Sunday, January 9, 2011

Toward African American Film

There's an article in the Times today about a plan to:

...put black-theme movies in commercial theaters, initially from the independent film program recently begun by the AMC theater chain, for a two-week run supported by social networks, mailing lists and other buzz-building services at the disposal of allied ethnic film festivals.

Hmm... seems like we've heard this kind of distribution scheme before. It would be awesome if it worked. But I'm afeared it just won't.

I do think a mistake is being made in assuming that "black-theme" movies are a genre. There was a market a while back for movies aimed at an African American audience. What was that, about 10 years ago? You could actually make a little bit of money in direct-to-DVD pictures in all sorts of genres (rom-coms, thrillers, action pictures) with "black-themes" (and yes, I'm refusing to not put that in quotes) back in the good old days.

But gay-themed pictures as well as black-themed pictures (there, no quotes) have fallen by the wayside. And I suspect that even if they've only fallen proportionally about as far as everything else has in this business, it's pretty danged far.

Heck, the horror genre, which has the most dedicated fans, has taken a mighty tumble.

So I don't know if very many pictures specifically marketed toward African Americans will do well anymore. You're taking a gamble that members of a particular ethnic group feel so starved to see their own ethnic group represented in whatever sort of story you want to tell that enough of them will pay to see your picture. It seems to me that the heyday for "black-themed" movies came and went*.

The films will not be part of normal festival programs, but will screen in all cities simultaneously with promotional backing from the festival organizations, which will share in revenue.
Hmm... so the distributor is taking an cut and the film festivals are taking a cut? That so doesn't sound to me like the producer gets to take a cut at all. This model of distribution has been tried both with horror pictures (are the "8 Films to Die For" even in theaters anymore or do they just do straight to DVD now?) and art-house films (the entire IFC model, which makes some money for IFC but I ain't heard of a success which paid for the cost of making the picture out of proceeds from IFC distribution.)

And it seems to me that a separate "African American" cinema might also be having a problem with its audience. Yes, the Tyler Perry pictures do well. But the wall between "white-themed" cinema and "black-themed" cinema is not as high as it was in the 1950's (say), and in some ways arguably the barrier effectively doesn't exist (for black male actors at least, if not directors and writers). But more than that it may be that there is enough cinema to satisfy an audience which wants "black-themed" pictures (after all, there's almost a hundred years of black-themed pictures to watch.) This seems to have happened to everyone else (gay film, Latino film, etc.) so I wouldn't be surprised to find that there is a degree of saturation which has occurred with black-themed films.

Because after all, saturation even (finally) happened to horror films.

Billy Dee Williams was originally screen tested for the role of Han Solo. 
Still, I sure hope that "Blackdance" is phenomenally successful. But hope and faith are two different things.

*Actually, that day came way back when movies were first invented and that day stayed right up through the early 2000's. There has almost always been a "black film industry" in America which produced pictures by and for African Americans. What I'm suggesting here is that the economics of the entire industry affect "black-themed" pictures as well as what we might call "white-themed" pictures.

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