In 2016, the Black-owned independent film label self-distributed “Meet the Blacks,” a spoof of “The Purge,” to the tune of $9 million at the box office. This weekend they did it again with “The House Next Door,” which debuted in limited release, racking up $1 million, with a $2,533 per screen average.
“Given this weekend’s results, we couldn’t be more proud and happier,” Taylor said in a statement touting the box office returns. “Thank you to the audiences who sold out theaters across the country, and also our wonderful exhibition partners who gave us a home and allowed this movie to be seen in the way it should be… on the big screen.”
Deon co-wrote and directed the new comedy, starring Mike Epps, Katt Williams, Bresha Webb, Lil Duval and Zulay Henao, with Gary Owen, Danny Trejo, Rick Ross and Snoop Dogg also among the cast. The Hidden Empire Film Group team booked the horror movie in 420 theaters via a team of less than 20 people, in comparison to the 150 or more a studio would normally employ in the rollout of a film, handling everything from the marketing to booking the theaters.
The success of “The House Next Door” is indicative of the scrappy model that Deon and Roxanne have employed since the married producing team founded the production company, in partnership with investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith. The Taylors describe their success in the industry as being the “product of no.”
“I often tell people you have to be prepared to have a metaphysical death to have your dream realized, you have to be prepared to really lose yourself in whatever it is you’re trying to do in order to find success,” Deon tells Variety. “I know that’s been the case for a lot of Black and brown people because oftentimes we have to work a little bit harder to get to what we want.”
“Film has been a very interesting medium for me. I don’t take it for granted because every door that we’ve knocked on has been closed to us,” he adds, explaining why he coined the phrase “product of no.” “We were told no so much, eventually, we had to tell ourselves ‘Yes.’ I remember the day I looked at Roxanne and said, ‘I’m going to make my own movies.’ We would have never made Hidden Empire or created these films or went off and did the stuff we’re doing if somebody would have hired me.”
Instead, the Taylors have built their own film “empire” (as the indie film company’s name alludes to) with a production model that is similar to that of Tyler Perry’s. Like Perry, Deon writes and directs the films, while Roxanne produces the projects. The Taylors also own all of their content — with a catalogue made up of 12 film titles and two TV shows, developed over the last 15 years and at least 5 projects in various stages of projects — but the greater similarity lies with who they’re making movies for, with Black and brown audiences at the center of their storytelling.
Deon witnessed the strength of Perry’s relationship with his audience firsthand after a chance encounter between the filmmaker and his mother, Valeria.
“My mom calls me one day is like, ‘Tyler Perry wrote me a letter,’” Deon recalls, pointing to Perry’s famed email newsletter. “And it says at the bottom that he is holding auditions in Atlanta for his new movie. So I pay for a ticket for her, call around, get her a hotel, fly my mom to Atlanta.”
What started as a one-day trip turned into a three-week gig after Valeria (who was in her mid-sixties at the time, with no professional acting experience aside from her church plays) booked the role as “Prostitute #1” in Perry’s 2009 hit “Madea Goes to Jail.”
“I don’t know Tyler Perry, but I wrote him numerous letters to tell him thank you for my mom, and thank you because he showed me to just tap the community,” Deon continues. Even when the critics don’t get Perry’s films, he adds, “If you ask my mom, and every mom around the country, they would tell you that’s five stars, and they love it, and it’s made for them.”
That’s why the filmmaker takes his cues from the culture versus the critics — following in the tradition of everyone from Oscar Micheaux and Rudy Ray Moore, to Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans, making movies for their community regardless of whether the traditional Hollywood system believes they will sell.
And the box office doesn’t lie. Hidden Empire Film Group’s movies have grossed nearly $100 million at the box office. 2019’s “The Intruder,” starring Dennis Quaid, Michael Ealy and Meagan Good boasts the highest grosses of HEFG’s films, having earned $37 million at the box office (on a budget of $8 million), while “Black and Blue,” with Naomie Harris and Tyrese nearly doubled its $12 million budget, with a $23 million return. Those two films were released by Screen Gems, and the Hidden Empire team partnered with Lionsgate late last year for “Fatale,” starring two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank and Michael Ealy, which made $7 million amid the pandemic.
For the last 15 years, the indie filmmakers have found success with a 360-degree approach to their projects, filming fast and inexpensively, but ultimately reaping profits for their investors. Next up, HEFG will release “Don’t Fear,” the psychological thriller they filmed in 15 days during the pandemic. “Deon came up with a script, one location, minimal talent and I became a COVID specialist. We shot the movie, with no COVID cases, for under a million dollars,” Roxanne says, reflecting on the stressful, but ultimately successful shoot.
“You make it work,” Roxanne says of working within limited budgets. “It goes back to the loyalty of your team and the integrity of the people that you work with — the Dante Spinotti’s, the Peter Rosenfeld’s, the Geoff Zanelli’s of the world that have been loyal to us, that are A-list people — they believe in our project. Hilary Swank, Michael Ealy, Dennis Quaid, we can’t pay them what they’ve made in the past, but they believe in the project.”
The Hidden Empire model was one created by necessity, Roxanne explains, saying: “This was all by default — because we didn’t have the help, the support, the finances, we didn’t have the engine to do it on our own and so we were really forced into this game called Hollywood.”
“We have a whole library of titles that we represent and we want to continue to feed that engine because we’re all about owning our own IP and being our own independent studio, that’s our number one priority,” Roxanne notes, pointing to movies like the sports heist film “Free Agents,” one of Hidden Empire’s earliest original projects which is now set up at Lionsgate with 50 Cent in the lead role.
“Because of the success we’ve had over the last few years, creating a legacy and owning your own IP is something that most Black people and brown people and even some white people don’t have,” she adds. “I think it’s really important for me as a woman and as a Black woman is to try to change the narrative. I want to break the cycle, just even in my immediate family as a first-generation business owner, but in the industry as well.”
Roxanne is taking another step towards that goal of breaking the cycle and creating more opportunities for women in the industry, by producing the Aisha Tyler-directed movie “Silent John.” In addition to having two powerhouse women of color behind the project — which has been a passion project of Roxanne’s for years, but she’s struggled to get made — the film gives Roxanne an opportunity to solidify her work as a producer to the industry at large.
“Hollywood is very male-dominated and [women] constantly have to prove ourselves outside of the husband-wife thing, but I want people to see I don’t need Deon to produce a movie, because he doesn’t produce the movie for me, I produce it for him.”
In early 2022, Hidden Empire will start production on “Freedom Ride,” which tells the story of John Lewis and the Freedom Riders, with Deon in the director’s chair. The drama represents the beginning of a new chapter for the team.
“Creatively, I’m slowing down. We went on a tear just because we had no choice,” he explains. “I’ve never had a moment to focus, because I’m always having to create. So now you look at something like John Lewis, and you go, ‘That’s all I’m doing.’ You look at ‘Free Agents’ with 50 Cent and you go, ‘If I really want to be able to compete with ‘The Town’ and ‘Heat,’ then I need to focus on this solely.’”
Deon has big dreams for the company and for his own career as a filmmaker. “I would love to be on the set of $100 million film one day, where someone’s flying or someone’s busting through a wall — that’s the dream. You make these movies because you feel like, eventually I’ll get a shot. It’s kind of like the NBA, where you’re like, ‘I’m gonna keep practicing and shooting. If they ever let me in the try out, I’ve gotta make the team.’”
But, Deon warns against boxing a player like him in; he wants to show his versatility as a filmmaker. “Steven Spielberg made ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Color Purple,’ and you guys never questioned him,” he says. “So when I make ‘The Intruder,’ ‘Black and Blue’ and ‘Meet the Blacks,’ don’t question me.”
Right now, though, it’s about celebrating Hidden Empire’s successes. “The journey is the prize,” Deon says he’s realized, adding some quick context to the situation.
“We’re not successful at all right now; we’re successful in our own bubble,” he explains. “We’re successful because we’ve made movies that actually make money. People have watched the films and they’ve done extremely well, but we haven’t even scratched the surface of what I believe we can be, or what I believe we’re gonna be. We just had to create our own lane, and create our own world.”