April 12, 2006
Film company aims to change black image in US
By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Pimps, prostitutes and thugs often
have big parts in Hollywood movies set in black America, but if
Jeff Clanagan succeeds, audiences may soon see a greater number
of smart, independent films about mainstream African-American
distribute films like "Preaching to the Choir," a drama that
played at festivals in 2005 and debuts in 150 commercial
theaters on Friday.
"Preaching to the Choir" stars Tichina Arnold from TV's
"Everybody Hates Chris" and tells of a rap singer with a big
hit who goes home, rediscovers his roots and finds romance.
Industry players said Clanagan has a hard road ahead to
build a company that acquires or produces low-budget films in
the hope of making a breakout hit like recent Oscar-winner
But Clanagan, 45, is determined to deliver true-to-life
black American stories to fans who often see stereotypical
characters in comedies like "Big Momma's House 2" or gangland
dramas such as "Get Rich or Die Tryin'."
"The studios are stuck in the mode of comedy or gangsta.
There other types of stories, and my objective is to find those
movies and give those independent filmmakers an outlet and a
Clanagan started in show business promoting rap and hip hop
concerts for acts like LL Cool J and Ice Cube. Eventually he
moved into film and television production, then became
president of video and DVD distributor UrbanWorks.
CHANGING THE PICTURE
Industry experts said quality dramas about black Americans
are rarely seen commercially because Hollywood focuses on films
that must attract enough ticket sales to justify production
budgets of $40 million or $50 million. Typically those movies
are broad comedies and crime thrillers that, if accurate at
all, represent a very small part of African-American life.
"The embrace of these heavy urban scenarios and of them
being the only viewpoint of black life, I find very disturbing
and it paints a very counterproductive picture," said Gil
Robertson, a syndicated columnist and president of the African
American Film Critics Association.
Independent films with mainstream portrayals of urban life
most often play at festivals. If lucky, they might be shown in
art houses or on a small screen at a megaplex. But for the most
part, even independent film backers and distributors have
shunned middle-road movies about black America.
One exception is Lionsgate Entertainment, which released
"Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Madea's Family Reunion" and
made $50 million and $63 million respectively. On April 28, it
plans to release "Akeelah and the Bee," about a black girl
vying for a spot at the National Spelling Bee.
Like Lionsgate, Clanagan sees an underserved market and he
said his business background and ties to black America should
help sell tickets to his movies.
"We're in the community. We employ people in the community
and we have a certain type of access," he said. "We can reach
our audience more effectively than studios can."
Already, he has secured a co-distribution and marketing
deal with Radio One, an urban-oriented network that reaches 13
million people from 69 broadcast stations in 22 U.S. cities.