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Will Magic’s venture slam dunk urban pics?

Duo see opportunities with niche movies

Eyeing the urban film market as a slam-dunk business proposition, Earvin “Magic” Johnson has partnered with producer Paul Hall in Magic Hallway Pictures, a venture that will make youth-themed urban films designed to cross over to mainstream audiences.

The venture tips off with their purchase of screen rights to the Jill Nelson novel “Sexual Healing,” for a film that aspires to be “Sex and the City” with black protagonists.

Johnson segued from Hall of Fame Lakers basketball guard to a theater chain owner who controls 61 screens in five inner-city markets. After delving into production with “Brown Sugar” and “Passing Glory,” Johnson joined with Hall because he sees a relatively low-risk business opportunity in urban-suburban films. These are youth-themed pics aimed at urban auds with potential to cross over to suburban auds either in theaters or DVD.

“If you look at the track record of these films when you keep the budgets in the range of $8 million to $15 million, they nearly always make money and films like ‘Barbershop’ have shown there is outstanding profit potential,” Johnson said.

Magic Hallway will soon make a first-look distribution arrangement with a studio, said the principals, and might well bring co-financing to the table eventually.

Denson takes reins

Running the company for Johnson and Hall will be Nikkole Denson, former prexy of Magic Johnson Entertainment, a division of Magic Johnson Enterprises.

Johnson and Denson most recently have been working on “Beauty Shop: The Movie” and the MTV reality series “Who’s Got Game?”

Hall, who has operated Hallway Pictures, has credits that include “Shaft,” “Higher Learning,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and the upcoming Fox Searchlight Cedric the Entertainer comedy “Johnson Family Vacation.”

Johnson’s desire to broaden production came from lessons learned operating a theater chain that has screens in Atlanta, Houston, New York and Los Angeles. Urban films have been stigmatized by a perceived lack of foreign revenue potential. Johnson and Hall accept that, but said a reliable core audience makes those niche films a safer bet than what studios go through trying for mainstream success on films with much larger production and marketing outlays.

“We are already in these markets and know what our customers want and that is more movies,” Johnson said. “New Line got things rolling, Fox Searchlight and Screen Gems have made some films and MGM has become more dedicated. Even so, these films are still few and far between. You don’t need huge international grosses, because you can make a lot of money right here and you don’t have to wait long.”

Cornering market

Hall said when they broke down the urban-suburban business as a model, the lack of gross players and high marketing costs made it understandable why the likes of Ice Cube and John Singleton are happy to serve a reliable niche audience.

“Make an urban film for young teens that costs $12 million, and you are almost guaranteed to return $30 million at point of sale,” Hall said. “You’ve tripled your money in theaters, way before DVD and pay-per-view. Frankly, studios investing large amounts of money and depending on foreign and DVD just to break even is more hit and miss and that’s a long way to go before you make your dough on DVD.

“Magic has revitalized communities by bringing movie theaters and Starbucks to several cities, and he’s made his name a brand. We complement each other and will jump into this with strong talent and studio contacts.”

They started by closing a deal with UTA on “Sexual Healing,” which they’ll produce with Shelby Stone.

“We see the story as high concept, a very funny look at two inventive and hilarious women who come up with a fresh new twist on the world’s oldest profession,” Hall said.

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