MIST (My Image Studios) CEO Roland Laird and his team - Director of Programming Alexa Birdsong; Cinema Programming and Marketing Director/Co-Owner of Autonomous Entertainment Cedric Beasley; Media Consulting/Autonomous Entertainment, Inc.'s Michelle Materre - intend for MIST, located on 40 West 116th Street, to become the lifeblood of a neighborhood, a much needed 2nd renaissance for Harlem after its gentrification.
The state-of-the-art entertainment center - which holds two 91-seat film theaters and a third theater with 162 seats - will exhibit mostly independent films of the African and Latino diasporas, and will include a restaurant, live music performances five-nights-a-week and poetry slams.
The ambitious project interested mogul Carlton A. Brown of BRP Community Development (a minority owned development-real estate firm) and investors, who allocated upwards of $21 MILLION to create a “20,000 sq. ft. living room’ of Black and Latino cultural exhibition and festivity.
“Sounds like a lot more money than it actually is,” says MIST CEO Roland Laird of the impressive 21 million with a laugh.
The team met with S&A at the busy Il Caffe Latte in the heart of Harlem on Malcolm X Blvd. Over brunch, we conversed about the project’s vision and hopes.
The instance that stayed with me most after our time with MIST’s team came towards the end of the interview, when I began to ask Laird the following, “So if you are successful..” The CEO interrupts me and says, “What was that?” I immediately have to rephrase part of my question, but not after the team erupted in laughter. I proceed, “So after you become successful, because you WILL BE, can we expect to see MIST to become a franchise with theater all over the country?”
And the answer is yes, along with performances and program content to cater to the geographical location – it might mean food and musical performances with a South Western or Louisiana flavor.
S&A: How did your Partnership with Carlton Brown begin?
Laird: Going on of and on for 15-16 years. I met Carlton Brown because my wife Taneshia had done marketing for them in the late 90’s. So, in 2008 Carlton said he wanted to get involved with the project.
S&A: How difficult is it to find films for exhibition at MIST?
Materre: I’ve been working in Independent for many years. With Cedric’s background [Autonomous Entertainment], we really complimented each other. I go to a lot of film festivals. I just came back from the Dominican Republic. I met with a lot of Caribbean and African filmmakers, and I have a film series that I’ve been doing. A lot of the films acquired by the theater is the result of the work I’ve done with IFC. When I gave them word about the theater, I came back with stacks of DVDs.
Beasley: Basically, with the commercial stuff, we have deals with distributors like Sony, Lionsgate, what have you; and matter of fact, after talking to them, a lot of them have African and Latino catalogues that they can’t seem to get exhibition houses to talk them in America. So they’re excited about having a place that will actually show their material. They don’t have to go directly to video.
S&A: So, films don’t need to have distributors?
Beasley: Right, the indie films don’t have to have distribution. You can go directly to the exhibition houses and make some sort of deal, but you have to know how to do that. Now, the commercial films are owned by production houses or distribution companies that have the right to exhibit them here in the U.S. You have to actually go through them; that’s another more complex deal. And that’s what all these big names are doing.
S&A: What about the distribution for your fist films ‘Otelo Burning’ and ‘Elza’?
Beasley: The only real distribution that they have is actually our company [Autonomous Entertainment]; we’re doing independent distribution with their films on the side. First is the exhibition with MIST. The great thing about working with MIST and Autonomous is the fact that a film we pick up through our company can also get exhibited here at MIST. Another advantage is being able to get the longevity in a theater. There’s a two-week minimum at MIST as long as they’re doing well.
S&A: Besides the obvious, what motivated you to add Latino films to the program?
Laird: There aren’t a lot of programs directed at the Latino culture. We are establishing that.
Beasley: Speaking of that, when I first contacted Sony about product they told me that they had a whole category for it, and said they had nowhere to show it. They said, “We’ll be glad to provide it to you; you can have anything you want.” That just shows as big as they are, they can’t even show these films here in America. It’s not always up to the distributor, because when a distributor contacts the exhibition houses, the theaters, they tend to turn it down as in, “No it wouldn’t work here.” That’s why some films don’t get wide screening, as they should. With all the Latinos in this area, we could make a fortune. A film like Eva Mendes’ ‘Girl in Progress’ may screen in Middle America because theater owners are familiar with her, but it wouldn’t give the film a chance for Latinos in urban areas to see it.
The indie filmmakers that come out with product actually would have a chance to have real success. Think about it; we have 15 sites where they know they could be simultaneously in the same week they could turn a real profit versus struggling to get into one place over here and waste all their money getting into another place over there. They can’t make a profit that way. That’s the reason why.
S&A: What about competition?
Laird: we’re not saying we don’t have competition. It might not be our direct programming. When the average theatergoer goes to about 5 or 6 movies a year and we’re talking about films that many haven’t heard of and so when “The Dark Knight” comes out and “Otelo Burning” is out, that’s our competition.
S&A: What’s in it for the filmmaker? How’s the agreement benefit the filmmaker?
Materre: It varies depending on the film but we are very competitive as far as giving the filmmaker a deal and filmmakers are our first concern as far as their exposure.
Beasley: Most of the cases, we guarantee that if you give us a minimum of two weeks, it gives them a time to build an audience and a real chance.
Materre: We’ll always have a premiere before the run starts. Those things combined will give the filmmaker greater exposure.
S&A: How does a deal at MIST compare to deals with AMC Entertainment?
Beasley: With MIST you don’t have to come out with your own marketing dollars; you can piggyback ride on the marketing of our vehicle. We’re too dependent on major studios only a handful films from them.
S&A: Are you concerned with statistics about fewer and fewer people going to theaters?
Laird: For me, even though I can look at a million movies on cable, on my I-Pad, computer, it’s just not the same experience of watching a film at the theater.
And he’s certainly not the only one. Add to that MIST’s emphasis on offering full-service state-of-the-art entertainment encompassing dining, live music, restaurant, spoken word and other special events, and the experience cannot begin to compare.
For African American and Latino audiences, here is the chance to reach out, support and build this industry. MIST is catering to an underestimated yet increasingly affluent demographic, many who have are not aware-of or do not have ready access to independent cinema.
It’s time to give quality independent films more exposure in the Mecca of predominantly black and Latino demographics; who can now see their own image on the big screen.
From MIST’s Facebook Page –
We regret to announce that the previously scheduled special events including the Def Poetry Jam Reunion (Sept 27) and film premieres of Otelo Burning (October 3) and Elza (October 10) have been postponed due to a delay in the opening of our new venue. We will be announcing the new dates soon. If you have already purchased a ticket it will be valid to use at the new date and time. If you cannot make that date/time when it is announced, we will honor a refund request. We sincerely apologize for this inconvenience and thank you for your patience and understanding.