The Making of "Hollyhood." (African Americans in the Motion Picture Industry) (Cover Story)

By Lowery, Mark; Sabir, Nadirah Z. | Black Enterprise, December 1994 | Go to article overview
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The Making of "Hollyhood." (African Americans in the Motion Picture Industry) (Cover Story)

Lowery, Mark, Sabir, Nadirah Z., Black Enterprise

The success of recent black films has revived black cinema, but the struggle to produce movies not depicting "hood" violence continues

A young hispanic mother from the Bronx struggles to take control of her life, at times fighting against her family, her community and herself in Darnell Martin's $5.5 million premiere film, I Like It Like That.

In Haile Gerima's low-budget but powerful Sankofa, a black model, who is emotionally removed from her community, travels to Africa and relives her ancestors' painful slavery experience.

Love blossoms between a young black man and woman in one of Houston's toughest neighborhoods in George Jackson and Doug McHenry's $7.2 million Jason's Lyric.

These diverse black images all graced the Big Screen last fall, a highly unlikely scenario even five years ago.

There's an explosion of black images on movie screens, fueled partly by superstars such as Eddie Murphy and Whoopi Goldberg. Nevertheless, the black movie industry is still in its infancy. The power in Hollywood remains with those who can finance and distribute movies, and blacks are just beginning to make inroads in the industry's elite power structure.

Several actors and filmmakers, however, are leveraging their power by creating their own production companies. This allows them creative control and power to hire other blacks while still being tied to a studio that distributes their work.

Rejected by Tinseltown, filmmakers whose works are deemed to have low commercial value are literally taking their message to the streets. They're using word-of-mouth to market their independent films on a theater-by-theater basis, much in the same way black film pioneer Oscar Micheaux (Harlem After Midnight) did decades ago.


"There are three axes of power: finance, distribution and talent. Until you control one or all, you're powerless", says George Jackson, whose company Jackson/ McHenry Entertainment (JME) produced the blockbuster films New Jack City and House Party II. "In a historical context, we're at the beginning of the black filmmaking golden era."

"The power", adds entertainment lawyer Stephen Barnes, "always lies with those who have the means of distribution."

In 1993, Hollywood released 469 films that grossed a total of $5 billion. Black directors made 11 of those films and generated ticket sales of 29 million. In the boom year for black filmmakers - 1991, in which 19 films were released - their movies reached an audience of 40 million and accounted for only 4% of that year's ticket sales.

Blacks have been making their presence known on the other side of the camera for years. They directed highly successful films during the 1970s and 1980s, including Sidney Poitier's 1980 Stir Crazy. The movie, starring Richard Pryor, sold more than 37 million tickets. It's still the most popular film ever made by a black director. The success of such films, however, didn't open as many doors for blacks as the latest wave of black cinema has. It's at the director-actor level that black power in Hollywood is now being harnessed.

Generally, it costs between $5 million and $20 million to make a movie. Even when the money for a project is secured, it's the films with distribution deals that get to see the light of a projector. Only major studios such as Columbia, Warner Bros. and Universal can regularly guarantee financial backing and distribution. "There's a myth that anybody can make a movie. That there's money out there to make them, explains Grace Blake, an independent producer whose projects include Silence of the Lambs, School Daze and The Cotton Club. "Everybody who makes a movie isn't going to get a studio deal. Films are a very expensive form of expression. Everybody's trying to go from the top down. You [need to] go from the bottom up."

Blacks are slowly inching upward in Hollywood studios, but their bottom up" climb has reached only mid-level management.

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