Indeed it is a good time to be in the CodeBlack Entertainment business as AMCi (AMC's relatively new independent film release initiative) confirmed over the weekend that the black-owned and operated film production/distribution company run by Jeff Clanagan, holds the top two highest grossing films in AMCi program history: 1) Laugh At My Pain, which shocked the world when it was released last fall, making an impressive $7 million (grossing around 10 times its budget, making it one of the most profitable films of 2011); and 2) Woman Thou Art Loosed! On The 7th Day, which opened in limited release this weekend, on 102 screens in the USA, grossing just about $650,000; and, by the way, held the highest per screen average of all films in commercial theatrical release this past weekend (yes, even higher than The Hunger Games, The Cabin In The Woods, and other top-grossing studio films).
We have here 2 black independent films that many of you who read this site may not have yet seen (and may never even see), but that have clearly successfully found their target audiences via a robust, and relatively inexpensive digital marketing strategy that, as Clanagan said in our brief conversation over the phone yesterday, is all part of an "alternate distribution model" he's bulding – one that he's certainly excited about, given the roll his company has been on thus far in recent months.
"We’re very excited about the model we’re building… The highest grossing weekend since AMC started the AMCi program; from that standpoint, it’s a success for us, and also for AMC… and shows that it can work for indie filmmakers and indie films… and that the marketing can work… I’m very committed to the AMCi program, and we’re going to grow that relationship," Clanagan said, adding that his intent is to "fill a void" in a space that no other company is really dominating at the moment – releasing black indies on 100 to 300+ screens nationwide (Laugh At My Pain's widest release was on 287 screens).
I asked for a case-study – specifically the strategy implemented for the company's current release, Woman Thou Art Loosed!: On The 7th Day, and Mr Clanagan (who shared that his expectations for the film's opening box office take were surpassed – $650,000 versus the $500,000+ he projected), stated that the plan was to open the film on 75 to 100 screens in the top 17 or 18 major markets, targetting high-grossing screens.
"The reasons we take that approach is because our model is a very aggressive targeted online marketing strategy," he said, adding, "we consult with a lot of celebrities, or what I like to call our network of influences," or N.O.I. – an N.O.I. that collectively reaches, by his estimates, some 30 million fans/followers on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, emphasizing that they’re all "pretty active; so at any time I could simply press a button, and through that, target our consumers in a much more efficient way that a studio could not so readily; we can reach the consumer and get immediate feedback better than most studios can."
And still further, Clanagan touted the company's "extensive email lists," sending out timed email blasts, as all part of his relatively inexpensive, really grassroots digital strategy: "putting all that together, it enables us to get the word out about our movies in a different, and efficient manner than the traditional studio model," he added.
And despite negative critical reactions to the film (scoring a 40% on review aggregator site RottenTomatoes.com), On The 7th Day's strong opening demonstrates how, we could say, critic-proof the film is, emphasizing the disconnect that exists between critics and audiences; how ultimately ineffective critics are in instances like this where an effective, targeted marketing campaign trumps negative press.
"The audience is going to drive the word of mouth, not the critics; we rely on feedback from the consumer; we rely on social media, and engage them on an ongoing basis; we survey our audiences and we care about what they say, not what the critics are saying," said Clanagan; and when I asked whether the film had legs, going into this coming weekend and the next, he added confidently, "Yes – purely based on the fact that we’re seeing very favorable exit responses. And we’re getting a lot of interest from markets we’re not yet in, like Birmingham, Alabama for example."
Opting to hold steady the number of screens On The 7th Day will be in release this weekend (given the opening of Screen Gems' Think Like A Man, which will likely be competing for the same audience), Clanagan does intend to expand the film to more theaters the following weekend.
And thanks to the success of that marketing campaign (as seen in box office returns for the company's aforementioned two recent releases), Clanagan and CodeBlack are perplexing Hollywood studios who are certainly watching the company's success with interest, given the anomaly that is the *black audience* from the POV of (mostly white) studio execs; but Clanagan, while flattered and open to opportunities, isn't interested in any agreements that require that he relinquish control.
"After Kevin Hart [Laugh At My Pain], every studio in town called me… I’m not opposed to it, but I’m trying to build an alternative model… I want to still be able to do what I want to do… But yes, the studios do call, and I expect to get a bunch of calls tomorrow, trying to figure out how we’re able to do it," he stated, further elaborating on studio limitations, "They have to make a commitment and build an infrastructure; Hiring black executives here and there makes little difference because those black executives don’t really have enough power; it looks good on paper. But it'll require a much more committed effort."
And he's obviously not clinging to any attention he says he'll likely receive this week, suggesting how fickle these studio interests are, "I’ll have their attention all this week, and maybe next week, but after that, nothing; They’re not in the 'black film' business, because studio models are about tentpole movies, and international; so they’re not jumping into our business."
And it's worth noting at this juncture that the audience for On The 7th Day, by Clanagan's estimates, was probably 99% African American, and that's likely because, "we’re not doing any marketing towards the cross-over, because we feel we can be successful with our core audience," Jeff said.
And successful with that core audience he's certainly been thus far, with Laugh At My Pain and now off to a strong start with On The 7th Day.
So with all that steam behind him, what's next? Two more feature projects are on the horizon Clanagan shared, although he couldn't reveal anything further about them, as deals for each aren't completed yet.
And finally, regarding the home video (VOD/DVD) release of Woman Thou Art Loosed: On The 7th Day, he expects an August or September date.
To find out if the movie is playing in your city, click HERE.