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Franchising the Story: How a Black Filmmaker Breaks Through to Foreign Markets

Franchising the Story: How a Black Filmmaker Breaks Through to Foreign Markets

It is generally well known that a majority of Black films have limited access to foreign markets under the ruse that Black films don’t sell well overseas (save for the works of Black A-list actors like Denzel Washington and Will Smith).  It is less generally well known in the United States that Black foreign films are given very limited access to the Black U.S. market as has been recently discussed in a brief article by Johny Pitts, ”Black Europe on Film: Ten Afropean Movies.”(1)

So it can be said with a high degree of certainty that any filmmaker who makes a Black film within or outside of the American Entertainment Complex is working under a doubled system of segregation: U.S. Black films have a limited access to foreign markets and foreign Black films have a limited access to the domestic U.S. market.

While it is very, very tempting to speculate on why the White controlled American Entertainment Complex exerts so much control upon American and Foreign Black audiences to keep these audiences and filmmakers from having any substantive economic and cultural contact with each other, such speculation about how White supremacist illusions affect the global entertainment industry is unfortunately not the focus of this essay.

The actual focus of this essay can be understood through a concise modification of an old proverb: If necessity is the mother of invention, then any kind of unjust segregation must be the father of circumvention.

That is to say that, given the intentional segregation of U.S. Black films from foreign markets and foreign Black films from the U.S. market, it must be brought to our attention that a Harlem New York based Black filmmaker and producer named Jeruvia has ingeniously begun to implement a clever strategy to break into foreign markets that are deliberately restricted from Black filmmakers and their works.

Instead of simply making a Black film and attempting to secure foreign licensing rights in various international markets, which is a path that is intentionally blocked for a majority of Black films without A-list stars or comedians, Jeruvia is franchising his screenplay and story into various international markets.  Franchising a screenplay and story, like television shows such as “American Idol,” “Big Brother,” “The Voice” that are also produced in other countries, allows his work to be translated into the target language and the entire project to be directed, produced and performed by the actors and professionals of the race, ethnicity or citizenship of a specific territory.  

In an hour long interview I conducted with the filmmaker, Jeruvia, who is a jack of all trades cinematically and holds degrees in screenwriting and marketing, he explained to me how after winning a story pitching contest at the American Film Market to a standing ovation of over 500 + audience members and producers in LA, he caught the attention of agent/producer Cassian Elwes.   Elwes told him directly,” It was the most brilliant pitch idea,” he had ever heard.  Later at that same event, two producers, Jessica Kam who was born in China and speaks English and Chinese and Natacha Devillers who was born in Canada and speaks French, English and Chinese, approached him about producing a Chinese language version of his story idea.  The story he pitched that what would eventually be the screenplay called, “Rain,” is a magical love story about three separate couples caught in this one massive rainstorm.

Intrigued, I asked Jeruvia to pitch me the story of “Rain,” the details of which I cannot fully disclose, but just like those 500+ audience members at the American Film Market by the time he finished his 90 second pitch he had earned my sincerest applause and admiration.  For as it turns out, Jeruvia is also a master storyteller and his love story involving three couples during a rainstorm and their ultimate decisions after the storm treads that fine line between an endearing story about love and an inspiring philosophical parable the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the cinema since perhaps the work of late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986).        

In November 2014, Jeruvia completed a production deal with producers Kam and Devillers to have his screenplay for “Rain,” translated into Mandarin Chinese and made into a Chinese film.  Jeruvia will serve as an executive producer and get screenplay and story credit as well as a percentage of the box office.(2)  Not content with just breaking into the lucrative Chinese film market, Jeruvia is planning on franchising his screenplay and story for “Rain” in the Indian Bollywood market, South African market, the U.K., France, and any other territories globally where he can strike similar franchising deals.

It is here that I would like to address some critical issues surrounding the notion of a Black filmmaker franchising his or her story and screenplay into different international markets.  One primary objection that can be raised is that if one modifies the television series business model to franchise a Black screenplay and story then this business model does not actually allow Black films to circumvent the unilateral segregation against Black films in foreign markets and foreign Black films in the U.S. market.  To state the obvious, the subsequent films produced from franchised screenplays that were originally written by Black filmmakers will not actually be Black films, but instead these will be films translated into a different language made by races and/or ethnicities specific to a particular country or territory.

In a short-term perspective Black films would still be segregated from the global marketplace.  

In fact it could be argued that franchising one’s screenplay only allows the Black filmmaker/writer the ability to profit from the production of their work in international markets.  But in my opinion, it is this ability to profit from one’s work in international markets that has so often been denied to all but the most select Black filmmakers.  The segregation of Black films from the foreign market has deleterious effects on everything from development schedules, production budgets, marketing budgets and a Black filmmaker’s ability to support his or her vision beyond just the immediate box office concerns of the domestic market.

Therefore, in a long-term perspective franchising could be seen as a viable strategy that would allow Black filmmakers a piece of the lucrative Global film market pie, so to speak.  

But most importantly franchising one’s screenplay and accumulating a percentage of the box office profits could also allow the Black filmmaker that wider margin of error when judging the box office appeal of a film against the artistic purpose of the film which is a privileged perspective from which many White filmmakers so often benefit.  Black filmmakers could finally be at an economic and aesthetic parity with White filmmakers (who often times make films with little to no concern for the domestic box office).  Franchising one’s screenplay could allow the Black filmmaker to experiment with style, dialogue, genre, the presentation of action, editing, setting as well as allow the Black filmmaker to take greater chances with the overall narrative presentation- because the budget of the domestic Black version of their film has been supplemented by the franchising of the screenplay and story of the film in other international markets.  

It is important to note that Jeruvia in his negotiations with his two producer/partners retained his domestic and international rights to his intellectual property which in turn affords him the opportunity to franchise the screenplay in other territories.  I should quickly point out that Jeruvia intends on directing and producing the Black film of his screenplay for the English language market and therefore the profits from the international franchises of his work will be used to supplement the budget of his Black film.

A pertinent question that still might be bothering us about Jeruvia franchising his screenplay and story to the Chinese is,” Why would his story idea appeal to the Chinese in the first place?”  Is the answer to be simply found in that old truism that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” given the difficulties some Chinese and Canadian filmmakers and producers have had in breaking through to the mainstream U.S. market?

In an article that announces the Chinese production deal, the screenplay of “Rain,” is described as a story that,” transcends cultural boundaries.”(3)  But what exactly is meant by the phrase,” transcends cultural boundaries”?  Such a loaded phrase could easily lead one to believe that the only way for other Black filmmakers to franchise their screenplays and stories is to write them without any culturally specific details and to adhere to safe, innocuous genres like love stories, Rom-Com’s and the like.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

How Jeruvia was able to win the attention of these two foreign producers, the agent/producer Cassian Elwes, and others rests solely on his storytelling abilities; his genuine talent.  I make this assertion confidently because it is simply the erroneous belief that the work of Black artists cannot be transposed into another language or culture that actually holds so many of us back from exploring foreign markets, investors, etc.  That is to say, that no matter how many times a White person in power repeats a lie to us, it is ultimately when other Blacks begin repeating that same lie that the destructive and marginalizing effect truly takes hold of us.

The shackle is within the mind and it is often placed there by our own kind.

When I asked Jeruvia directly during our interview what he thought was the cross-cultural appeal of his story within his feature length screenplay for “Rain,” he answered,” Well, first off there’s nothing more universal than love,” and you have to admire his guileless honesty which strikes a chord in all but the most jaded and bitter among us.  He went on to note how different cultures imbue “Rain” with many distinct ideas and these culturally specific ideas allow various cultures to adapt the screenplay around the universality of “Rain.”   

That Jeruvia speaks French as a second language (our pre-interview was conducted entirely- en Français) indicates that Jeruvia as a Black filmmaker was already pre-disposed to the possibility that his artistic efforts would have a value in territories beyond the U.S. and the domestic Black audience.  Specifically, the shackle of U.S. Black cultural isolation and learned segregation had already been removed from his mind and therefore he was receptive to interest in his work from races and cultures other than his own.  

I’m reminded of a great line spoken by the iconic actor and martial arts artist Jim Kelly (1946-2013) in Robert Clouse and Bruce Lee’s 1973 film “Enter the Dragon,” while Jim Kelly’s character Williams stares out at the crowded living conditions of Hong Kong’s harbor:  “Ghettos are the same all over the world, they stink.”  That line and the contemptuous sentiment behind the political circumstances that create ghettos has a leveling effect and aids in making us realize that although the interpretation of a Black experience can be unique, the experiences and often times the fixed and unjust political circumstances behind those experiences are shared among many races, classes, genders, creeds and religions within mankind.  To quote German philosopher Nietzsche we are as Blacks,” Human, all too human.”

It could be that it is only when we hold on to the U.S. Black experience as exceptional, unique and untranslatable that we fail to unify others, with or without color, who have shared similar experiences and whose systemic oppression has also been carried forward to the present day to an equal, lesser or even greater degree as our experiences.

To add to this long-term perspective regarding franchising Black screenplays and stories for production in foreign markets, Black filmmaker Jeruvia is literally following in the footsteps of early Black filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux and William Foster who as Film Scholar Cara Caddoo asserts wanted to export their Black films,” …to Europe, South America, Africa, and the Caribbeans,” in the valiant effort to claim,”… Black rights to visual self-representation around the world.”(4)

What’s really important in the long-term perspective of screenplay franchises are the international business relationships developed between Black filmmakers and enterprising foreign producers, distributers, actors and filmmakers.   All of these participants together in a collective spirit of cooperation and the desire for capital accumulation could form the enduring partnerships necessary to finally break the segregation against foreign Black films in the U.S. market and U.S. Black films in foreign markets.

If change demands optimism, then we are required to be optimistic if we really want it.        

We as Black people have always found ways to circumvent the interdictions and obstacles placed in our way by the illusions of White supremacy and there should be no surprise that a Black filmmaker has found a way to go around the segregation of Black films from the foreign market by applying a business model primarily used for television shows to the film medium.  As the distinctions between the big and the small screen disappear due to the rapidity of technological advancements it makes perfect sense that Jeruvia, a bi-lingual Black filmmaker based in Harlem New York along with his multi-lingual producing partners Jessica Kam and Natacha Devilliers would all be courageous enough to exploit the blurring of these media distinctions to circumvent the segregation of Black films and filmmakers from the global marketplace.  

That we should applaud Jeruvia’s continued success, congratulate him for his efforts and follow in his footsteps carefully could go without saying because if only more of us could remove that shackle from our minds we would truly be able to pursue the claim that early Black filmmakers wanted to fulfill:  Black rights to visual self-representation around the world.

NOTES

(1) While the author does state that his list of “Afropean” films is not exhaustive nor definitive in rankings the article itself highlights the deliberate segregation of Black foreign films from the U.S. Market by their limited release, if at all, and the intentional low profile art-house release these films are given if they do make it to the U.S. Market.  http://afropean.com/afro-european-cinema-ten-afropean-movies/

(2) See article: WRITER-DIRECTOR JERUVIA’S AFM WINNING PITCH “RAIN” MAKES A SPLASH IN CHINA  http://hushhushbiz.com/writer-director-jeruvias-afm-winning-pitch-rain-makes-a-splash-in-china/

(3) Op. cit.

(4) Pgs. 173-174, from ENVISIONING FREEDOM: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life by Cara Caddoo, Harvard University Press; Cambridge, 2014.

Andre Seewood is author of  “(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker.” Pick up a copy here

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