They are among the most lauded young filmmakers to come out of the independent movie scene, but Dee Rees, the director of "Pariah" (2011) and Barry Jenkins, who made "Medicine for Melancholy" (2008), have not made follow-up features. Why? The reasons are numerous--with even institutional racism a possibility--and while the two have multiple projects in development, the fact is: No second feature.
I bring this to mind now--it's an old complaint, of course--but there was a recent comment by someone named "Micheaux's Ghost" posted on a blog post I recently wrote about the racial/class politics of "Frances Ha." "It all boils down to the fact that there's not a real market for "middle class angst" films based around black characters. Or at least real enough for Hollywood to pay attention," the person wrote.
"White audiences are not going to pay to see these types of films and sadly black audiences aren't either," the comment continued. "For all the hooting and hollering about wanting different representations on screen, black films that aren't over the top dramas, filled with violence, or raunchy comedies usually fail to make serious money or gain a significant audience."
I think this is true, but it continues to baffle the mind that filmmakers with this much talent have not been scooped up yet. Apparently, Jenkins has been attached to numerous projects, and Rees is far along with another project, as well. But they've both faced significant obstacles working with sizable budgets. I think it's telling that both Rees and Jenkins were engaged in longstanding negotiations with Focus Features for sophomore efforts, but both of those projects also look to be stalled.
In this month's Filmmaker Magazine, Nekisa Cooper, Rees' producer, told me that the film, a crime thriller set in the South called "Bolo," was put into turnaround at Focus. "They loved the script and the characters, but the foreign numbers didn't compute," said Cooper, who has since moved on to make the film with private equity.
Citing directors like Jenkins and current indie cause celebre Ryan Coogler ("Fruitvale"). indie producer Jay Van Hoy told me, "These are some of the most talented filmmakers of this generation, and of course we want to work with them and see them flourish, but how are we going to do it if we can't get their budgets up over $750,000 because there's no foreign presales available? It's not sustainable for producers or for the filmmakers." (Here is more about the article in an earlier blog post).
Frankly, the financial realities suck for indie films of color, particularly overseas.
As the "Micheau's Ghost" commenter advised:"I'm not saying black films like this shouldn't exist, but people have to be realistic. Film financing is not a charity. There is a small audience for these type of films (black or white) and there is a possibility to turn a profit, but it has to be done in a smart way.
"alternative" black filmmakers should:
1) find financing outside hollywood from investors
2) make "middle class angst" film with black characters for under $500,000
3) tour that film with weekend screenings at venues in major cites across the country
4) connect with fans through social media
5) control all online distribution of the film
6) forget about being a part of Hollywood (theatrical release, Oscars, DGA)"