Trio of films, including ‘12 Years a Slave,’ helps distrib re-enter a market dominated by rivals

To help launch its upcoming Thanksgiving release, “Black Nativity,” a family musical starring Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Hudson, Fox Searchlight screened clips of the film at MegaFest, a faith-based revival event at which the more than 75,000 attendees are primarily African Americans.

In doing so, the specialty film distributor was seizing a marketing opportunity that it hopes can generate early positive word of mouth for writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ screen adaptation of the Langston Hughes musical, which opens Nov. 27.

Fox Searchlight, which in the past has played in the urban film arena, is making a fresh push to cash in on a potentially lucrative sector that rivals like Lionsgate and Screen Gems have tapped so effectively in recent years.

“I think (those companies) have started to target that market more effectively,” says Bishop T.D. Jakes, a producer on “Black Nativity” and organizer of Dallas-based MegaFest. “It’s a smart business move to recognize an audience group that supports films in general, but also films that represent truisms in our community.”

African Americans, he says, continue to be underserved by Hollywood. That’s supported by the fact that, per capita, blacks go to the movies slightly more often each year than whites, even though there are far fewer films made with them in mind. (Latinos represent the largest per-capita moviegoing demo in the U.S.)

After a three-year absence from releasing urban pictures, Fox Searchlight has re-entered the arena with a trio of o erings that includes this past weekend’s opener, “12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, from producer New Regency; and “Baggage Claim,” a romantic comedy written, directed and produced by David Talbert, which has grossed more than $20 million since its Sept. 27 bow — a respectable performance given its modest $8.5 million production budget.

Fox Searchlight co-head Steve Gilula says the three-year gap was simply a matter of timing. “We want to support strong filmmakers with a strong vision,” he says. “It just took a while for those projects to come together.”

Talbert credits the success of “Baggage Claim,” which he adapted from his own 2003 novel, to Searchlight’s early focus on the African-American market. He particularly praised the efforts of the company’s senior vice president of production, Zola Mashariki, who attended the first signing of Talbert’s book more than a decade ago.

“This was really driven by Zola, who’s been a big champion of African-American stories,” Talbert says. “It’s a space that they had been working in for years, and were excited to get back into.”

Mashariki, a Harvard Law School graduate who represented the late playwright August Wilson, joined Searchlight in 2000 as a production intern.

Darrell Miller, an attorney for Fox Rothschild, who has worked with Fox Searchlight on numerous urban-themed projects, including “Black Nativity,” agrees that having someone like Mashariki onboard is key. “The hurdle often is fi nding someone who can relate and find the best stories,” he says.

Still, Searchlight has had a mixed track record in the urban arena. The distributor’s two highest-grossing black-themed movies are 2008’s “The Secret Life of Bees” and 2009’s “Notorious” — the latter inspired by the life of the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. Both collected north of $35 million at the domestic box office, while romantic comedies “Just Wright” (2010), starring Queen Latifah and Common, and “Brown Sugar” (2002) took in $21.5 million and $27.4 million, respectively, at the domestic B.O.

But the distrib missed the mark with gritty urban drama “Never Die Alone” (2004), which toplined rapper DMX, despite the studio and filmmakers believing they had a sure-fire hit on their hands. Ultimately, the film managed to attract just north of $5 million in North American ticket sales.

Some industry-watchers say the movie might have been a hit had it not been for a misguided release, which largely targeted inner-city theaters instead of booking screens in higher-tra cked metropolitan multiplexes. Though the strategy was an honest misjudgment, it potentially cost investors millions of dollars.

Miller, however, is willing to give Searchlight the benefit of the doubt, maintaining that the company appears to have learned from its mistakes — as well as its victories.

“Having made those fi lms and having had some success, it shows that there is great (potential) for return,” Miller says.

That said, Fox Searchlight has lacked the kind of direct association to black cinema that Sony’s Screen Gems and Lionsgate have had in recent years.

Screen Gems, under the leadership of Clint Culpepper, has made great strides among African-American auds (consider the upcoming black-themed remake of “About Last Night”), while Lionsgate has developed separate cottage industries with multihyphenates like Tyler Perry and Kevin Hart. Relativity Media also hopes to break into the urban market, having just wrapped production on the low-budget “Blackbird,” directed by “Secret Life of Bees” helmer Gina Prince-Bythewood.

“I grew up in an era where Artisan and TriStar were killing it,” Miller remembers. “Everybody saw the value of making a smart movie for the right price, and hitting a target demo. But to me, it’s a smarter business plan to ask, ‘Why should Sony and Lionsgate only play in this space?’ ”

Referring to the African-American film community, Gilula says, “There is a wealth of talent that is, at times, underutilized, and an audience that has made itself known.”

Following the release of “Baggage Claim,” Talbert says that his positive impression of Searchlight has spurred him to develop two more projects with the company.

“They make you feel like they honor your work, yes, for the commercialism, but also for the prestige,” he says. “They never treated me like a black filmmaker making a black movie.”

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