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The “Collard Greens” Circuit: Alternative Model For Distribution & Exhibition Of Black Indies

by Andre Seewood
August 30, 2011 12:41 PM
26 Comments
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The “Collard Greens” Circuit: An Alternative Model for the Distribution and Exhibition of African-American Independent Cinema

All too often in the African-American community our conformist tendencies and moral conservatism leads us to a moribund complacency that is just as dangerous for our community as a whole as it is for our culture and the art it produces. It is a complacency born from not necessarily a traditional right-wing conservative perspective, but a religiously centered, middle class aspiring perspective that forces some of us to look at social and cultural problems, not from their systemic causes and functions, but instead as a moral judgment against an individual.

I will use two examples from the past to shed light on our current state of affairs and the dim future it foretells.

In the 1980’s the rise of the crack cocaine epidemic was for so long thought of as an individual’s weakness by some within our communities, which in turn instilled a complacency that blinded some of us from the various life-threatening problems a collective of individuals weakened with substance abuse issues would cause us within a decade’s time. The same could be said of the HIV epidemic during the late 80’s and 90’s, when our moral conservatism and homophobia fed into the perception of AIDS as a ‘gay man’s disease’ and therefore an individual’s weakness. The complacency born from these perceptions encouraged a lack of collective political effort and an unwillingness to help others that blinded us from how the epidemic would profoundly impact our community throughout the 80’s and 90’s and even today.

Now moving from community to culture, today it is well known that only two or three films made by black filmmakers are attaining mainstream theatrical releases each year since the early 2000’s. Once again our conformist tendencies and conservatism is making us complacent and blinding us to the systemic causes and economic functions of the paucity of black films being released theatrically. It is a complacency that has many of us blaming the individual filmmakers for their perceived weakness in not securing a lucrative Hollywood deal as the problem. In other words it’s not Hollywood’s fault, Hollywood exists to make money, it’s the black filmmaker’s fault for not providing more marketable (read: white friendly) material. Even our comedies are failing to make substantial profits as the recent underperformances of FIRST SUNDAY, LOTTERY TICKET and WHO’S YOUR CADDY revealed.

Yet, even though there are many, many African-American films produced each year only two or three of these films gain a mainstream theatrical release. If we count a Tyler Perry film as one of those three, then actually there are only two African-American films, usually with a high profile African-American star attached, that are given a mainstream theatrical release. But there are two additional caveats here also: 1) Neither of the two remaining African-American films can be considered ‘independent’ because they are either bankrolled by a well-known or well connected producer (e.g. John Singleton and the film HUSTLE & FLOW, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s involvement with PRECIOUS); or 2) not directed or written by an African-American (e.g. BIG MOMMAS: Like Father, Like Son which was directed by John Whitesell). So what do these, for lack of a better word, two or three ‘bogus’ African-American films released to mainstream theaters every year tell us?

In times of great cultural crisis, like today, we as African-Americans become complacent because the ‘white controlled’ system offers us one or two symbols of African-American success in a particular art-form or medium that, in turn, distracts us from the hundreds or thousands of African-Americans who languish in poverty and obscurity as they zealously pursue their ambitions in that particular art-form or medium. A discomforting and stereotypical analogy is that: many African-Americans play basketball and aspire to be professionals, but only a handful get into the NBA to make millions. One of the great differences here is that we get to see those handful of black basketball players on our television screens, whereas so many, many African-American filmmakers works are seldom seen on television nor on the big screen. Today, the obvious success of Tyler Perry and even Oprah Winfrey distracts us from our entrenched powerlessness to simultaneously produce and distribute an African-American independent film into mainstream theaters.

It is under these conditions that we are forced to realize that African-American cinema and ‘white’ American cinema are segregated and unequal in regards to the funding, distribution and exhibition of their respective films. As I stated in my book, SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in film:

More money may increase the quantity of films whites produce, but more money also allows white filmmakers a wider margin of error when judging the box office appeal of a film against the artistic purpose and integrity of a film. This wider margin of error encourages certain white filmmakers to experiment with style, dialogue, the presentation of action, editing, setting as well as allowing these white filmmakers to take chances on subject matter and its overall narrative presentation. Yet when studios and independent producers approach African-American films they provide little margin for error by way of smaller budgets, shorter development and production schedules that do not afford African-American filmmakers the same luxuries of artistic purpose, integrity and experimentation as whites.” (pg. 16)

Couple this problem with the fact that only two to three ‘bogus’ African-American films are released into mainstream theatrical theaters and you have a segregated cinema that discourages the ambitions of African-Americans while sustaining the status quo of white cultural superiority in the art and business of film.

What is needed is a renewed sense of collective urgency, cooperation and strategic change in how we fund, market and distribute African-American independent cinema. We can no longer depend on the illusion of a big Hollywood distribution deal as the model to sustain African-American cinema commercial or independent. Countless commercial African-American filmmakers have had their careers halted or destroyed by the Hollywood contract which keeps their scripts in “turnaround” (industry jargon for,” not at this time”) or have their films poorly marketed and distributed as a means of controlling their talent and forcing them to “pull the plough” for an industry that makes the most of its profits from multi-million dollar blockbuster films that through a variety of seductive ways sustain the illusion white cultural superiority in the cinema. Yet it is a white controlled entertainment industry that sustains its artistic prestige from smaller films that take years and years to turn a profit which is a privilege deliberately withheld from African-American filmmakers and their works.

Under these pernicious circumstances we can no longer afford to blame the African-American filmmaker for not making a more marketable product since the product that Hollywood does not want to market are African-American films that challenge the racial representations that have always contributed handsomely to its bottom line. We have to realize that all of the African-American films which we are not seeing are a direct consequence of the “chosen few” that are being placed in front of us to block our view. In short, it is not the weakness of the individual filmmaker that is keeping him or her in poverty and obscurity, but instead the strength of the system which is being fed by our conformist tendencies and conservatism which translates as a lack of a sense of urgency when it comes to African-American cinema. Like the tragically absurd figure in Franz Kafka’s vignette about a deluded man who waits all of his life in front of a door he was told he could not enter, only to find out at the point of his death from old age that this door was, “for you and only you,” too many African-American filmmakers are waiting for a chance that cannot be given to us: it must be taken. (1)

The first and foremost effective means with which we have to combat this problem are African-American film festivals. With several important changes to the submission processes, the addition of multi-tiered exhibition categories and a co-operative ethos and mandate several African-American film festivals could collectively function like the “chitlin’ circuit” did for African-American playwrights and performers who were not allowed into all white establishments during and after segregation.(2)

In effect, these African-American film festivals could form what we might call, ”a Collard Greens circuit,” where challenging, artistically advanced and stimulating films could tour from city to city under a particular festival’s brand name. Profits from these tours could be used to create prize money for award winning films to help fund African-American filmmakers future works, as well as, create a non-profit fund to provide grant money for developing African-American filmmakers. Funding that would give these filmmakers a wider margin of error concerning short term profits vis-à-vis long term cultural legacy in the creation and development of challenging and innovative films. These grants could potentially ‘level the playing field’ and de-segregate the relationship between African-American cinema and white cinema in terms of an African-American filmmaker’s ability to develop challenging, innovative and groundbreaking works.

One of the foreseeable problems with the development of,” a Collard Greens circuit,” for African-American independent film is found in making sure that the films are marketed and exhibited to their target audience. For example, in 2009 Barry Jenkins’s film, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, was given a limited “art-house” release across the country, but when it played in my hometown of Detroit, it was shown at the Detroit Film Theater. On paper, the Detroit Film Theater is a well respected film institution with a more than 35 year tradition of showing the best films from around the world. In reality, the Detroit Film Theater rarely reaches out to African-American film audiences, usually showing only one obligatory African-American themed film during Black History month. While as an adjunct of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, it serves mostly white privileged suburbanites and college students and faculty. The “art-house” release pattern continues the segregation between white art films and African-American independent films because the art film theater caters to white audiences for the majority of its yearly programmed schedule. Therefore, the African-American independent film that receives an art house release does not effectively reach most African-American filmgoers.

The second foreseeable problem is whether or not large African-American film festivals like, the Hollywood Black Film Festival (HBFF) or the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) and any other film festivals whose agenda is to promote black film can work together to both coordinate the tours and distribute a percentage of the profits into prize money and grants for developing filmmakers. It’s not that these festivals don’t already have systems in place for prize money and development funds, but the fact that separately these festivals have a less than profound effect in getting African-American films into mainstream theaters and accumulating funds that could be distributed as development and production grants to filmmakers. But given the circumstances I have already described concerning a segregated cinema between white films and black films, if these disparate festivals could work together they could form a mighty weapon that would aid in the desegregation of American cinema.

A third but not less important foreseeable problem with the development of “a Collard Greens circuit” for African-American independent cinema can be found in our conformist tendencies that are manifested in the notion of filmmaking as a “get rich quick” means of vertical class mobility. We have been seduced by a variety of conduits into believing that the business of film is the sole purpose for getting involved in the art of film; that when we make a film and concern ourselves solely with ability of the project to make money we lower our ideals to what we have convinced ourselves is a common denominator and in so doing we make mindless comedies or create stereotypical characters and circumstances to which we believe all black audiences can relate. We conform to very notions we wanted to transcend when we think of filmmaking solely as a means of getting rich, instead of as a means of artistic expression.

Yet, to end this dream on a ray of hope, “a Collard Greens circuit” if developed and sustained could allow the most innovative, challenging and artistically advanced African-American independent cinema to finally reach its targeted audience. These films, if shown in a variety of cites North, South, East and West could renew our spirit and faith in cinema as the most important art-form of African-American artistic expression. The “Collard Greens circuit” could resurrect films long thought lost or unmarketable like R.W. Fassbinder’s WHITY (1970), GANJA & HESS (1973) or Tanya Hamilton’s NIGHT CATCHES US (2010) saving these films from obscurity and giving them a chance to make a deep impression with African-American audiences as a means to contradict the racial representations of typical Hollywood product. The “Collard Greens circuit” could provide an alternative model for the distribution and exhibition of African-American independent film that could finally let us create a doorway for ourselves rather than wait for someone to open the door for us and let a ‘chosen few’ through.

Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.

NOTES
(1) For an eloquent and arresting interpretation of the tragically comic figure of the vignette from Kafka’s The Trial, see the opening sequence of Orson Welles’ phenomenal film adaptation THE TRIAL (1962). The exact passage can be found in chapter 9 “In the Cathedral” on pages 213-222 in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Schocken Books, New York, 1974.
(2) The ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ has been alternately described as a loose affiliation of performance venues where African-Americans could perform during and after the time of American racial segregation. These were venues where many well known African-American performers could develop and master their craft while being paid (nominally of course). Performers like, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Flip Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin and a host of others began their careers on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’. This circuit still exists today and was instrumental in the success of Tyler Perry’s stage plays before his career as a filmmaker.

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26 Comments

  • CareyCarey | September 1, 2011 8:47 AMReply

    Okay Carl, I believe I understand what you are trying to say. And if so, maybe the words “thoroughly engage them with popular yet positive themed movies” could replace the word elevate?

    I came to that conclusion after looking at the movies you listed, Cooley High, Love and Basketball, Boys N the Hood. They all had a popular theme, but each of them had an ooh la la that took me to another level. Damn, now you got me trying to find the common positive/constructive threads in those movie? Acting? Message? Fatherhood? Director’s input? Music? Tone? Cinematography? Writing? Setting?

    So, anyway, I believe you are suggesting one of the solutions to black cinema’s dilemma is to find better ways to engage/involve the black audience without creating divides and enemies on our own team? As it stands now, the lines of deep division are etched in the sand (and I have to say this) and this long article and it’s earlier counterpart, was a glossy trip down Wax Philosophically Road, which lead to The Great Land of Oz. There was no viable nor logical solutions to be found in that “script”. It had all the “sounds” of something reeeeaaal good but I was left with many unanswered questions

    Excuse me cuz I gotta be real on this one. As I was reading it, I felt like I was sitting in church as the pastor had everyone slidin’ and justifying. Shoutin’ and saying “AMEN” and “"Hallelujah", and the organ was pumpin’. Oh yeah, and, just like in church, when I wanted to stop the pastor when he said something mystical and/or at the very least, highly questionable, I felt the same way while reading this.... ahh.. what was it, a critical analysis of the black cinema?

    I felt like an out of town preacher was brought in from the big city to tell use country folks what we needed to do in order to upgrade our game. Then, after the sermon is over, pass the plate or buy the book, it’s all the same, turn out the lights... and let the church say...

    But in the end, Carl, I will definitively champion your following point. You said: “This discussion has definitely been eye opening to me. I will remain optimistic that there is a formula that will appeal to a larger demographic of the African American movie going audience”

    Pass the peas.

  • Carl Seaton | September 1, 2011 6:56 AMReply

    Let me clarify what is implied when I say elevate. I am not talking about bougie films nor is it meant in a condescending manner. Carey, you are absolutely correct that emotion is the fuel that moves an individual. I see how the statement of elevating black films can be misconstrued. You and others are saying that it can't happen but it has already happened before. We all know several films that are considered classics because of their elevation of the game, Cooley High, Love and Basketball, Boys N the Hood. All of these films elevated the audience. All I am saying is that filmmakers AND the audience should strive to stay on this path.

    This discussion has definitely been eye opening to me. I will remain optimistic that there is a formula that will appeal to a larger demographic of the African American movie going audience

  • JMac | September 1, 2011 5:27 AMReply

    I most likely should just stay out of this discussion but have some thoughts as a movie-goer.

    My memory goes back to the early to mid eighties when there was no internet and cell phones (not with messaging capabilities) and how black folks learned about new black movies -and music - created outside "the system." I learned of them from my older brothers and sisters who learned of them from their friends who learned of them from their friends and so on.

    Someone mentioned She's Gotta Have It and it being supported by whites more than blacks. Don't know if that's true but somehow black college kids learned about School Daze before anyone had any idea that flick existed and before the music videos came out (which only played on BET). More likely than not it had something to do with the movie being filmed on black college campuses in Atlanta but that wouldn't necessarily explain the word of mouth advertising for other movies/music.

    I remember one thing for sure: that movie was not advertised here AT ALL. Very few theaters played it and if they did it was only at late night showings... you know, too many black folks. However, the theaters were filled to the brim with black people.

    Same phenomenon with rap music - pre and post gangster. My first taste of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was from bootleg tapes. Before that I only knew their names but never heard the music. Despite that, they managed to get a recording contract due to all the interest that built up and put out an actual legitimate album. I was first in line to buy it along with every other person who discovered them by bootleg. Still have the record in my closet somewhere.

    I'm mentioning all this to say distribution isn't as large a problem as it is getting the word out. We weren't as connected then as we are today but we still managed to make stars out of talented people - some whose works were elevating and some whose works were base. If filmmakers want to replicate the underground movement, hit the black college campuses hard. Use our newfound connectability to promote your product. Don't necessarily consider bootleg your enemy. If the work is good and the reputation spreads, no one will be satisfied with cheap copies... unless it's Chinese bootleg [excellent quality].

    Using black film festivals to increase distribution/exhibition is a great idea but don't forget the students (high school through post-grad). They've got the time, the money - usually- and the varied interest. Can you elevate tastes? It's possible if you expose people early on to all the possibilities out there. They may still like the junk from time to time but they won't want to live on it.

  • Rodney | September 1, 2011 4:38 AMReply

    As previously mentioned in another post, the issue here is basically a marketing problem. (and I'm talking marketing in its broadest form, not just advertising & promotion) Once you start talking about distribution and exhibition, then you’re really leaving the creative/artistic arena as it relates to filmmaking and entering an area that requires a different skill set as well as a different mindset.

    The first thing is identifying the audience, then sizing it and figuring out the most cost-effective means of serving it. If there’s a good story (not a screenplay, but a business model) that can be communicated effectively, then the next step is mobilizing capital to build out the model. Its striking how most people consider the Hollywood model as one size that fits all. Using that model doesn’t work for the type of content readers of Shadow and Act long for. Any attempt to build an effective distribution/exhibition model (and I hate using those terms because they psychologically conjure up the Hollywood model) for this content should discard the traditional model and focus on new technologies that are changing the way content is consumed and paid for.

  • Cynthia | September 1, 2011 3:16 AMReply

    Okay...I gotta jump in here! I definitely agree with everyone about "marketing" being an issue and I notice how soooo many people love to use "Medicine For Melancholy" but really shouldn't. I didn't even know about the film until it reached VOD. That was a HORRIBLE marketing campaign...period. Even with that said, the movie did well considering the modest investment. And that's a huge issue distributors face when they have to market to a "specialty" black audience. We do exist. After all, that's how S&A was created and continues to grow.

    Also, some indie films don't need to be about appealing to ALL the black mainstream anyway. I think that's where people are missing the point, in my opinion. We have niche markets within our community just like any other. If these films can recoup their investment money and make a modest profit, they should be considered a success. Everyone keeps using Tyler Perry as a measure of success which I think is a fallacy.

  • CareyCarey | September 1, 2011 3:10 AMReply

    There's no such thing as elevating the black audience. I mean, WTH does that mean? And if one could do such an ambiguous thing, what would be the goal and/or ending point? Elevate them to what?

    Emotions are the fuel that moves every individual, and those emotions are not something we learn from a book and they are not passed down from person to person. I am suggesting that as we pass through life we are shaped by our own experiences which are not scripted. The person we will become is by and large set by the time we reach our late teens.

    Besides, if I can use a trite phrase... you can take a horse to water but you can't make them drink. Who amongst us feels as if they need to be elevated to some ambiguous state of conscious understanding of “quality” films? I believe any endeavor which tries to “elevate” the black audience - in reference to films - is a fool’s errand, and could be considered very condescending.

    In short, people cry, laugh, get depressed, smile, argue and emote for a myraid of reasons, and none of them are learned behaviors. They are the outward expressions of emotions. So again, what are we trying to elevate and when does/should that monumental task begin? Besides, if I can use a trite phrase... you can take a horse to water but you can't make them drink. Who amongst us feels as if they need to be elevated to some ambiguous state of conscious understanding of “quality” films? I believe any endeavor which tries to “elevate” the black audience - in reference to films - is a fool’s errand, and could be considered very condescending.

    Granted , On any given rainy day, when we feel like sowing our poetic grammar oats, we can wax philosophically to our less-than-elevated-ennui-encased dead lustre-less eyed- black audience about this thing called qualities films and/or indie films, but really, what’s it all about. I think it’s ego fodder.

  • bashe | September 1, 2011 1:21 AMReply

    My problem with the elevate-the-black-audience attempt is that I can't envision it happening. I went to New York last spring to see a play called "Neighbors," at the Public Theater. It was terrific: dark, funny, disturbing, blackface---and while I was up in New York with my daughter, MY OWN WIFE was in Richmond at a TYLER PERRY PLAY! (Been married 24 years; don't ask me how it works, it just does...) But I just can't see how the black audience can be elevated. Just don't.

    While I was in Atlanta I went to see "For Colored Girls..." the first weekend it was released---and the amount of laughter-at-inappropriate-places just broke my heart. My interpretation was that Tyler Perry did his work, he got his audience out to see it, and they came out to see their boy's latest, and it was NOWHERE CLOSE to what they wanted or expected. Were they "elevated"? I'd say no, not really. And my experience says that even if you can get them to an "exception" to what they might ordinarily see, they see that as an exception, and don't make a habit of the sort of film they're not used to seeing.

    No, there's got to be another way. It's easy to complain about the lack of an elevated black viewership, but I don't see it changing, not any time soon, if ever. The challenge is to FIND an audience, CREATE an audience in the numbers that will make the film---and other, similar films---successful. We can't rely on black eyes alone, but we CAN preserve our black, filmic identity, our tell-our-own-stories acumen, and ALSO invite viewers of other races to enjoy those stories....

  • bashe | September 1, 2011 1:07 AMReply

    Good question, Carl---"Where do we go from here?" The easy answer would be, "I don't know," but I'll think out loud: I remember 1986. I drove from Richmond, Virginia all the way to Manhattan to see "She's Gotta Have It" while it was still in limited release, and yet, black people did not make that film a hit: white art-house film-goers did. No white folk on-screen, all-black film, black director; white viewers loved it. Spike found a way. In fact, Spike doesn't have the career he has now without white viewers.

    I have to believe that excellence is rewarded, eventually. When it comes to in film, I have to believe that interested whites will come if invited, the same way jazz is a black art form that wouldn't exist without white support, and hip hop is a black art form that wouldn't exist without white support, and Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead and Danzy Senna and Paul Beatty and the rest of black literary fiction wouldn't exist without white readers.

    None of those novelists write "for" whites; if they write "for" anyone, it's black people, but they can't rely solely on black readers because it's literary fiction, and there aren't enough black readers to make them bestsellers. They need white readers for that. And they get them.

    Why is the black art film so different? I believe white viewers are not invited to the extent that they should be. And let me say again: by NO means am I suggesting that white characters should be inserted into films. By NO means should "white" storylines be developed. No: make black film, for black people, same way hip hop is made "for" black listeners. But I believe there are enough white people who love to consume black art because it makes them feel "special" and "inside" and "hip" that if a feeling of "cachet" can be built into a marketing campaign---one that advertises on the local public radio outlet, or the classical music radio station, or even the local easy-rock station---IF WE GO AFTER THEM---while simultaneously aiming at the local black, quiet storm audience, we could peel off enough hip whites to make a hit---or at the very least, begin to build an audience for a film like "Medicine for Melancholy."

    Couldn't hurt to try....

  • NothingButAMan | August 31, 2011 12:36 PMReply

    I agree with alot of what Bashe said... except instead of "social class", i'll use the new marketing catch phrase "psychographics", to describe the consumer behavior of people these days...

    Instead of thinking/trying to engage your audience simply on the basis of demographics (race, age, gender), consider reaching them based on their consumer behavior and how they interact with social media and leisure time online... What M4M was really missing in it's theatrical promotion was a social media/mobile presence that had relevance to pyschographics that dovetailed with the themes in the film (ok, that and a horrid Dec. theatrical date).

  • Carl Seaton | August 31, 2011 11:54 AMReply

    Ok Bashe I hear you on the fact that the general audience has no desire to see films that don't have mass appeal. The Audience for Medicine for Melancholy does exist but sadly, it is not large enough for the film to make significant money. That is why we have to build an audience. I still believe that this elevation is essential. I don't see how raising the visibility of black film can be done without this.

    I do agree that marketing is key for all films from the point of inception on but I must ask you, where do we go from here? Based on our past that you spoke of in regards to class, and enslavement, to make a film that appeals to the general masses of the African American audience, our subject matter has been limited to mostly comedies, hood flicks, drug tales, family reunions, weddings, barbershops, hair salons, the block, the liquor store, the church, and of course male/female relationships. If we don't elevate the audience or at least call them out for choosing to support the same concepts, this dire situation that we as filmmakers are in will just repeat itself. I think differently, I think the masses are starving for something different which is where your point about marketing comes in.

    Here is a great example. Shadow and Act is a phenomenal website. It is informative, educational and highly thought provoking. I tell every filmmaker I know about it. Once they are exposed to it they join its ranks of readers and fall in love with it as did I. Believe it or not we are discussing the same thing,and I am not trying to be combative in any way, but if we are truly trying to create a situation where there is a machine churning out quality films on a regular basis, we need a multitude of things to occur, audience elevation, and marketing being just two of them.

  • CareyCarey | August 31, 2011 10:33 AMReply

    Okay, I’ve been sitting on the sidelines as of late. Well, I’ve been “gone”. The first post I read since last Thursday was this one (and the one in which the majority of the S & A crowd is still vilifying Tyler Perry). Anyway, after reading this one I shook my head in a ball of confusion, yet some said it was great, and I seriously wondered why? Great, in what way; sentence structure, command of the English language... what? As I continued to reading the comments, I ran into the one by bashe... and there it was...

    Bashe said: “The giant elephant in the room—-one that lurks in corners as this site grouses about Tyler Perry’s movies and “buffoonery” and the like—-is social class. Nobody wants to talk about that, because just bringing it up can get you accused of being a sell-out, of not being “unified.”

    UT OH! Now my ears were open as if she were E.F Hutton and I was about to get rich.
    She went on to qualify her opinion starting with the following sentence:

    “There’s a split, the same split white viewers have, between those who’ll go see an art film and those who’d never consider it”

    After reading all of Bashe’s comment/post, I have to agree, it’s a subject that’s seldom talked about. Now I believe Bashe did a great job of bringing the subject to the table, in a very nice and intelligent package. Unfortunately, I don’t harbor her skills, however, I am compelled to carry her message in my own voice, which might get some folks a little upset, but what’s new?

    First, I have to ask the questions, what is the basic purpose of films and why do people spend so much time venting on Tyler Perry? Okay, hold that thought while I move on to this post.

    Andre said:: We have been seduced by a variety of conduits into believing that the business of film is the sole purpose for getting involved in the art of film; that when we make a film and concern ourselves solely with ability of the project to make money we lower our ideals to what we have convinced ourselves is a common denominator and in so doing we make mindless comedies

    Now I say, huuuuuum, mindless comedies, and what exactly is the purpose of films? Really, I’m just asking the question because Andre went on to say..

    Andre: “One of the foreseeable problems with the development of,” a Collard Greens circuit,” for African-American independent film is found in making sure that the films are marketed and exhibited to their target audience”

    Don’t look now b/c that statement takes me right back to Bashe’s big elephant, and we can run but we sure can’t hide. Who is this target audience, and really, what do “they” want to see?

    Besides, Andre talked about.... “we as African-Americans become complacent because the ‘white controlled’ system offers us one or two symbols of African-American success in a particular art-form or medium that, in turn, distracts us from the hundreds or thousands of African-Americans who languish in poverty and obscurity as they zealously pursue their ambitions in that particular art-form or medium”

    Okay, as that relates to films, where are all these thousands of zealous black filmmakers and their products, that he alluded to? Seriously, let’s get seriously serious about what we are working with and first things first. Bashe questioned that issue and I just thought it was worth repeating. Where are all these ambiguous films that everyone wants to see?

    Listen, a “collard green” circuit implies a substandard circuit? Is that where all the “good folks” and anti- Tyler Folks can be found? Who’s in “the” target audience? And, what’s the purpose of films?

    Andre said: “The first and foremost effective means with which we have to combat this problem are African-American film festivals. several African-American film festivals could collectively function like the “chitlin’ circuit” did for African-American playwrights and performers who were not allowed into all white establishments during and after segregation. In effect, these African-American film festivals could form what we might call, ”a Collard Greens circuit,” where challenging, artistically advanced and stimulating films could tour from city to city under a particular festival’s brand name”


    Really! Seriously! Under what “particular festival’s brand name” and who would sit at the head of that table, and who would be invited, and who would be excluded? Challenging? Artistically advanced? Stimulating? Collard Green Circuit? The “chitlin circuit” was not a unified front. It was a circuit of independent businessmen with similar interest, shared goals and common missions. The same can not be said for today’s poppycock gumbo of black filmmakers, black film festivals and the divides (sometime class based) mindset of today’s African Americans.

  • Kia | August 31, 2011 8:16 AMReply

    Meant to say in place of "new" director no Steven Spielberg lol

  • Kia | August 31, 2011 8:14 AMReply

    @Bashe

    You are right on the money... Marketing is the missing link. Imagine the success of the "The Help" w/o the following:
    An already successful book
    New director
    Low key marketing
    more gritty
    No endorsement from TP

    Would it be crossing 100million in box office gross... NO.

    I truly believe and this is like the tenth time I've said this on Shadow and Act alone... Once the script is flawless--always starts w/a script that tells a universal story and have a strong marketing plan starting once pre-production begins or earlier (ex: Matthew Cherry's film The Last Fall--filmmaker's series), then I don't care what color the actors are in your film... people will come and check it out--whether that's during a festival run, theatrical (limited or wide) or VOD.

  • BluTopaz | August 31, 2011 7:48 AMReply

    ITA with Carl Seaton. : Until the audience raises its bar, we will continue to take one step forward and two back."

    re: the bootlegs, there's a guy in my neighborhood (a "projectionist at the theater") who makes the rounds with the bootleg copies and folks eat it up. I understand wanting to save a few bucks, but they don't mind watching poor quality videos of the latest blockbuster sometimes even before the film releases. It's a certain mindset, you really don't mind watching crap.

    That other thread mentioned if many Black people will see Pariah due to the subject matter. Apparently many don't have a problem watching a flick about content Black maids and the White women who care about them, but a thought provoking film about being an outsider (it's not just a gay film) trying to fit into society might offend their sensibilities.

  • bashe | August 31, 2011 7:34 AMReply

    Interesting entry and comments. I’d like to speak to Carl Seaton’s contention that the black audience needs to “elevate its cinematic tastes.” I agree that this is a huge issue, but I disagree that people interested in raising the visibility of black film should spend even one second thinking about trying to do anything about such elevation.

    The giant elephant in the room---one that lurks in corners as this site grouses about Tyler Perry’s movies and “buffoonery” and the like---is social class. Nobody wants to talk about that, because just bringing it up can get you accused of being a sell-out, of not being “unified.” There’s a split, the same split white viewers have, between those who’ll go see an art film and those who’d never consider it. There are millions and millions of white people who have no intention of EVER seeing a film like “Midnight In Paris”; they’re all about the latest live-action comic book hero flick. But since black folk re only 11% of the American population, and, due to the lasting effects of 350 years of both enslavement and legalized second-class status, more of a percentage of us are working-class or below---or first- or second-generation middle class. Obviously, there are working-class or below art-film fans, and middle-class-or-above popcorn-movie fans, but they’re exceptions. Bottom line: Films like “I Will Follow” or “Night Catches Us” don’t have mass appeal---and they never will.

    (Will Packer gave a talk at my daughter’s college in Atlanta last fall, and I attended. [He was great, by the way. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, do so.] He talked a lot about just the sort of issues this blog talks about: DIY, four-walling, using-what-you’ve-got-to-get-what-you-want, etc. During the Q&A I asked him if he thought subject matter made a difference. I specifically asked about “I’m Through with White Girls” and “Medicine for Melancholy.” He quickly admitted that yes, subject matter does matter. The sorts of films I was interested in, he said, don’t have the sort of appeal that would make four-walling successful. I appreciated his candor.)

    Those of us who care about independent black film, those who want access to the films like the four I mentioned in the last two paragraphs have to channel our efforts into what will work. I think the key issue, one that doesn’t get mentioned enough, and I’m delighted that Kevin Williams, below, spoke to it at length, is MARKETING. We’ve got to figure out ways to take a terrific film like “Medicine for Melancholy” and identify those who would enjoy it---yes, black folks, but not just black folks---and make them want to come see it. There’s a difference between somehow, impossibly getting the black viewer to elevate his or her tastes and telling those who already have those tastes (or close to it) about the film (I agree that radio is a great idea) and getting them out to the theater.

  • Carl Seaton | August 31, 2011 6:36 AMReply

    Great piece and the comments as well. That would be great to create a network out of the festivals to introduce, raise awareness, and platform great African American films. AFFRM is definitely on the right path.

    I have a few issues but I will only speak on the most important one that I see. The African American AUDIENCE must step its game up. As Kevin reiterated what Tim Reid said, we don't see buying or sharing bootlegs as a problem. I have friends that buy bootlegs right out side of their churches! Bootlegging directly affects the profit margins for African American films. Also, our audience, meaning the larger demographic has got to want to elevate its cinematic tastes. Having released a film independently, I am fully aware of those that make it difficult to get your film in to theaters, but the shocker was talking directly with moviegoers trying to convince them to give an independent film a chance. They wanted to know who were the stars in it, was it big budget, but the kicker was the fact that we found a guy selling bootlegs of our low budget, no star having indie film in a Harold's Chicken parking lot! And he had already sold 15 copies!!!!
    Today the internet has made it even worse. To get a film made is hard, to get it distributed the "conventional way" is even harder. Studios look at the bottom line which is how much money will a film profit. The Collard Green circuit, created already by Oscar Micheaux could work. If there is a platform set up, a solid promotion and marketing channel, this could be next level.

    Because our films are so few and far between it is evident to me that we as an audience have grown accustomed to seeing a certain kind of film. As long as we look for that monolithic type of film, and don't reach out the box for elevated storytelling, there will be 2-3 African American themed films released every year. Until the audience raises its bar, we will continue to take one step forward and two back.

  • Vaughn | August 31, 2011 6:18 AMReply

    In my opinion the simplest way to help this issue is to launch at least one black themed distributor. I've had a film in a chain theaters, the buyers will book us but they need certain guarantees that as filmmakers we are not good at, a black distributor would handle booking, press, advertising, collection, they would search the festivals and acquire black films for release on all platforms and worldwide, and god forbid maybe even pay an advance so the filmmaker can start his or her next film, also the theaters and other outlets are more likely to do business with this distributor because they will offer them a steady stream of products, not a one off film. I'm sorry did I say simple.

    Vaughn Christion
    reinaproductions

  • Tynicka | August 31, 2011 6:13 AMReply

    It feels like this gentleman has never heard of AFFIRM and the cooperation among the black festivals thats happening already. If you are writing a book on the subject seems you would research and know about that. Hello?

  • Cynthia | August 31, 2011 3:02 AMReply

    Great piece Andre!

  • Kevin J. Williams | August 31, 2011 2:39 AMReply

    No one is stopping anyone from making a film, but people are being stopped from distributing a film. Yes, the Master P/Tyler Perry models work, but you have to have time, openness to get help/hear advice from most anyone, amazing persistence and the willingness to sacrifice greatly to do it.

    As someone in the middle of trying (and struggling) to self-distribute a (black-themed) documentary film right now, I can tell you that the two greatest barriers are the movie theaters and the media press. It is very difficult to book a decent theater at a price you can afford and then pay for the house rental if you are an "indie" filmmaker of any color.

    This is primarily because the theaters themselves cannot or will not advertise your film in their ads (or run your trailer in theater you are renting or "four-walling"), because of their distribution agreements with the Studios/Distributors. Secondly, it is very difficult to get the Press you need especially from larger newspapers. Many large newspapers do not have full-time critics or subscribe to services like Newhouse. If they do have a Critic, it is very difficult to get them to do a review unless you have booked an entire-week run. Who can afford that? Additionally, there are politics involved in covering your film versus the other local events in the area you are showing your film.

    And don't think having an African American newspaper editor will be a plus on your side. We didn't get a dot of ink from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when we had our World Premiere there (25% of our film took place in Atlanta). Their Assigments Editor, who is African American, never gave our DVD to their film critic - and our film, FEAR OF A BLACK REPUBLICAN, is about Black Poltics and Urban America. Why the heck did that happen, especially after the AJ-C film critic asked us to get him the DVD to him RIGHT AWAY (Fed-Ex Charge: $52.00)? We have had much more success with Black-owned and White-owned smaller weekly/"shopper" newspapers. The first "big" White mainstream papers to cover us was in Charlotte, NC and Kansas City, MO. Nothing in Atlanta, Greensboro or Wilmington DE. (But, we did get on a White talk radio station in Wilmington, DE and bought ads on a Gospel station and its sister Hip-Hop station to some effect). BTW, check out radio, don't waste your time on print ads as they are too expensive for the impact they'll have for your screening.

    I'll just close with this: A lot of what I read here is true on many aspects, but not all. The elephant in the room is that the big issue is not the complexion of the filmmakers, it is the stories that are being told. Whether we want to admit this or not, film is a visual medium. Everyone in each demographic can relate more easily to people on screen who look like they do. I think many of the comments here back that up, particularly about marketing overseas. That is why Will Smith is the Biggest Star In The World! But, he makes a lot of money for the trust-fund kids who run Hollywood behind the scenes. Hollywood is nepotism in its highest order.

    One filmmaker who can contribute a lot to this discussion is Tim Reid (best-known as WKRP's Venus Flytrap) who is successful and does quality work from his home base in Virginia. I saw him at the Newark Black Film Festival implore the 300 people there after one of his screenings to NOT BUY BOOTLEGS. He explained how this hurts both up and coming and established filmmakers and never gives them a chance to make another film. If is very true and we need to get everyone to stop buying bootlegs and pirated films. How do we do that?

    One very last thing, I promise: As a filmmaker, you can't make money on VOD yet, even if you have a distributor. The margins are too low and the usage isn't there yet for volume. And Netflix & Amazon - not much more there either.
    DIY is the way to go for now. I like the BlackFlix idea, but are White Guys like me allowed if they make a "Black Film" that Producers/Distributors can't see the market for or are afraid to touch?

    Good Luck and Best Wishes to Everyone. Don't let anyone else stop you from making your movie! (See BADASS! about Melvin Van Peebles.) And support other Independent Filmmakers.

    Kevin J. Williams
    Director/Co-Producer,
    FEAR OF A BLACK REPUBLICAN
    www.fearofablackrepublican.com
    Trenton, NJ

  • illthoughts | August 31, 2011 1:45 AMReply

    I've been depressed about this for years. It's 2011 and there is less black film in theaters than it was ten years ago. We need to think differently. How about Netflix type of model where we can pay to stream these movies that don't have a chance in hell to make it to the theater? The production company can make a deal directly with the streaming service and possibly make more money than just having it play in a few select cities around the country. I would love to start up a Blackflix and start this, problem is I'm not that smart.

  • lamont pierré | August 31, 2011 1:41 AMReply

    It is indeed a great time to be an indie filmmaker --especially an African American indie filmmaker. When I started making films 10 years ago, I would have never dreamed that I would one day be making a feature film outside of the studio system with the intent of going after theatrical distribution, however limited. It's always been my mantra that I was not going to sit around waiting for the opportunity to be heard or, more importantly, to express myself creatively through film. I am so proud of my peers who are having success outside of the model that years ago we were told we had to find our way through, even though it is not a model set up for our art and our voices. And no, we don't have the latitude to take artistic risks, which is all the more reason to go and do what we want and toss aside "their" roadblocks. Sometimes you can make a change from inside, but I'm committed to the "Master P" model of independent capitalism and making "them" come to me. The streets have always set the trends. That will never change. So, I say, streets keep talking.

  • vc | August 31, 2011 1:40 AMReply

    I think this article is spot on, long winded but on point, one thing, why channel the profits into prize money instead of simply cutting the film makers a piece of the pie?

  • Dui Jarrod | August 31, 2011 1:28 AMReply

    This is brilliant and great perspective. Our journey is so difficult as filmmakers and it is writing and substance like this, that absolutely support us and what we intend to share with our audience.

  • Laura | August 31, 2011 1:25 AMReply

    @ Lamont

    Yes this is a great time to be a filmmaker. I gave up the idea of doing film many years ago. With the advent of digital technology and communications I decided to pick up my pen and camera. I'm starting all over again.

    I whole heartedly agree with his first paragraph. Many individual African-American/Black folks don't look at racism from a institutional level. Therefore we won't come together and create strategies to shield us and help us flourish under the attacks.

    This usually means putting our egos to the side and submerging our individuals wants under the collective needs. This is difficult for many of us for a multitude of reasons.

    However if the strategies are sound and executed correctly can have much greater impact than all our individual efforts. Not only that but what we do will have long reaching effects.

    ****Getting on my soapbox****

    "Under these pernicious circumstances we can no longer afford to blame the African-American filmmaker for not making a more marketable product since the product that Hollywood does not want to market are African-American films that challenge the racial representations that have always contributed handsomely to its bottom line. We have to realize that all of the African-American films which we are not seeing are a direct consequence of the “chosen few” that are being placed in front of us to block our view."

    That is why I consistently call BULLSHIT on the "truism" that African/Black-American films can not do well oversees.

    You mean to tell me that our music influence world culture, our language influence the world and our visual styles has influence fashion and fine arts but film that can incorporate all three elements can not. On top of that how many millions of "cullud folks" are in the world. That is so illogical I think I'm about to develop an aneurysm.

    Quite frankly, I'll wager that African/Black American film will do the opposite. It would out perform many white films because the cultural foundation of African aesthetic have been laid out world wide. We just do not have the apparatus/institutions for getting our films out there.

    ****Getting of the Soapbox****

    @Tynicka

    Yeah I would have liked if the author have mentioned AAFRM. It is a model we can look up to. However it does not take away the validity of his argument. We need to start experimenting on ways of marketing and distributing. Its not only a great time to be a filmmaker it may also be a great time to enter the business of filmmaking.

    Psss. I heard that Transmedia is a new forum that story tellers are using to getting their stories out.

  • Denise | August 31, 2011 1:11 AMReply

    What about a pay per stream model? I would love to see a site that distributes this content online especially since I no longer live in a central location. There is little to no chance that I will be able to get to a theatrical release but I would pay to stream this stuff.

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