4/6/2004



African-American filmmakers


By Polly Delaney


"I'm black and have been in some positions of so-called power for some time now," says Yvette Lee Bowser, with a smile in her voice.

Since grabbing the reins of ABC sitcom "Hanging With Mr. Cooper," Bowser has had a show on the air every year. Her latest creation, "Half & Half," anchors UPN's Monday night lineup, with some 3.1 million viewers tuning in on a good week. "We were hot in the early '90s and here we are, hot again," she says of black scribes.

A recent report by the WGA supports Bowser's optimism. Across the board, the number of minority writers working in primetime television is up 13% from 10% in 2001. In fact, in all walks of the industry -- from feature films to television to the executive suite -- a new generation of talented professionals is bursting into the spotlight.

Be it up-and-coming directors such as Jeff Byrd (the upcoming "King's Ransom") and Bryan Barber (HBO Films' upcoming OutKast project), or production and development professionals, entertainment attorneys and agents, the black outlook in the entertainment industry is bright.

Of course, there is still plenty of ground to cover. African-Americans account for approximately 12% of the U.S. population, but blacks in the executive ranks account for an even slimmer sliver of the pie. Arguably, the number of high-ranking black executives in the ranks of the entertainment industry lag behind other arenas, such as business and politics.

"I don't think African-Americans wield nearly as much clout in Hollywood as they wield in other disciplines," says public radio and talk show host Tavis Smiley, citing Merrill Lynch chairman and CEO Stan O'Neal, American Express chairman and CEO Ken Chenault, Time Warner chairman and CEO Richard Parsons, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as examples.

However, thanks to a recent string of boxoffice success stories, there's no question that blacks are wielding more of that all-important clout. Last year, F. Gary Gray's "The Italian Job" made more than $100 million and was Paramount's highest-grossing 2003 release. More recently, Kevin Rodney Sullivan's "Barbershop 2: Back in Business" (MGM) opened at $25.1 million, almost 22% higher than the $20.6 million opening of MGM's original "Barbershop" comedy in 2002. The sequel has since gone on to gross more than $62.6 million.

Antoine Fuqua helms producer Jerry Bruckheimer's "King Arthur," a July release that distributor Buena Vista is hoping will become a breakout hit on par with 2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." This fall, Newmarket will release producer Lee Daniels' follow-up to 2001's "Monster's Ball," "The Woodsman," the story of a convicted pedophile (Kevin Bacon) who looks to rebuild his life after being released from prison.

But there are just as many important developments away from the director's chair. Ask Matt Johnson, one of only a handful of black entertainment lawyers in the business, who juggles an impressive client roster including Ice Cube, Tyra Banks, the Hughes brothers, writer Jeff Rake and Michael Keaton.

"There are at least three of us who have seven-figure practices," says Johnson, who works at one Hollywood's biggest entertainment law firms, Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca, Fischer, Gilbert-Lurie, Stiffelman & Cook. "The business is getting more difficult. The money is getting tighter. The studios are getting cheaper and more aggressive in terms of what they want (regarding) rights and other obligations in terms of talent, so it just requires lawyers to be smarter and more creative."

Johnson recently cut a rare deal for Dave Chappelle that will see the comedian doing a comedy special for Showtime while retaining ownership and licensing rights for the DVD.

On June 25, Warner Bros. Pictures' new indie outfit, Warner Independent Pictures, is scheduled to release "Before Sunset," Richard Linklater's sequel to 1995's "Before Sunrise." Also on the slate are "We Don't Live Here Anymore," which WIP acquired at the Sundance Film Festival, and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's follow-up to "Amelie," "A Very Long Engagement."

Tracey Bing, vp production and acquisitions for WIP, has the plum job of picking and choosing such films, working with Mark Gill, Paul Federbush and Michael Andreen. "For me, it is important to find original stories by filmmakers with unique voices from around the world," she says. "Of course, I am personally interested in finding those stories (from) filmmakers of color."

Although none of the above titles is overtly targeted to black audiences, some say that as executive offices become more ethnically diverse, by their very nature, they will help promote new ideas that appeal to traditionally underserved audiences. The sea change might be slow and subtle, but it's definitely happening.

"Everybody points fingers at the agencies for not taking on writers," HBO's director of original programming of comedy Jada Miranda says. "But when I look at the agencies right now, UTA has great agents of color who are going to bring in great writers of color. William Morris has Marcus Wiley. You have this new crop of young agents and executives who are really going to systematically start changing things just by virtue of being there."

Miranda oversaw the final season of "Sex and the City" and is part of HBO's core comedy development team, working alongside Sarah Condon and Carolyn Strauss. She currently has 30-plus scripts in development including projects by director and playwright George C. Wolfe ("Take Me Out") and Brillstein Grey production "East/West Values" by Sabrina Dhawan (2001's "Monsoon Wedding"), about two East Coast families assimilating from India.

Also in the queue are "The Entourage," a series based on Mark Wahlberg's pre-stardom Los Angeles experience, which started shooting Monday.

"I don't take it as a color thing," offers Bravo vp development and production Jamila Hunter, who is shepherding "Long Way Round," a documentary series following actor Ewan McGregor and best friend Charlie Boorman as they ride their motorcycles around the world. "If my perspective can add a different perspective to a roomful of people, fine. I'm from San Diego, so it's not as if I'm coming to work in dashiki. But, on the other hand, if there are things that I notice and I do have a different life experience, I feel like it's advantageous of me to bring that to the table."

The goal, according to most black production professionals, is to explode the notion that the only films that appeal to black audiences are titles such as Screen Gems' January release "You Got Served" and offer movies and television programs with a much broader range of content.

Urban is no longer black. The success of crossover films such as Universal's "2Fast2Furious" and notably, "The Italian Job," underscores the idea that real power comes with transparency, when African-American executives and creatives migrate between mainstream and niche.

Finding a balance can mean going from Compton, Calif. to Beverly Hills without missing a step. Many feel that what is represented in rap videos doesn't wholly encapsulate the black experience.

"I think there's a very urban but educated upper crust of African-Americans that are young and still upwardly mobile, and we don't get serviced," says Darryl Taja, who is currently producing "Ransom" and "Slay the Bully" for New Line and recently sold Ken Rance's "32 and Single," a romantic comedy with Gabrielle Union attached to star, to Universal. "You see movies like (MGM's upcoming comedy) 'Soul Plane' come out where they're quite exploitative. If a movie like that is successful, then it means that five more movies like that are going to get made. There are still very few African-American dramas that get made," he says.

Looking to effect real change, Taja recently left his Catch 23 Alter Ego division to launch his own production banner, Epidemic Pictures and Management Inc., and is in the process of forming the African American Regulatory Committee, an organization designed to monitor media content and change the often negative depiction of blacks in film and television. MGM vice chairman and chief operating officer Chris McGurk, Fox vice chairman Robert Harper and WMA's Nicole David have expressed interest in supporting the endeavor by serving on the advisory board.

"There are no black execs with greenlight power in this town, and the execs that (do) have it never lived in our communities, so how can one make an informed decision on what is or is not suitable to market to the black audience?" Taja says. "I once heard that a very powerful senior-level studio exec made the statement that 'he knew black people better than black people knew black people.' I just laughed. You gotta love the arrogance and absurdity of that statement."

Similarly, the National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications Creative Summit, which will take place April 15-16, was created to bridge the divide between industry executives and those looking to advance within the creative arenas of the cable industry. Participants included Lifetime's senior vp programming Kelly Goode, Paramount Digital's Leonard Washington, Paramount Network Television senior vp comedy Rose Catherine Pinkney and Overbrook Entertainment manager Miguel Melendez.

"I think at the moment the climate is very good," Bowser says. "I think the industry is very open to hearing what we have to say. Are they buying it every time we say it? No. But I think they're not buying it when someone not of color is pitching an idea. So, I think we're in a positive cycle right now, and it's on us to be prepared when ears are open."

Adds Bing: "It's a difficult job market with so few opportunities. But I truly believe that when you get a diverse group of people in the room that's when the innovative and exciting projects get done."



Bright young things: Who you should be talking to at that next industry mixer


Tracey Bing, vp, production and acquisitions, Warner Independent Pictures. Bing has a knack for finding reel gems like Liev Schreiber's directorial debut, "Everything is Illuminated." Cherry Road Prods.' "Barnes" is another of her projects, and Bing previously worked on Jonathan Demme's 1996 release "Courage and Pain."

Gordon Bobb, entertainment attorney, Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka & Finkelstein. Recruited by one of Hollywood's top legal minds, Nina Shaw, to join her practice. Bobb's clients include Jamie Foxx, Cedric the Entertainer and writer-directors Malcolm D. Lee (2002's "Undercover Brother"), Reggie Bythewood (2003's "Biker Boyz") and Rick Famuyiwa (2002's "Brown Sugar").

Tina Chism Penned Fox's drum-tastic 2002 release "Drumline," so the studio hailed her "Taxi," casting Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah in the project. Also in the works are Universal's "Nappily Ever After," starring Halle Berry, and Warner Bros. Pictures' "Jelly Beans," to be helmed by Chris Robinson.

Wayne Conley Formerly a writer-producer on Nick's "Kenan & Kel," Conley has "King's Ransom," starring Anthony Anderson, in production at New Line. His projects "Jive Turkey" and the untitled Uncle Buck film also are in development.

DeVon Franklin, creative executive, MGM Pictures. This 26 year-old is one of the youngest black studio executives in Hollywood -- plus, he works as a Christian minister and motivational speaker. Believes his studio's planned fall releases "Be Cool" and "Beauty Shop" epitomize what the "new black" should be in terms of material.

Jamila Hunter, vp development and production, Bravo. Works on Bravo's alternative series, specials, longform and programming strategy; influential in acquiring "Project Greenlight" from HBO. New series under her watch include "Blow Out" (the hair-salon answer to NBC's "The Restaurant"), "The D-List" and "Long Way Round."

Jada Miranda, director of original programming, HBO. She cut her teeth on a two-year stint at Orly Adelson Prods., then quickly rose through the ranks at ABC. Now, she is now part HBO's comedy development team.

Marc L. Moore, associate, White O'Connor Curry & Avanzado. This renaissance legal eagle is the man to call when you're having a "'Survivor' problem." CBS is the firm's biggest client, but it also reps the Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount.

Amber Pollard, television literary agent, Endeavor. Pollard helped seal the deal for Kevin Lima to direct the 2003 ABC telefilm "Eloise at Christmastime," for which he won a DGA Award in February in the children's programming category. Some of Pollard's other director clients are behind event television including USA Network's recently aired "Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss," helmed by Charles McDougall, and the upcoming CBS telefilm remake of "Helter Skelter," written and directed by John Gray.

Marcus Wiley, television literary agent, William Morris Agency. Formerly at Regency Television and Fox Broadcasting Co., Wiley last summer landed squarely in the TV department at WMA. Represents writer-actor Marc Wilmore (Fox's "The Simpsons"), director Jessy Terrero (MGM's upcoming comedy release "Soul Plane") and the Los Angeles Lakers' Rick Fox, among others.