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Straight-to-video gives new life to black films

Minority filmmakers finding audience, profits in DVD market
/ Source: The Associated Press

Everyone in movies wants to see their work on the big screen. Yet many black independent filmmakers have found a more profitable and impactful venue that had long been considered the kiss of death: straight-to-video.

Even before the surging popularity of DVDs led major Hollywood studios to focus on the home video market, black filmmakers saw the advantage there. Not only could they target their films directly to an underserved audience, but with lower budgets and overhead, they stood a better chance of making money.

“It’s the best way to go,” says Carl Seaton, a Los Angeles writer-director. His 2000 melodrama, “One Week,” got a limited theatrical release and decent reviews (the “New York Times” called it “scrappy and earnest”). Still, he’s opted to go direct to DVD next year with his feature “Sacred,” starring the rapper Nas.

“It costs so much money to release a film theatrically,” says Seaton, who made “Sacred” for $300,000, which he financed himself. “If you’ve shot your film on a small enough budget, you can make money very quickly on rental and retail sales, and Hollywood Video and Blockbuster [are] buying large amounts of product.”

Most of these “urban films” aren’t likely to come to a theater near you. The genre typically includes movies made for and by blacks, be it youth-oriented hip-hop fare, highbrow documentaries or adult-themed dramas with recognizable TV personalities.

Filmmakers of all ethnicities have gone straight-to-video for years. But black films were among the first to prove this market was more than a dumping ground, and they have subsequently paved the way for other genres traditionally shut out of theaters.

“We’ve seen a huge growth in product coming out of the Latin market and South Asia, specifically India — the whole Bollywood phenomenon,” said Nick Shepherd, chief of marketing and merchandising for Blockbuster, from his Dallas headquarters. “There is now a big requirement to stock our shelves in certain demographics with certain localized tastes.”

Big market in direct-to-DVDEthnic genres are part of the booming $2 billion direct-to-DVD market. But on their own, they’re considered too risky for major Hollywood investment.

“If it doesn’t appeal worldwide, it isn’t important to the big studios,” says film distributor Doug Schwab, president of Maverick Entertainment and controlling partner of the production company Breakaway Films.

Schwab, a former buyer for Blockbuster, says he jumped into the urban video market six years ago when “there were only one or two video labels releasing African-American product, and African-Americans were the No. 1 demographic group.”

Schwab’s companies annually produce up to 15 films (budgeted under $1 million) and distribute 48 black and Latino titles a year. Among them: “Senorita Justice” with Edith Gonzalez and Tito Puente, Jr. and “My Big Phat Hip Hop Family” starring comedian Reynaldo Rey, sitcom veteran Anna Maria Horsford and rapper Choppa for Breakaway Films.

Schwab is currently bidding against three other companies to distribute “Game Over,” a martial arts film featuring Daz Crawford (“Blade 2”) and stuntman Andre “Chyna” McCoy (“The Matrix”) by freshman producer Kasim Saul.

“Everything in the studio system is designed to slow you down,” says Saul, a New York actor who found little work in L.A. outside of commercials and TV guest spots. “If the door is shut to you, you can sit and stare at the door or you can gather the troops.”

It wasn’t so long ago that “straight-to-video” were three dirty words no filmmaker wanted to hear. But these days it could be the difference between life and death for films like Tim Reid’s 1998 self-financed drama “Asunder,” starring Blair Underwood, or “Pandora’s Box,” starring model Tyson Beckford, Monica Calhoun (“Love & Basketball”) and Kristoff St. John (“Young & The Restless”) shot for a reported $800,000. It had a limited theatrical run in 2002.

“I’d see great films at festivals that never had a life after the festival, before these straight-to-video deals,” says writer-director Carol Mayes from her home in Los Angeles. Her romance “Commitments,” with Victoria Dillard and Allen Payne, aired last year on the BET cable network before it went to video. “Now at least these films will have a life, a forever life. The bottom line is to get your film seen by any means necessary.”

“The world has changed,” says Andy Reimer, vice president of acquisitions for DEJ Productions. DEJ distributed Eric LaSalle’s 2002 directorial effort “Crazy As Hell,” a thriller starring Michael Beach (“Third Watch”). It also produced the recent hip-hop Western “Gang of Roses” starring Stacey Dash (“Clueless”), rapper Lil Kim, singer Bobby Brown and LisaRaye McCoy (“The It Factor”).

“The video business has grown to the extent that more money is generated, not just for companies that rely on lots of straight-to-video releases, but the major studios throw out a lot more money now for video than they do for theatrical distribution,” Reimer says.

Indies not created equal
Of course, not all independent films are created equal. Budgets range from $75,000 to $2 million, with tight shooting schedules that call for lickety-split decisions.

St. John of “Pandora’s Box” says his director “couldn’t take a lot of time to set up his shots because we were working under such a strenuous five to six week shooting schedule. He had to take pretty much what he got after the first couple of takes.”

“It’s guerrilla filmmaking,” says McCoy, who has become one of today’s most recognizable up-and-coming black actresses and currently co-stars on UPN TV comedy “All of Us,” produced by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.

With a starring role in the 1998 Ice Cube-directed hit “The Players Club,” an appearance in the 1999 sleeper “The Wood” and now in Neema Barnette’s $500,000 babes-behind-bars DVD release “Civil Brand,” McCoy’s career has straddled quality productions and third-rate pictures where “we didn’t have any trailers.”

On one set, McCoy said, “we had a little place that had a seat in it. A seat. And you’d be there all day and you didn’t have the quality food you need to be on a film set for 12 to 14 hours. It was terrible.”

No matter how dubious (one reviewer labeled “Civil Brand” a “muckraking mess”), such films have given McCoy visibility.

“It was about getting the experience,” McCoy says in a phone interview from the “All of Us” set in Studio City. “Directors and casting people know what to look for even if the quality of the film is not there.”

But well-produced movies are becoming increasingly important as the market has been quickly “oversaturated with too much low-priced, low-budget, low-production-value urban product,” says Scott Hettrick, editor-in-chief of “DVD Exclusive” magazine. “There was a sudden craze for hip-hop (movies) and now we’re back to where consumers are a little more selective about what they enjoy.”

“The good news,” Hettrick added, “is that this is a whole new category in programming that now exists.”

“The goal is just to keep making films,” says Seaton, “to keep working and to be able to survive in this craft.”