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
"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
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.