projects when you’re a Kasi Lemmons (for example), and the last film you directed was 6 years ago, and since then, your only credit (according to IMDB anyway) is an acting gig in Waste Deep playing (as the film’s credits list her character as) “Angry Black Woman.”

Alas I don’t have that kind of direct/immediate access to these folks to ask all these questions, so all I can do is speculate based on the evidence in front of me.

And as already noted, the outlook for the majority of them looks rather bleak from the outside.

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Comments

wj

Here's a easy answer,
STOP MAKING CRAP!!

Daniel

And black producers and directors are just as good at not opening the doors for new artists with new concepts and ideas as their white counter parts in Hollywood, I know because I have been trying. At least I get response back frommain stream Hollywood. Not ONE repsonse from the black established film makers. Our movies command the same themes, same ideas, run of the mill. Not creativc and simply not very good products. These guys are stale. They need a transfusion of new ideas nad concepts and stop asking for the black support just because they are black.

chen

"within" the hollywood system. Doesn't that say it all. WHY can't we ever DO anything 100%for ourselves?? In EVERY sphere of our lives we're always, ALWAYS waiting for some one other than ourselves to give us the nod!! This isn't just in america, it's EVERYWHERE we happen to be!! Nigeria's Nollywood OR Black america should of been a beacon to Diasporic and Continental Afrikans everywhere across the language, national and cultural uniqueness just like India's Bollywood does for Indians regardless of their backgrounds.

James Nelson

Really liked this article, because I hear a lot of people putting down black films and directors as not being a good or innovative as their white contemporaries, which I completely disagree with. During one of these discussions a question did come to my mind which I don't have an answer for. There are several white filmmakers whose first film would be considered "black" films, but I can think of no black directors whose first film could be considered a non-black film. If anyone knows of any, could you please tell me who they are and the name of the film.

HandsomeLustyBlackLaddieBrett1953

I think the way for an aspiring actor such as Yours Truly-who's a boyishly handsome,58-year-old-59 July 6-black Canadian lad who's a rocker dude/(su)burban cowboy rather than a prototypical "ultra-urban brotha" sort (to say nothing of the updated versions of the hackneyed black male roles in vogue today) is partnering with an indie-likely black flimmaker,but I'd like to know where such people might be located.

Lisa

I think we need to realize that there are two kinds of filmmakers: indie sensibility and mainstream sensibility.

Black indie filmmakers do well in terms of getting into big festivals, etc. Since those are the only black directors most people have heard of, it's easy for folks to say, well, black directors just don't want to make mainstream movies.

Sure, the director of Precious probably doesn't want to helm Spiderman. But somewhere out there is a great black film school grad who has a Michael Bay sensibility, but who will never get the studio call, and will also never break through on the Sundance circuit. That's who's getting screwed here.

Kevin Robinson

Nielsen Research came out with their report on African American consumer spending for 2011. Roughly $15 Billion was spent on movie tickets last year. That kind of clout is something that should be used to sway Hollywood to re-think their hiring practices.

alexander anthony

BTW Your comment system doesn't accept paragraph breaks and bullet points, etc. It makes it way more difficult for your users to parse comments and thus probably significantly reduces contribution.

I'm a fan of your site and remember this issue every time I return. Otherwise, great work. I'm going to try to comment more when some time frees up.

alexander anthony

I keep seeing words like "given" an opportunity, phrases like "use the paycheck" to categorize the reasons why the industry should be making a concerted effort to enfranchise more black filmmakers. These sentiments litter your editorial.

It's an unwarranted position. This is the movie BUSINESS. There are fundamental tenets at play: 1) they're in the business of making movies with 3rd party (P.E.) money, 2) consequently they need to meet the expectations of check writers and risk mitigate excessively, and 3) it's a defacto condition of the black experience that we'd be the last chosen for any opportunity – so current conditions aren't particularly atypical.

Then we look at the wealth of talent in indie black film. Tons of talent. TONS of it. Why is there no traction?

-A lot of great black movies are being made that don't stand a chance in a movie theater. This is probably the most important.

-Since there aren't a lot of moneymaking black films coming out of the black indie film environment, there is little impetus for gatekeepers to otherwise arbitrarily choose to "put" people on.

-Third, there is little unity among black filmmakers. Too many are working independently from one other, worried about haters, theft, or serious competition. the biggest asset available to black indie filmmakers is sheer numbers (and sweat equity). With effective networking people could open-source movies (that is, make them ON-SPEC using talent from the PEER-REVIEWED talent pool and decide to release them to the web for publicity). AFAIK nothing like that is happening. I've broached it with peers here in Brooklyn and I get blank stares like I'm speaking in Sanskrit.

The moral of the story is this: if you can make movies that make money, the industry will come running; anyone who is racist enough to purposely avoid making money in order to perpetuate a racist agenda is not long for his job. So the reality is that this is disconnect issue… a lack of monetizable filmmakers differentiating themselves from the pack.

So the discussion that needs to be broached is how can we mobilize the black moviegoing audience. And the sad answer to that is that black indie filmmakers are less in touch with their potential audience than they think.

Sidney Barnes III

I dont thing Black people get it. You need to read the book Brother Warners. They didnt have anyone hand them nothing, they started from scratch and together, even though they fought with each other, they stuck with making something come alive. Now with all the film directors and Black execs now with alot more resources, how come there isnt black film studios making black actors/actresses all over the film and tv. People just love good movies but we need to put more positive messages and better stories instead of drugs and killings and the typical. We have some great success stories and all directors, producers and movie execs to start up a new movie revolution.

anon

why dont aa's get it? hollywood was never set up for YOU it was set up as a propoganda machine to promote american (i.e white) beliefs, culture and values around the world- blk people just dont feature in this. Before hollywood was set up very few people knew much about the " new world" aka america and only the wealthy that were intrested in high culture knew anything about it therefore there was actually alot of mistrust about this new country and what their agenda was in the world. Cinema remedied this as it was able to dispense its culture to the MASSES and indoctrinate people into believing that they americans were "heroes" This especially worked during the world wars and to win hearts and minds during the cold war conflicts. American culture was so dominant and so beloved by the world that it enabled them to get away with things they might not have been able to i.e dodgy foreign policy, neocolonialism etc.. Black people are shut out of every industry in u.s why would hollywood be any different and considering that hollywood only promotes its "best" (beautiful whites) and america belives blks to be their "worst" its baffling to me why aa's still havent worked this out yet.

Mark Dudley

Why is it that black folks in America have more financial power than Great Britain yet we are always asking these same types of questions. Hollywood respects money.

If all of these black athletes, singers, rappers etc put their money together to buy some distribution and partner with a guy like Magic Johnson to open some theatres we could put movies directed by us and produced by us out there.

We like movies just like other folks right? Hell wasn't it "blaxplotation" that saved Hollywood in the 70's. We need to get a foot hold in all aspects of film making particularly producing and distribution. That way we can see more of our own stories or those directed by us.

Really

You can forget the studio system. They are not going to trust their money with Blacks. Much less women. 1 Oscar winning female director ever?! We've got to do like they're doing in Nollywood, Hillywood, yes – I said Hillywood aka the burgeoning film industry in Africa's hilly Rwanda and do the damn thing ourselves.

jayC

Great article and greats comments. The only thing I would add to this is to say that, sadly, it will NEVER change within the Hollywood system. It is what it is and what it is is an old (white) boys network. If you are a black, latino or…actually anything other than white filmmaker, as long as you want… in you will be left out. Rejection is the unfulfilled need to be accepted. Stop seeking acceptance from those that will never accept you.

The technology to make a film for a modest cost is now readily available. If you want to make a film, you can. It still takes a great deal of drive and talent, but it can be done. If, however, what you want is to be accepted into that very exclusive club of "Hollywood" Filmmakers….then you're gonna have a problem…and a lot of heartache.

Everything Robert Townsend showed us in Hollywood Shuffle is still quite true today…and it will be true 50 years from today. When do we wise up and stop begging for acceptance that will never materialize? Isn't that a bit demoralizing?

LeonRaymond

@MIEL

I agree with you and lets multiply Ava Duvernay's effort by 35 cause she is truly onto the cure, she has unlocked the code and how she does it we should all do cause we do not need nor should be held into the studio system. All of Ava's films are getting theatrical and if that is what your plan is then I see no reason to travel any where else. you can take her model and tweak it, just think what She could have done with Pariah if that film was part of AFFRM!!!!

Jordan Brown

You ain't said nothing but the T-R-U-T-H! :)

Neema Barnette

I loved your article and the important and intelligent dialogue it provoked! Film is an mind molding art form and the final frontier for Black folks. It's the strongest political tool there is and if you are a filmmaker who takes time to de-code the sterotypes and re-code images with balance then you understand your position and are comfortable with the work you accomplish, whenever you have a chance to work. It's all about image control and we are fighting hard to control our own images. I'm very excited about the new generation of Black filmmakers coming up. You are talented, strong and smart with Alot of black self love which shows in your films and because of that our people will support you! I support you all as varied as you are. The article tells the truth, trust me I've been doing it long enough to testify.

Donella

It seems as though distribution remains a huge stumbling block. I recall that Prince (Rogers Nelson) circumvented distribution by record companies when he released music as an insert for European print media. He released Planet Earth in 2007 with England's Daily Mirror, and I believe he released 20Ten with the German edition of Rolling Stone magazine, England’s Daily Mirror, Scotland’s Daily Record, and Belgium’s Het Nieuwsblad. This distribution method certainly assisted AOL in the good old days when they distributed their software via print media. I wonder if magazines worked with computer software and music, could this method also work with movie DVDs–insertion deals with African, Indian, Asian, European print media.

Loretta Burnette

Wow!! As stated in the very well written article,although not primarily written about black actors. I feel as an actor,very frustrated at ,although happy to see the same actors/ actresses inevery film,directed and produced in main stream/Hollywood. It happens in everything concerning black americans! It's hard as it's always been for black americans, I do feel this is why we excel in everything we allowed the proper tools, funding,backing as any other race. This is where the issues always seem to arise. Unity has got to start being a factor for all black people,to ever be truly seen and heard..I know it can be consequently, I so fearful and honestly loosing hope that it will be..Praying daily however,and trying to do my part anyway and with any opportunity that arise. I'm but one of this world and life we where born into.

ExodusAnimator

FILM DISTRIBUTION!!! Does anyone here know what this is? It's something that African American and filmmakers of color have little or no control over. The way the film industry is situated, at this moment, we have to rely upon distribution opportunities from White owned companies. That means that if we want our works to be seen in the mainstream movie theaters, on network TV, cable TV, video, on planes, and seen internationally, people that do not look like us will make the determination as to whether our works will be seen. These decisions are made through a combination of economics, race, and personal perspectives.

With that said, we, as African Americans, either have to pool our resources together or push wealthy African Americans to create distribution companies, own/buy movie theaters, own cable TV providers, create more TV networks, own DVD printers and presses, own marketing and advertising agencies, and own daily newspapers and other media outlets. IS THAT A LOT TO TAKE IN? IT SHOULD BE!

People posting on this site seem to believe that OUR success as African Americans in the film industry, solely relies upon screenwriters, directors, and producers. Now although there needs to be more of us in the creative capacity of the film industry, there are not a shortage of stories and films that are being created. There are a number of extraordinary films and horrible films being created by African Americans. THE BIGGEST PROBLEM IS GETTING THESE FILMS SEEN!

SO, WHAT ARE YOU, WHAT ARE WE PREPARED TO DO, TO GET OUR WORKS SEEN? WAKE UP PEOPLE!!!!

illthoughts

Bottom line blacks in film have to decide what they want. If they want to be rich and famous then go hollywhite. If they just wanna make quality movies then build our own studios, have our own distribution. That's the only way it's gonna get done.
That black people don't sell tickets is BS. "Coming to America" made truckloads of cash with an entirely all black cast and Hollywhite didn't give another actor or black director a huge check to make another movie. Pam Grier everyone's number one on the first female action chick started this genre but did hollywhite keep her working? Did Hollywhite try to create another sexy action woman of color superstar?
Denzel and Will make over $20 mil a movie they could easily pool their resources together and crank out one small budget film a year but I guess they have other things on their plates. Now I hear that Tyler Perry is selling out b y saying that movies with majority black casts are extinct and that's why he's adding lighter persuasions to his films. Excuse me Mr. Perry but umm… you made more money than anyone in Hollywhite last year white or black and you did by making movies with all black casts so I don't know watcha mean by that.
Blade was Marvel's first attempt at making obscure Super hero films and it performed well as Wesley Snipes as the lead. So where is the check for another black super hero film? Blacks are the most copied culture from around the world from fashion, music, athletics. So don't give me that we don't sell movie tickets. Give us the same checks you give your people and sit back and watch what we can do.

BLACK$

WHEN BLACK EXCUTIVE PRODUCERS AND PRODUCERS PUT UP DA $$$$ THEN YOU WILL HAVE BLACK DIRECTORS,,,,,,,,,,,RED TAILS WAS MISSING FROM THIS ARTICLE AND WAS DIRECTED BY A BLACK MAN,,,,,PEACE

IT'S NOT A BLACK THING

It's a Hollywood Thing:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/dorothypomerantz/2012/01/03/2011-was-a-bad-year-at-the-box-office-expect-2012-to-be-worse/

Peggy

Class Action Suit?

Cliff

IMHO, this is not about race. It's not about talent. It's about the bottom line, i.e., the profit motive! How will the investment be recouped by the financier? Forget films for a moment. It can be any commodity. Profit is directly related to distribution and sales. For films, it's distribution and sales through exhibition. How can you get a film financed when you cannot present a case to the investor that the investment will be recouped? How can an investment be recouped if your film is never distributed or exhibited? Studios are not picking up many independent films (so-called urban genre or mainstream) because of the limited market for films with no name casts. Studios have fallen in love with foreign films instead. Another issue is that Black people comprise only about 15% of our population. Studios need domestic box office performance to break even in a film investment. Our market upside is limited. This is not attractive for any investor. Would you want to invest your resources on a product that may only appeal to 15% of any given market? Why would any studio?

There is also the issue of the "block booking" tool that creates a studio monopoly over distribution and exhibition. Exhibitors must commit to showing only studio fare in exchange for having the opportunity to exhibit the tentpoles with mega budgets and stars. Exhibitors will never object because of the studio promotional machine that puts butts in their seats, those same butts buying overpriced concessions. As long as distribution and exhibition are locked down by the studio system, there will be no independent films seen in your neighborhood multiplex where 99% of the filmgoing public have been indoctrinated to pay to view films.

An earlier post by "Ghost" hit this issue straight on. If filmmakers know that there will be a venue for viewing their films, and a distribution network for placing their films in these venues, they can represent to an investor that there is legitimate income potential for their films. No matter how many rich black folks pool their resources create no matter how many films, there will be no alternative black film industry without distribution and exhibition with sufficent screens to maximize box office income. In the 1920's and prior, Oscar Micheaux exhibited his extremely low overhead films in segregated churches, schools and social halls. That was before black folks were allowed to patronize real theaters. Once segregation ended, so did the Micheaux model, and that is where we remain almost 100 years later. Obviously, I have no answer for the vertical integration that locks independents out of the market. I just want to make the point that if black audiences, or even mainstream audiences were patronizing black films to the tune of $100M+ apiece, we would not be having this discussion. The studios would be eagerly distributing these films to meet the demand. The studios are corporations. Corporations exist only to make profits. Studios are not morality-driven, they're all about the profit motive.

By the way, I enjoyed the article and the ensuing discussion. Thank you for addressing this issue!

onyx

"How do you observe the inconsistent careers of some of our most notable black directors, as you make advances (no matter how small) in yours?"
Well, I look at their struggles and triumphs as inspirational. And I also recall that it was worse during segregation. For example, once there were no African American cinematographers, because we couldn't attend film schools. But getting back to today, like everything else in this current economy, things are hard. But not impossible. When I wanted professional film and digital cameras I researched how to write a grant, applied (after several tries) and secured funding. There were lots of "nos" on a way to a yes. And while Hollywood probably signifies you've "made it" there are those content to work in their own community, producing local documentaries or working with kids to ensure they know pacing, how to write dialogue, and above all recognize the difference between a stereotype and a riveting character. In short, helping them see themselves and encouraging their stories. Yes, it looks dismal, but resiliency (or stubborness, or love of one's craft, belief in a higher power, whichever you prefer) can drive an individual when things seem bleak.

Donella

What does it actually take to create an international film distribution system?

urbanauteur

Tambay, this 64,000$ question should be ARE WE(as artists) willing to commit Class Suicide? and forever SEVER this Umblical Cord of White Paternity and perhaps, finally laser splicing our black pathology from Hollywhite? W.E.B Dubois [split personality manifesto/indicment brought pressure to bare well over 100 yrs ago, so now its a matter of rolling OUR pennies and rolling the fuck out! this inersia we got with mr.charlie,b/c these Tea Party-Hollywhite mofo's aint playing and you can see they have already circle their wagons, where's OUR calvery?

jazz great Charlie Mingus sum it best…Meditations on Intergration.

CarmichaelReid

To close, about the comment about being a jazz musician in a hip hop culture… The best producers I entertainment are jazz influenced. I do not need to list them as you know this.
“[T]here's something about movies that always amazes me, their transcendence of time. You can in one second, in one frame, see something that will spark you as divine or genius"
-Oliver Stone on Filmmaking.

Jane

Tambay, You should do a similar essay on a Pariah case study. It is the only Black independent film to be picked up and pushed by a major studio. What are the final numbers? How did Spike Lee producing help the release? It never came to my town and I never heard much else about it after the run up to the big city openings. But it seems like a good place to look to see exactly what these studios can do for movies outside of the Tyler and Salim Akil and Big Momma movies. Also I don't think we give enough credit to Salim Akil. He's not making high art but he's making good solid movies that aren't slapstick with Jumping the Broom and Sparkle back to back. Hes working consistently inside the studio system. So it is not impossible.

Yvonna Russell

Well research and important article that pulls no punches. Excellent!

Carmichael Reidm

The same thing happened to the Hughes Brothers on Akira in Vancouver. Warner's pulled the plug. I just think that filmmaker's in general are seeking to the work in the studio system for all the WRONG reasons. Today, you do not need 20 million dollars and studio backing to make Boys n tha Hood.

Carmichael Reid

I think that this is not isolated to a black filmmaking problem, it's simply a universal rule that filmmaking is a tough business to remain relevant towards a studio system whoever your are. Joss Whedon had monstrous problems over at MGM. There is truly only about a 1% rate of filmmakers who can do and say what they want. Hey, even Martin Scorsese figured it out. This is no secret anymore that, filmmakers are trying to keep the lights on. But, if you can write in the dark, you're practically invincible with the new platforms being developed. It's in the filmmaker's hands to get out there and instead of DOING THE RIGHT THING… JUST DO IT.

Rane

Here's the deal as I see it: The heartache facing black filmmakers is if you are truly talented with an original voice, the majority of black people will not be coming to see your film. You are a jazz musician in a hip hop nation. This is reality. The socio economic status and post secondary education among theater goers is also working against you as Tyler Perry said recently: "The Black people who don"t like my films are college educated bushies trying to keep me down." The only film in my memory that bridged the demographic divide is The Color Purple. I think for the sake of our (black filmmakers) mental health, we should endeavor to make entertaining integrated films that feature black folks in great roles instead of banging our heads against the proverbial wall.

Terrance Jackson

Tyler Perry is not that talented as a writer or director, but understands that this is business. He first developed successful business models outside of the system and demonstrated that he didn't need the system to be successful. That why he is the highest-paid person in Hollywood. Racism is about power, Black folks shouldn't take it so personally. We definitely need to change the status quo when it comes to media images of African-Americans. Every Black woman [in the top 1996 Hollywood films] was sexualized. The Black male had no qualities that could be admired by any man or more particularly any woman. http://www.stories4mm.com/stories/11-entrepreneurship/52-black-genesis

noel

Good Donella. if you conclude in going to nigeria do reach out to a producer called Emem Isong. seen some of her low budgeted flicks and I guess a healthy collaboration will make her stand out of the pack. as for ghana, please reach out to Shirley Frimpong Manso…another woman doing great things in ghana movie world.

Gigi Young

You forget that Tyler Perry has three things going for him: a built-in audience (hence, why Hollywood will throw black singers/entertainers like Beyonce, DMX, Common, etc plum roles), low budgets, and his own scripts.

I get the feeling that up-and-coming (or in the past, when Spike, John, et al were up-and-coming) black filmmakers think THEY will be the exception to the rule, that if they work within the system, they will somehow crack the code so many other black filmmakers have been unable to crack. I see the same thing happening with black writers of non-street lit fiction–they keep writing and writing, meeting deadlines, but never breaking out of the black niche they cling to in hope that one day, they'll write something that will make them a best-seller (or they will release 5+ books a year to make the sort of income and gain the sort of exposure a non-black author can get with just 2). Sorry to say, but the mainstream has no incentive to support black people in the entertainment industry.

And TISHAUNA7's comment is spot on: "even if black directors manage to make it, they'll still have to contend with black viewers taste. black folk is not gonna watch something like the girl with the dragon tattoo because it has a all black cast. i hate to say it, but our tastes aren't particularly broad." Because we can complain about the lack of variety in black film all day long, but the numbers for Basketball Wives, The Braxtons, The Game, etc don't lie…

Nicole

Wow. This is pretty depressing.

I don't have any suggestions outside of what has already been mentioned. I used to support the idea of black filmmakers pooling their money together and creating their own studio(s), film financing companies, etc., to alleviate their dependence on Hollywood but quite frankly, I don't think we have the mindset to pull it off. Sorry to sound pessimistic but I just don't.

I mean, when Tyler Perry announced he was building his own studio in Atlanta did any of the mentioned filmmakers see this as an opportunity for them to invest in something that could potentially aid them in getting their movies made? Did they approach Tyler and say they wanted to partner with him? I don't know. And Tyler may not have agreed to it if approached. I'm just thinking "out loud". Thinking of some options.

Black directors/writers will have to wait until the old Hollywood guard dies out(literally) and is replaced by more open-minded people who value diversity and see them as directors/writers who just happen to be black.

That's IF they don't think of a way to create their own opportunities.

WhiteBoyBrown

One well know film site asked people to chime in with Oscar predictions a few weeks ago. So I chimed in ultimately getting un-friended from there page. I said I predict that there would be no black or latino best directors/ I guess they didn't like that. Not that the talent isn't out there of course it is. Across the board Hollywood is behind. When is the last time you saw a black hero on screen saving the day. Just ranting but I tell ya what I will not see another hero, action packed, hollywood summer blockbuster film until my son can say wow daddy that hero looks like me.

Yvonne

Angela Robinson. She directed a short film called D.E.B.S. (2003) through the POWER UP program. Got a deal to turn the short into a $3.5 million feature (2004) and then was hired by Disney to make the $50 million HERBIE FULLY LOADED (2005) starring Lindsey Lohan which grossed over $144 million.

BIGBLACK

90% of what black folks complain about in any industry, not just motion pictures can be solved if black folks gave a shit about each other. I just turned 40 and I've been hearing the same story since I was in high school. I used to study engineering, same shit. Then I practiced law for a while, same shit. Now I'm a budding writer in hollywood, again… same shit. John Singleton did help an up an comer. His name is Craig Brewer, he directed HUSTLE & FLOW, he is white. Most of Spike Lee's personal assistants have been white. Viola Davis says that black filmmakers only want her to play crappy roles, so she don't do black films. You know who has helped a black filmmaker on the rise, George Lucus. Yeah, the Star Wars dude. He plucked a relatively unknown black director named Anthony Hemingway and gave him a shot at a $70 million dollar flick. Of course black folks dissed the movie. Now a days, you can make a movie for as little as $100K. If these tired, lazy ass so called established filmmakers would stop complaining, and take some of their money and name recognition and put it to work for them, we'll have black movies coming out every week, and eventually, some of these films will take off. Also, the black audience, or should I say the black inteligencia. Y'all need to chill! Don't be so quick to stomp on a black filmmaker if his movie it not a master piece. The more movies we make, the better we'll get. But we have to be more encouraging to each other and stop being so quick to diss. There are just as many bad white movies, actually, much more. And black actors, if you really care about this game, it can't always be about the money. If a young filmmaker comes to you with a project, tell your gatekeepers to stand down, and give that brother or sister a shot. You ain't working anyway. What could it hurt. The moral to this story is simple, we need to stop complaining and blaming the "white man" or "hollywood" for or misfortunes and truly come together as a people and look out for one another. We have black billionaires. We have Tyler Perry, we have Oprah, and 1000's of really wealthy black folks out there. For less than 50 million dollars a real black studio could be created like tomorrow if anybody really cared. The crab in the barrel syndrome has got to end, or we will cease to be relavent as a people. GOD HELP US!

Kia

My comment is directed at the notion of black filmmakers not extending a hand. Yes, some may be for self, but I wouldn't be surprised if many more or just struggling themselves to maintain what they've worked hard to achieve. So I'm on the fence. What I would and hope to see happen ( and this is a plan for myself as well)… collaboration. You can produce much more content. For those few who are super established, start branching out and build a team outside your little circle. This includes those filmmakers (writers, directors, producers) abroad. I think it's absolutely ridiculous that talented emerging filmmakers are being deliberately–so it seems–for those w/little experience themselves and who already have world wide privileges to pen, direct and produce stories about black and brown people. I agree Tambay, mind boggling.

Everette

We are going to be in this struggle for awhile yet. African American Film Industry Artists tend not to look back or offer a hand up to those attempting to get where they are. That type of attitude holds back the clan. Thus, when those at the top fall, they have nothing to which they may seize for survival, and they fall or fail. That leaves nobody in place.

African American Writers in Hollywood who catch hell are in the predicament because they write only for one audience. Most of my friends there turn their project into white ones and sell them for little or nothing just to keep their noses above the surf.

A friend of mine told me that it is difficult for her to get a script to an African American Director than it is to get one to a white director. I found that to be interesting. Then, she showed me the letters.

We have not learned some fundamental lessons about working together. Nothing much will happen for us until we do.

Even in this indie DIY world we are not producing as we ought to be at this point. Why is that? We certainly have the technicians, writers and others to execute it. Nothing is going to change until we place a firm down payment on Hollywood by producing a string of successful movies. Or a string of successful directors. We do not and we are not going to be given the benefits that others get, so we will have to produce on a consistent level success until we are accepted as successful filmmakers. Hitting and missing will not do it for us.

We need a network of indie filmmakers to come together for the sole purpose of producing movies. If five hundred African American Filmmakers got together now, why could we not produce three hundred no-budget movies in the next year? Just artists assisting artists.
Yes, I can hear the groans, but that is what it is going to take.

That is the effort the newly freed African Americans employed after the the disaster. It is what those in the Civil Rights Movement did, it is what many of the rappers have done.

Tishauna7

even if black directors manage to make it, they'll still have to contend with black viewers taste. black folk is not gonna watch something like the girl with the dragon tattoo because it has a all black cast. i hate to say it, but our tastes aren't particularly broad. and you're right about how it's easier for first time white directors to get a job. i have seen the black film veterans get attached to several thing but nothing ever come of it.

Quentin

Most of those established black filmmakers mentioned with the long careers are lazy. Also, they work differently than their white counterparts who for the most part work tirelessly to bring up-and-coming white filmmakers into the game. In fact, black filmmakers try to make it impossible for black up-and-comers. They oftentimes are very selective and select the people closest to them if that. They're too busy holding black up-and-comers down in hopes of protecting their own careers, fearing they would lose shine to their budding proteges. Indeed, some of these black established filmmakers may play nice and be courteous when you meet them. They might even accept your friend's request on Facebook. But when it comes down to doing something that can actually help an up-and-comer progress, they will shut them down immediately. White established people are different. They'll help you if they know you're serious with some talent. They don't have to know you, just present yourself properly and you will soon have a friend championing you. They'll even put their money where their mouths are. If black established filmmakers can act in this way, you will hear more stories about black up-and-comers being part of the conversation as to who directs what. Also, black actors aren't making it easy for them either. You mentioned Will Smith, who I am convinced will never hire a black filmmaker for biased reasons. He probably don't think he knows of any that are good enough. Then you have other black actors who aren't supporting projects extended to them unless it's fully financed. These types don't have to attach themselves. A letter of interest would suffice. But their agents/managers won't even accept the spec unless the project is fully set up. What they fail to realize is that there are many financial institutions who would foot the bill if you have names attached. The Catch-22. Banks like CNB would give loans to a production if it has at least 20% of its financing and at least one name actor attached. And let's not forget about all the companies that can provide gap financing and foreign sales agents who can probably contribute advances from overseas distributors towards your budget. But this can't happen unless there is a name actor attached. I believe black actors need to work their careers differently from white actors until true progress is made for black cinema in general.

Donella

That really clarifies the situation and it is quite chilling. Film is a powerful medium and I never buy into the "it's just a movie" dismissal. Media has the power to change minds and hearts for good or evil. I keep wondering if the solution is to turn away from Hollywood in order to produce or direct overseas–Ghana, Nigeria, South America, India, Asian, Brazil. It's possible to make a North American-themed film or even a film that incorporates the host country's culture. The infrastructure, talent, and market exists.

sandra

GREAT ARTICLE, TAMBAY! Can you (or anyone on your team) get a few of these eternally-out-of-work directors (and actors too) on a podcast to discuss how they occupy their time, how they keep from going crazy and what efforts and strategies they are working on to breathe life into their careers? Please….and thank you.

The Presence

Let's keep it real. Black filmmakers need black audiences. Artsy films don't sell. If black filmmakers want to be successful they have to stop making films THEY want to see (add to that, their friends, film school buddies and S&A readers) and start making movies for the everyday black moviegoer.

Adam Scott Thompson

It grieves my soul.

Miles Maker

Once you start playing with the studios it's hard to go back, and some Black filmmakers in Hollywood never really made a 'true' indie and have no idea what it really takes to make one (or it was too long ago). The studio system is about sustainable professions not profitable movies–it's an industrial complex, so Spike faced a new beginning with Red Hook Summer after 20 years making studio films–the game has changed! A sense of complacency can set in because making movies in the studio system means you have money in your pocket whether or not the film actually makes money or not (because you're paid while you make it) vs. indie fare, which is so back-end loaded everyone's assuming risk with opportunity cost being the smallest price to pay. Some projects smolder for years in development Hell, but even then money is still being spent and the only way to get your project OUT of that Hell is to put all your time into seeing it through–hence no other projects on their slate. This post is a sobering one for Black filmmakers aspiring for a studio career because if that's what they're banking on they'll eventually realize their bank simply refuses to loan to them. There hasn't been a better time than NOW to make indie movies, but so many don't really and truly know how to grow a baby and assemble a talented competent team and buckle down and do without and ultimately discover creative solutions to financial shortfalls and challenge every line item in the budget and do so much more with less and STILL deliver a well-conceived, well-executed and well-marketed film in a saturated market full of contenders. All that and we haven't even discussed the marketing without money challenge yet… Best Wishes to anyone attempting to make a profitable sustainable career as a filmmaker. I suspect many of those studio players mentioned above have alternative revenue streams as industry professionals between films.

Jd

Now this is good. Raising good questions here, Tambay. The Tyler Perry / John Singleton output comparision made me shudder. I didn't realize that. You are right. Where and what are these talents doing in the meantime and in between time? What do they think of upstarts like Q, Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay, Sheldon Candis, Rashad Ernesto Greene, Matthew Cherry, etc making movies and they aren't? Why don't these people go make films on the independent tip? It seems like after five and six years you'd start trying to move the blocks around and create some opportunities for yourself?!

I also think of the cats who made only one on the studio level like Ted Witcher and Reggie Rock Bythewood. I also think of someone like Matty Rich who had real movie promise, then was like bump that, and went to direct video games. It's hard out there.

You're right to worry about this new generation. Which ones will make it? Because real talk, most will join the ranks of the waiting game.

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