Hollywood’s Black Movers and Shakers

Very few folks have the power to green-light a picture in Hollywood. None of them are black. But these power players are finding a way to make films on their own terms.

Tracey Edmonds (Getty Images Entertainment)


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One such person is Tracey Edmonds, president and COO of Our Stories Films. The Stanford University graduate and Edmonds Entertainment founder is a 15-year veteran of film. Edmonds’ 1997 film, Soul Food, brought the complexity of black families to the big screen. The success of that movie resulted in a television series of the same name for Showtime Networks. The series, which was on the air for five years, won several NAACP Image Awards.

Most recently, Edmonds’ film Jumping the Broom, a romantic comedy about the blending of two families with different class backgrounds during a wedding weekend, has grossed more than $25 million since it opened Mother’s Day weekend. Edmonds, who grew up watching films and going to drive-ins with her close-knit family, believes that the biggest obstacle to getting films made in Hollywood is the shortage of outlets for “urban” (i.e., black) projects.

“When I started out in the industry, we had a plethora of distribution options for urban films and an assortment of studios to choose from,” Edmonds says. “Now we’re pretty much limited to only two distributors, so it’s very, very difficult. It’s extremely competitive because you have all the filmmakers of color in the industry competing for only a couple of slots a year.” (Unfortunately, the same can be said of television. Original programs featuring urban casts are primarily shown on BET and TBS.)

Success Through Diversification — and Networking

All too often, blacks filmmakers find themselves confined to making black films, making it is nearly impossible for them to produce mainstream projects that make it to the big screen. Edmonds adds, “It’s a shame that Hollywood expects African-American producers to only be able to produce African-American content, whereas white producers can make urban and nonurban projects. I don’t think as producers we should limit ourselves to making urban projects. We enjoy watching mainstream films, so we should also be able to produce mainstream films.”

One way that Edmonds tackles the challenge of getting a film made in Hollywood is by diversifying her projects and maintaining a strong professional network. Producer Will Packer of Atlanta-based Rainforest Films echoes this sentiment.

Like Edmonds, Packer has been able to get films made inside and outside the Hollywood film industry. Packer, who got his start with the cult film Trois (which grossed more than $1 million), has made the hits Stomp the Yard, This Christmas, Obsessed and, most recently, Takers.

Packer — who is currently working on Think Like a Man, an adaptation of Steve Harvey’s mega-successful relationship book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man — says there is no sure-fire way to get a film made in Hollywood. “You make your own rules,” he says. “Even with the success I’ve had, still with each step of the way, it looks like this particular film may not be able to go, and I have to push it over the hump.”

When Packer talks about pushing it over the hump, he means pulling out all the stops to help get it done — including tapping into his sizable network. “You have to have relationships; you have to know how to sell it to talent, financiers and distributors; and you also have to keep the motor running as the producer.”

Key: Learning the Business

Part of keeping the “motor running” is being thick-skinned — and resilient enough to keep it moving, despite seemingly endless obstacles. Observes DeVon Franklin, vice president of production for Columbia Pictures, “I try to stay clear on what story I’m telling and why I’m telling it. Understanding from a business perspective which ideas are most commercial is also important, so I have to prioritize and make decisions about which projects to help push through the system.” Franklin — whose films include The Pursuit of Happyness, Hancock, the remake of The Karate Kid and Jumping the Broom — is currently working on a remake of the film classic Sparkle.