Filmmakers reflect on Obama and the economy

The NAACP Image Awards has a lot to celebrate in 2009. The parent org fetes its centennial. The awards show marks its 40th anniversary. And America just swore in its first African-American president. Several Image-nommed filmmakers ponder that milestone as well as the challenges that lie ahead for groundbreaking movies in a troubled economy.

“Rachel Getting Married” scribe Jenny Lumet says her pic created a buzz internationally because of what was going on politically in the U.S.

“Interestingly, a lot of the European press picked up on the racial aspect of the movie,” she notes. “They decided that I somehow predicted Obama (would win the presidency) and had written a movie about healing the United States through racial harmony.”

It’s not an unlikely assumption, except for the fact that Lumet began writing her script five years before Obamania swept the world.

James McBride, author and screenwriter of “Miracle at St. Anna,” recalls that the Spike Lee movie came out the same day as the second presidential debate between Obama and McCain. “I don’t know if, in the case of ‘Miracle,’ the success of Barack Obama pushed the film out of the gate,” he says. “If Spike hadn’t made the movie, it would have never gotten made.”

If McBride is unsure about the Obama effect, producer Reuben Cannon definitely credits current political activity with the success of “Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys.”

“The film came out in September when things were pretty dire, but there was such great optimism because of the elections,” he says. “Our film rode the wave.”

The Perry-helmed pic grossed a respectable $37 million domestically and is considered a big success. On the other hand, some biz analysists complained that “Seven Pounds,” which grossed

$70 million domestically, didn’t measure up to previous Will Smith projects.

“It did meet our expectations for this kind of subject matter,” says producer Jason Blumenthal, referring to the lead character’s edgy, depression-prone behavior. “We’re on course to do $100 internationaly. The film has a European sensibility, which is sometimes harder for Americans to embrace. Will helped us bridge that audience.

“He was not only our first choice: We never showed the role to anyone else but Will,” says Blumenthal, who also produced “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

Economic pinch

Smaller pics feel the economic pinch — or would have if they were being made now. Producer Mary Jane Skalski says there’s a huge difference now as opposed to the recent past when investors risked money on her “The Visitor.”

“Going into it with no obvious stars, it being a serious relationship drama, I think we would be lucky to get half a million dollars (today). It’s such a different climate right now,” Skalski says.

Director Gina Prince-Blythewood credits Queen Latifah and Dakota Fanning with helping to get “The Secret Life of Bees” made. “They took an enormous pay cut, and that set the tone for the others in the cast to do the same,” she says.

Despite the novel’s success, the movie version hit an immediate snag in the production pipeline. “The book was never considered a black book,” says Prince-Blythewood, “but the second it became a movie, it was a black film because the majority of the cast was African-American, and that scared people. Searchlight was the only studio that stepped up to make it.”

Lance Hammer, who made “Ballast,” which features a virtually all-black cast, believes the current economic climate makes his job much tougher. “The days when a project could do a million dollars from all windows use to be considered very successful,” he says. “Now the studios think that’s a major failure if you have a critically well-received film that has modest box office and modest ancillaries.”

Producer Sofia Sondervan says working with Sony Music Film to make “Cadillac Records” was a godsend, adding, “The advantage of working with a studio is that you get taken more seriously as a film.” Not that it is ever easy. Everybody told her, “You’re not going to make that film. No one’s going to finance that film. The blues is too limited.”

Yet these movies get made, even if many of them aren’t seen by lots of people.

Filmmakers have to rely on new ways to bring their projects to the screen. Producer Patrik-Ian Polk created “Noah’s Arc” for the Internet, brought it to the Logo channel and then made the movie version, “Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom.”

Its $2 million budget proved too low even for a Vancouver shoot. “One of the Canadian producers jokingly said that the only place we can afford to go shoot this movie is Novia Scotia — if we shoot it all in one location,” Polk recalls. It turned out to be no joke. “That’s the way we ended up saving the movie.”

The film filled a niche. “There’s a whole circuit of events that happen throughout the year that you can target to market to the different segments of the community,” Polk says of gay fests.

Exposure is sometimes what it is all about.

Last month, Beyonce sang “At Last” from “Cadillac Records” at the presidential inauguration. “People are going to be watching that forever,” Sondervan says. “We didn’t get any Oscar nominations (for the film), but this in a way is an even bigger reward.”

Robert Hofler contributed to this report.

TIP SHEET

What: 40th annual NAACP Image Awards

Where: Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles

When: Tonight at 8 ET/PT on Fox TV; live 5 p.m. PT at venue

Who: Halle Berry and Tyler Perry host

Website: naacpimageawards.net

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