Musicvidder HSI, ICM in Endangered combo

In an attempt to tap into the exploding market for urban entertainment, HSI/Tomorrow Films has formed Endangered Species Pictures, a film company that will finance three to five urban pics per annum.

ESP, the result of an idea that started life at International Creative Management, is a way of marrying the director roster of commercials and musicvid company HSI with ICM’s own urban talent list. ESP will not work exclusively with either HSI or ICM, however.

HSI/Tomorrow is a joint venture of HSI and foreign sales agency Tomorrow Film Corp. It will fund the operating costs of ESP and handle foreign distribution, while ICM will arrange domestic. Producer Darryl Taja (“Thicker Than Water”) will run ESP.

Formation of ESP comes at a time when hip-hop music and entertainment is attracting an ever-widening and multicultural audience in the U.S. and overseas. Rappers such as LL Cool J (“Deep Blue Sea”) have been developing viable feature careers.

Mainstream feature productions, including Screen Gems’ “Black and White” and Warner Bros.’ “Romeo Must Die,” are embracing hip-hop elements, illustrating the genre’s growing appeal.

Hip-hop colossus

With 20 nominations at this year’s MTV Video Awards, HSI is the dominant player in the hip-hop field. Company reps more than 20 directors including Hype Williams, Paul Hunter, Martin Weisz and Little X.

ICM, meanwhile, considers itself the dominant talent agency in this arena, with an artist list encompassing Sean “Puffy” Combs, DMX, Naz and Jay Z. Other agencies are moving aggressively into the urban arena, evidenced by Endeavor’s signing this year of Master P, who wrote, directed and starred in the Dimension-released pic “I Got the Hook-Up.”

ICM hopes that the ESP initiative will enable it to package its music clients with its own directors or those of HSI.

“We want to help create an urban film market and own a piece of that market,” said ICM’s Phil Casey, who with David Unger, put the deal together on behalf of the tenpercentery.

The two agents decided to approach HSI due to its powerful position in the urban musicvid business. HSI president Stavors Merjos and exec VP Adam Rosenfelt immediately saw the potential of their idea, and pacted with Yoram Pelman, their partner in HSI/Tomorrow, to implement it.

Budget-friendly

Due to the success of their records, it’s not surprising that hip-hop artists aspire to cross over into features. While their film careers often get off to a bumpy start, the budgets of their pics tend to be low and the ancillary value huge.

Prior to “Hook Up,” for example, Master P bankrolled and made “I’m ‘Bout It,” a direct-to-video pic that sold 400,000 units.

Until now, record companies have generally financed their artists’ features or DTV pics for promotional purposes. The ESP partners, however, believe there is a theatrical market for urban titles, in addition to their cross-promotional value with musicvids, soundtracks and record releases.

Aside from Dimension, Artisan and New Line are examples of distribs that have targeted several pics at this demographic.

ESP hasn’t set any titles yet, although it said that its budgets will likely remain in the $2 million to $5 million range. This year HSI produced the Mack 10 vehicle “Thicker Than Water” for Priority Records. Pic will get a theatrical release in the U.S. this fall from Palm Pictures.

This year HSI/Tomorrow Films financed Jordan Brady’s romantic comedy “The Third Wheel,” featuring an ensemble cast of Luke Wilson, Ben Affleck, Jay Lacopo, Denise Richards and Matt Damon.

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