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Where's The Trickle Down? Relying On The Financial Help Of Wealthy Whites Or Reinvesting In Ourselves?

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by Courtney
November 19, 2012 10:43 AM
32 Comments
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Here's an excerpt from a summary of an event at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business on Friday, where Robert Johnson gave a speech about his rise to success:

I fundamentally believe that if there were more John Malones in this society, there would be more Bob Johnsons,” Johnson said. He said that society needed to find a way to make capital access more available to black businesspeople. “It is becoming more and more difficult to gain access to capital and not because of scarcity of capital,” he said. “There is a trillion dollars sloshing around this economy, but none of it is blowing our way.” He believes that in many situations, black people and other minorities just need the opportunity to get their foot in the door. “My story is because someone in the white community said, ‘I want to back this young African- American guy on this idea called BET,’” he said. “It was a real roll of the dice kind of gamble. But somebody did that, and it paid off.” He said that as he is nearing the end of his career, he wants to see more black and minority Americans prove to the broader society that they deserve the right to manage and create value out of the wealth of the nation.

That got me thinking about many of the conversations we've had and continue to have on this site, especially about power, ownership and influence in this industry. 

I could be reading too much into it, but the sentiment I get is that Johnson is stressing the fact that a rich white man in John Malone invested in him, a black man with promise, and that this is the kind of thing we need to see happen more often if black people are to participate in the broader financial success stories of this country.

So essentially, reiterating the idea that white people have the money and power, and that we (black people) may need them in order climb that ladder of success - especially those who want to be owners and power players themselves.

I feel like this goes against a lot of what we discuss here at S&A about the need for *US,* black people, to invest in ourselves; meaning that there are more than enough black people in this business (or in the business world in general) with their hands in some of that trillion dollars he says is sloshing around the economy, that instead of the John Malone's of the world investing in us, those black people whose bank accounts are overflowing (like a Robert Johnson for example), should be investing in up-and-coming black business people who've shown promise and have a track record.

Although to his credit, the summary says that Johnson *invented* what he calls the "RLJ Rule to give back," which states that companies should interview at least one minority applicant for any position at or above the director level; but of course it's all voluntarily. Companies aren't forced by law to do so.

“I’m not asking for any form of reverse discrimination, but I just have to live with the facts,” he said. “If you can’t get access to pursue your dream, you will not be able to be competitive.”

That's true, but other than *inventing* this rule to give back, I think we'd all like to see Johnson do for up-and-coming black entrepreneurs what John Malone did for him. Although maybe he has, and he isn't shouting it from rooftops.

But my point here is really to ask if this is popular thinking among *US,* black people. When it comes to the film industry, are we waiting for white folks to help us out, or are we looking to those black people with power and influence to do that for us? 

I think of one example in Lee Daniels, when he was trying to get funding for Precious. Long story short, white millionaires funded the film. And then what happened after the film was made, and it was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival? Two prominent and very rich black celebrities in Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry came onboard as "executive producers."

My question to them would be, where were they when Lee Daniels was trying to raise money to get the film made?

And we've seen this kind of thing happen more than once. 

I know I'm probably beating a dead horse on this site (I know Tambay has called for some kind of black-owned and operated film studio in the past) when I say that I'd love to see Oprah and Tyler (or anyone else at their level, or close to it) team up and create some kind of a financing company specifically to finance films by black filmmakers, especially indie black filmmakers. I think it actually reflects negatively on US when we have to go ask white people for money, when we have black people who have the money to give/loa/invest.

Just my take on the whole thing, spurred on by what Robert Johnson said above.

Your take?

You can read the full report of Johnson's talk HERE.

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32 Comments

  • ALM | November 22, 2012 6:05 PMReply

    "He said that as he is nearing the end of his career, he wants to see more black and minority Americans prove to the broader society that they deserve the right to manage and create value out of the wealth of the nation."<<< This is one of the key problems with this type of discourse. Black Americans are always being asked to PROVE themselves, while other people are consistently allowed to make flop after flop without having to PROVE themselves. Black people don't need to prove anything to anyone but themselves.

    "....Johnson *invented* what he calls the "RLJ Rule to give back," which states that companies should interview at least one minority applicant for any position at or above the director level...."<<< This "rule" he "invented" is absolutely WORTHLESS. You can interview 15 people of color for one slot, but if you never actually hire any of them or never greenlight their projects, then you are still at square one.

    "When it comes to the film industry, are we waiting for white folks to help us out, or are we looking to those black people with power and influence to do that for us?" <<< I think that there are filmmakers who fall into both categories. At the end of the day, I believe that film makers should take a page from both Ava Duvernay (with regards to quality of her work and her revolutionary business model) & Tyler Perry (with regard to his business model). Both have been able to make feature films for little or nothing. I think we have to release the mind set that we need $25 million in order to make a film. We have to save up to make the $500,000 films and market/advertise relentlessly via low cost forms- i.e. blogs, Facebook, Flyers, etc. Then later we can make the $50 million film. I believe that Ava will be making multi-million dollar films in the future. The thing is, she's so good that she doesn't even need a big budget.

  • Donella | November 20, 2012 6:25 PMReply

    I recommend Nollywood--Nigerian film industry for financing. And then perhaps financiers in the Middle East. The richest people of African descent are not in America. They are in Africa.

  • anon | November 22, 2012 12:32 PM

    Wow ive been talking about nollywood for years now finally people are getting it!
    how do you think that europe gets financing for their films that aren't small budget? they go to white hollywood of -its a no brainer; the expertise of aa film making matched by the finacial muscle of africa!

  • Donella | November 20, 2012 8:41 PM

    And they don't seem to wait for White approval.

  • Rod | November 20, 2012 12:51 AMReply

    The thing is, investing in movies is like investing in anything else. People need to know they're getting a return. It would make more sense for black filmmakers to start with films the mainstream will like, like a comedy or an action movie. Tom Hanks started with Bachelor Party and Big before doing Forrest Gump and Apollo 13. And nobody would have seen Lost in Translation if Bill Murray didn't do Stripes. Once you're a known commodity, you're less of a risk. Look at Issa Rae. She's done amazing things on YouTube. And now she and Shonda Rimes have an upcoming sitcom. I really believe black filmmakers netted to get their art to the masses and make a name for themselves so they can get support from smart investors rather than hoping their artsy projects get funding by benevolent millionaires.

  • Troy | November 20, 2012 2:31 AM

    Apples to oranges much. Feature films to a web series

  • NO BRAINER | November 20, 2012 12:39 AMReply

    "or are we looking to those black people with power and influence to do that for us?" asks Courtney. Well, if this is true, no wonder not enough of us are doing it big in this business. If black people wait on other black people to eat, they will starve. Black people are big on faith, probably one of the most church going race of people in America. But black people also need to "see to believe," which is kind of ironic considering our faith in the unseen. And until black people see one of their own doing it BIG, they don't show support. Perfect example, the Lee Daniel's story behind Precious: The two prominent black people wait until all the hard work is done, with the backing of white millionaires, and the film winning numerous accolades from the white establishment. Black people go as far as to telling ourselves to love the film because the white establishment found it to be exceptional filmmaking. Let the film have been limited to the black community's praise, only screening or even winning at American Black Film Festival, Urbanworld, or Pan-African Film Festival, etc., only to be distributed by Codeblack at 4 theaters or so, black people would've hated the movie... including Oprah. The film would've been accused of being stereotypical and degrading, which to some degree it is. Then you have the blacks that need to know you, maybe love you, in order to invest their time in helping you in some sort of way. It's never about business with these types. They limit themselves to their cliques and tell everyone else to go to hell. Of course, they're not immune to the seduction of the white establishment's approval. Get into Cannes and Sundance and even they will come around eventually, when it's too late of course. Let's not forget the crabs in the barrel, which is prevalent amongst blacks. So, if you're waiting for black people, then I hope you brought a lot to read and a thousand game apps on your I-Pad to play as you while away the time. You're in for the never ending wait in that waiting room. I say, get it where you can, doesn't matter the color.

  • Orville | November 19, 2012 11:19 PMReply

    There are black people doing good in Hollywood trying to reach back and give back.
    Well this is one of the reasons Tyler Perry really deserves more respect on Shadow and Act. The black snobs say Tyler is a terrible filmmaker and blah blah blah. However, Tyler is using his money to help blacks and other minorities in Hollywood get work! Tyler Perry also owns his own studio were he can consolidate his power. Shonda Rhimes is also doing her part if it wasn't for Shonda and her success there is no way in hell Hollywood would allow Kerry Washington a black actress to be the lead on a mainstream network with Scandal. So I tip my hat to Shonda and Tyler Perry they have done a lot for black entertainers in Hollywood. Oprah is another person that deserves respect if it wasn't for her Zora Neale Hurston's book Their Eyes Were Watching God would not be made into a successful television film. Oprah has also done a lot to help black female writers like Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston to reach a wider audience with her telefilms ect.

  • ALM | November 22, 2012 6:14 PM

    @ Orville: I have to agree with you on this, especially the part about Shonda Rhimes.

  • Charles Judson | November 19, 2012 9:37 PMReply

    If you want to investigate what's possible in the modern world of film finance, you need to look at companies like Relativity Media or Legendary Pictures. It's not the individuals, it's the companies that are most important. Dreamworks was started by 3 of the most powerful men in entertainment and only the animation side ever took off and was truly successful. The structure is just as important as the who. However, the Legendary Pictures side of the equation also means playing in the Wall Street sandbox and having to be just as wary of what the financial section of the newpapers are saying as much as what the Friday night box office returns were. In the current climate, what Robert Johnson is alluding to with the trillions floating around is true, it's how many of the newest players in Hollywood got into the game in the last 10 years. It's also true it's not going our way. However, how many folks are building anything that remotely resembles Relativity or Legendary. Part of it is due to systematic barriers. Part of it is just the hard truth that very few people of any hue are able to secure $500 million in equity financing. I would also look to see who are the distributors that are currently most successful, even on an indie scale. Most of the cats who took a film made for $20k, $100k or $1 million movies and turned them into a decent success have aged out because it's near impossible to get most films to $1 million theatrically in the current era. So is the future of Black film in examples like Cinetic and cross platforming? Or elsewhere? Is theatrical still even the dream we should be chasing? Lots to mull over and a number of questions to be answered and more that need to be raised.

  • Charles Judon | November 20, 2012 8:05 AM

    @TROY Are you only talking about online films? Or online and VOD? "Indie films, finding it harder to compete at the box office, are turning to video on demand. 'Bachelorette' made $418,000 in theaters, $5.5 million in VOD rentals." "Without early VOD releasing, such recent indie films as Kevin Spacey's financial crisis drama 'Margin Call' -- expected to double its $4 million domestic box office through on-demand rentals -- would face a tough road to profitability. Likewise, Lars von Trier's latest, 'Melancholia' -- which is on pace to gross $2 million via VOD vs. between $2 to $3 million in domestic art houses -- is connecting with home audiences in a way that the polarizing film might not have been able to otherwise." http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/05/entertainment/la-et-ct-video-on-demand-20121006 http://www.thewrap.com/movies/article/vod-rescue-how-one-format-saving-indie-film-33085

  • troy | November 20, 2012 2:27 AM

    Jumping the shark on the newer platforms because millions of people are not paying $10 to watch (a) movie online yet.

  • Blackman | November 19, 2012 9:22 PMReply

    This NEGATIVE so-called systemic Black behavior is a LEARNED pattern. If you check YOUR Black History, you will find that White folks pervasively undermined Blacks at every available opportunity. Nowdayz, even YOU PEOPLE, will not buy Black. Yet, you got the timidity to pass judgment on Rich Folks that are trying to Spread their LOVE. John Johnson is a SELLOUT. Moreover, Black Sports athletes are CONSISTENTLY being SWINDLED. Hell, WallStreet is a Casino and a racket. and to "truthaccordingtotorey.blogspot.com"

    ( I still however, do believe if you work hard on your dream, invest in yourself, the right folks will eventually hear about you! Here is a link to the blog I wrote today http://thetruthaccordingtotrey.blogspot.ca/2012/11/monday-motivation-money-talks.html), ....meritocracy is something that Black folks believe. It STILL IS about who you KNOW to help you over those HUGE obstacles that come so easily to White folks.

  • Burp | November 21, 2012 5:33 PM

    the word is temerity not timidity....

  • willie dynamite | November 19, 2012 5:59 PMReply

    People, please stop with the delusions of grandeur regarding a film collective funded by wealthy blacks. Black folks have no solidarity and jump on something once it has obtained critical acclaim or popularity. The crabs in the bucket mentality has not left us. The biggest issue is that we have no mentorial infrastructure. Knowledge and resources are rarely passed down which forces every generation to start from scratch. Filmmakers, get your financing however you can!

  • burp | November 21, 2012 5:35 PM

    People, please stop with the delusions of grandeur regarding a film collective funded by wealthy blacks. Black folks have no solidarity and jump on something once it has obtained critical acclaim or popularity. The crabs in the bucket mentality has not left us. The biggest issue is that we have no mentorial infrastructure. Knowledge and resources are rarely passed down which forces every generation to start from scratch. Filmmakers, get your financing however you can!

    I agree with you 150%....unfortunate but true..

  • Phil | November 21, 2012 12:55 PM

    JMAC makes good points although I would use the term subsidy rather than charity. From what little research I've done, it seems only the Hollywood and French film industries are self-sustaining. All other film markets receive subsidies from their local governments. If true, the AA film industry has to come to terms with this and follow suit. Unfortunately for us, we have no government to turn to and will need to come up with an alternative to fill the gap. I would suggest some type of program where we would work with companies and, for each product sold, a portion of the proceeds would go to fund one of the AA film foundations.

  • willie dynamite | November 20, 2012 12:09 PM

    No one has forgotten about what Spike did for Get on the bus, but that was in 1996... or Malcolm X in 1992. And this was all after his Oscar nomination for the screenplay of Do the Right Thing, where Spike had already received critical acclaim. Any filmmaker knows the financing component is a hustle in and to itself, but seeking out black investors is on another level of frustration, despite having soild business plans that include the production AND the distribution agenda, using global festivals like Fespaco or role models like Fred Williamson who has been selling his films in FOREIGN markets for years. Black filmmakers have to use alternative methods to distribute. We can not buy in to the Sundance darling fantasy - where you get in to sundance and get a big multi million dollar acquisition. You are correct Jmac in that film is considered a bad investment, that is why you strengthen your business plan with elements like a cast of familiars, or non blacks, and a smaller budget, and a whole lot of faith.

  • Donella | November 19, 2012 7:58 PM

    Spike Lee also turned to "Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Janet Jackson, Prince, etc" to complete Malcolm X. But that was after Warner Brothers shut down production.

  • JMac | November 19, 2012 7:49 PM

    Somebody's forgotten about the "black film collective" Spike Lee went to in order to release Get on the Bus. They were all black millionaire businessmen. The issue is not so much the lack of black investors or their so-called crabs in barrel mentality [how many collaborations have been mentioned on this site?] but films are very, very high risk. Odds that you'll get your money back - esp. with black indies - are basically nil. It couldn't be an investment club but a film charity so there is no expectation of getting a return on the investment. How many businessmen of any color would be interested in that? There would have to be blockbuster films mixed in or else it'll just be money down the drain. That in turn would mean they'd have to build up an overseas market - can't get big bucks in the US alone - which (I'm guessing) is not there presently w/o major white hollywood studio assistance. Whole lot of effort and money for something that isn't even on the top ten list of problems the black community needs to deal with right now.

  • jeni | November 19, 2012 3:09 PMReply

    Good post. Aren't there any black venture capitalists out there investing in something other than IT?

  • Phil | November 19, 2012 2:37 PMReply

    Courtney, can we not talk about how to spend Oprah and Tyler's money? It is a defeatist approach to solving the issue in front of us.

  • Phil | November 21, 2012 11:25 AM

    "...I'd love to see Oprah and Tyler (or anyone else at their level, or close to it) team up and create some kind of a financing company specifically to finance films by black filmmakers..."
    Instead of Courtney writing about what Courtney can do to resolve the issue, she (or he) takes the easy way out and says what others should do. Unfortunately, most of the commenters follow the same approach. & what Oprah and Tyler did with Precious is standard industry practice. Happens all the time with independent films.

  • NO BRAINER | November 20, 2012 12:54 AM

    Tell it? He's not talking about HOW to spend their money. He's merely pointing out HOW they use their resources and clout for other black up-and-comers only when the white establishment has already backed them and showered them with accolades.

  • bondgirl | November 19, 2012 2:52 PM

    Tell it!

  • trey anthony da kink in my hair | November 19, 2012 12:52 PMReply

    Funny enough I just wrote a blog about this same issue this morning, talking about investing in my own work and dreams.... I do think there is another money in "black hollywood" to make projects happen but the access to "black hollywood" is extremely hard for up and coming artists of color. I wish there was some sort of alliance or some sort of system created that could help independent artist gain access to those with power, money, and influence. I still however, do believe if you work hard on your dream, invest in yourself, the right folks will eventually hear about you! Here is a link to the blog I wrote today http://thetruthaccordingtotrey.blogspot.ca/2012/11/monday-motivation-money-talks.html

  • Rodney | November 19, 2012 12:21 PMReply

    It could be argued that Michael Milken gave Reginald Lewis, the great black '80's entrepreneur, the financial backing to acquire Beatrice International, a deal that put Lewis on the map.
    Interestingly enough, Lewis, was contemplating a run at Paramount Pictures. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away before he did anything about it.

  • ALM | November 22, 2012 6:07 PM

    Wow. The story about Reginald Lewis is tragic.

  • Grizz | November 19, 2012 11:59 AMReply

    The answer to your question is simple. Those rich Black folk with the power and resources to help another Black person make a project don't do it because they are scared, period. In your example of Lee Daniels, Oprah couldn't fund his film at that stage of the game because the perceived risk was too high, even though she probably liked it, she would back away and wait to see how it was received by White folk before investing. She would dread the notion she was putting money into black films that were not commercially successful and didn't a thumbs up from other rich White people. She is not concerned about making content just because African Americans are under represented in the media. They also lack vision; you build a demand for content by making good stuff, creating our own thing and they will come to you. Just like we did with Hip Hop.

  • NO BRAINER | November 20, 2012 1:02 AM

    "In your example of Lee Daniels, Oprah couldn't fund his film at that stage of the game because the perceived risk was too high, even though she probably liked it, she would back away and wait to see how it was received by White folk before investing," says GRIZZ. The reason why we fail.

  • NO BRAINER | November 20, 2012 12:58 AM

    Hmm. Beloved was her own project, her own baby. When it comes to Oprah using her clout to make a black film, don't mentioned Beloved.

  • Rodney | November 19, 2012 12:17 PM

    I believe Oprah lost a TON of money on Beloved (which she financed). So I don't blame her for being gun shy, assuming she was even approached for money in the first place. I recall reading an article about Gary and Sarah Magness, who financed Precious. They met Lee Daniels when he was raising money for the film he directed right before Precious. So the money might have already been spoken for by the time Oprah entered the picture.

    How about this for serendipity: the Magnesses inherited their weath from father Bob Magness, who founded TCI, the larget cable system operator before it was sold to AT&T. Bob Magness hired John Malone to run TCI. As CEO of TCI, Malone gave Bob Johnson start up capital for BET.

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