BET founder bets on pics

Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television who’s launching the first mainstream movie studio principally owned and operated by African-Americans, has hired producer Tracey E. Edmonds as the studio’s prexy-CEO.

Johnson and minority partners Harvey and Bob Weinstein jointly announced Edmonds’ hiring Monday, saying she “will be responsible for driving the vision of the new film studio and all operations.”

The studio, christened Our Stories Films, plans to produce only family-friendly comedies — a la “Barbershop” and “Hitch,” rated PG or PG-13 — featuring prominently, though not exclusively, African-American talent and themes and marketed specifically to black auds.

Edmonds will identify and execute projects from development to production. First up, though, she’ll assemble a team of execs to foster the studio’s vision. The studio is Johnson’s bid for a place in movie history as well as profit.

He has already lined up JPMorgan Chase to raise $175 million to underwrite operations. He has “crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’ in a distribution agreement,” Johnson said, with the Weinsteins’ Dimension Films. And with Edmonds’ hiring, Johnson is establishing studio headquarters in Los Angeles (with offices in Gotham).

Look for the shop to open “around the end of this year or the beginning of next,” said Johnson.

The lofty goal of the new venture is to answer “a constant complaint” that Johnson said has long reverberated throughout Hollywood’s black creative community: Why has there never been a black company or exec with authority to greenlight a picture?

“Because no one has been willing to put up the money,” Johnson said.

Having sold BET to Viacom six years ago for $3 billion, Johnson has plenty of his own cash to put up. While the JPMorgan Chase money will fund some individual pics, Johnson added that budgets will also have “equity from myself or Harvey or some other strategic equity partners.”

Johnson, who owns a holding company based outside D.C., is gambling on a tight focus to succeed in Hollywood. He plans to start with two pics a year, increasing to three and possibly four eventually, all budgeted at $10 million-$15 million.

“I’m not necessarily looking for ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ type movies,” he said. “I’m looking for funny — that’s it,” simply because comedies are cheaper to produce and usually make more money than dramas. “Barbershop,” for instance, cost a reported $12 million and took in $65 million.

To keep production costs low, Johnson plans on asking top talent like Denzel Washington or Danny Glover to accept backend payment deals.

“That could definitely work,” said John Sloss, a veteran producer and rep for indie pics. “But he’s got to offer deals that are true partnerships.” That means no delayed payouts due to creative accounting. But assurances may not be enough for actors who remember Randy Quaid’s grievance over a soured backend deal for “Brokeback Mountain.”

Johnson also hopes to identify and use emerging black talent to help promote the next generation of African American actors.

“The market for 25% of all films is African-American audiences,” Johnson said. While existing studios sometimes develop or market family-friendly comedies to these auds, “No one is doing it on the kind of consistent basis we intend to do,” he emphasized.

“No question there’s a market for three or four films like this every year,” Sloss said.

“There’s a huge market that’s been ignored and is ripe for potential,” added Al Roker, the “Today” show weatherman who also runs his own media production company. “It’s not just African-American audiences but people of color. That’s a real market to be reckoned with.”

Sloss said the real key will be getting good material for projects. “If the material is there, the talent is there. And if the talent is there, the audience is there.”

As prexy-CEO of her own company, Edmonds Entertainment Group, Edmonds has found and developed successful material in film, television and music.

Johnson has known the Weinsteins for years, and Dimension has had impressive success marketing low-budget pics. More to the point, though, when Johnson was looking for a minority investor in Our Stories, he approached “a major Hollywood studio,” which he declines to name. The studio agreed to put in “only a small amount of money,” he said, but wanted veto power over any project, which would have defeated Johnson’s primary reason for starting Our Stories Films.

“The Weinsteins,” Johnson said, “were the first to accept my terms.” While Edmonds will select material for projects, Johnson will decide which ones get done.

Harvey Weinstein said that partnering with Johnson was no stretch at all. “We’ve probably got experience with every category of film,” he said, adding that Our Stories will essentially be a new niche market that fits comfortably with the markets the Weinstein Co. is already in.

Weinstein also expressed enthusiasm for being part of “the first black studio. This is like the early days of what Bob Johnson did with BET.”

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