Memo to Would-Be Moguls: Looking for Clout in Hollywood? It Takes Some to Get Some

Richard Natale is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The exterior of Kenneth and Tracey Edmonds' Beverly Hills home is deceptively modest. Tucked into a quiet corner off Sunset Boulevard, the pink stucco structure was built in the 1980s. Most days it's swarming with workers, carpenters and landscapers perpetually enhancing and refining the surroundings--just as its owner has reshaped R&B; and pop over the past decade.

A peek through the front door is the first indication of the house's hidden dimensions. The entryway, a three-story sun-splashed semicircular hall, is paved in glistening off-white marble. The room is dominated by a shiny black Yamaha grand piano framed against a bank of windows--a testament to the house that music built.

Edmonds, 39, better known as Babyface, is this decade's most prolific and successful R&B; producer and musician. Like her husband, Tracey Edmonds, 31, runs her own record company, Yab Yum Music (which is distributed by Epic Records), which since 1993 has scored several notable hits with such performers as Jon B., Laurnea, Beverly Crowder and Shya.

From that formidable power base, Edmonds Entertainment is poised to make the leap into Hollywood's film power structure, with uniquely African American fare that includes last fall's sleeper hit "Soul Food" and, under its specialty film arm, E2 Entertainment, the Sundance favorite "Hav Plenty," which opens Friday. The company, which is headed by Tracey Edmonds, now has an overall deal with 20th Century Fox and is developing projects with the likes of John Travolta and Garth Brooks.

With such a carefully considered and ambitious slate, the Edmondses join a select group of African American talents in Hollywood--virtually all of whom made their entree to the film world after having conquered another entertainment industry:

* Quincy Jones, who was arguably the first African American to successfully make the journey from music to film. Like Edmonds, he also came to movies via his compositions, scores for such movies as "In Cold Blood," "In the Heat of the Night," "The Pawnbroker" and "Cactus Flower." He produced his first film, "The Color Purple," in 1985 and was responsible for the hit TV series "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." He most recently produced another series, "In the House," the talk show "Vibe" and the action film "Steel."

* Oprah Winfrey--one of Jones' "Color Purple" stars and now talk-show superstar. Her production company, Harpo, started with such TV movies as "Women of Brewster Place" and, more recently, "The Wedding." This fall she produces and stars in a feature film adaptation of Toni Morrison's "Beloved" as part of Harpo's overall deal with Disney.

* Will Smith, actor and rapper, whose rise to power began when he starred in "Fresh Prince." Thanks to star turns in two of recent history's biggest blockbusters, "Independence Day" and "Men in Black," Smith is one of Hollywood's hottest properties; Overbrook Entertainment, the company he started with his producing partner, James Lassiter, is set up at Universal Pictures. The company's coming projects include "KPAX," a drama-comedy about a psychiatrist who learns important lessons from a man who claims to be an alien, and "The Mark," a thriller.

* Ice Cube, the rapper who made his first screen impression in "Boyz N the Hood" and has since expanded his involvement with movies by co-writing "Friday" and, more recently, directing and writing "The Players Club."

* Magic Johnson, the beloved ex-Laker whose talk show "The Magic Hour" recently debuted, and who has an overall deal to produce films and television shows at 20th Century Fox.

What these talents have in common--and what helped them get a toehold in the notoriously hard-to-break-into film world--is that they are virtually brand names, points out manager Benny Medina, whose clients include Babyface, Smith and Sean "Puffy" Combs.

"Any time you have a potential brand that can cross over to another medium, that is of value to a studio," says Medina. "It's a brand they can put above the title."

All these African American talents have also "demonstrated universal or crossover appeal with audiences," says writer-producer Michael Henry Brown of Suntaur Entertainment. Brown wrote the Hughes Brothers' film "Dead Presidents" and is producing "In Too Deep" for Miramax. "They have already proven that they appeal to a wider segment of the population than just the black community."

Todd Boyd, a professor at the USC School of Cinema & Television and author of "Am I Black Enough For You?: Popular Culture From the 'Hood and Beyond," observes that "when you're talking about Hollywood and the people who want to participate in the game, there are always fewer slots than people to fill them. It's difficult for anyone to get a foot in the door, but a bit more difficult for African Americans because they have no history of involvement in this capacity."

To get a shot at film moguldom, talents like Babyface and Smith have had to achieve "an astounding track record," Boyd says. "It's easier to go to the [film] studios after you've redefined the R&B; charts."

Their success as movie producers is also seen as crucial to the introduction of other African American talents into the studio system. When manager Medina wanted to get "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" produced, the only African American with clout in Hollywood was Jones. Today he would have a few more options--though only a few.

Like the facade of the home they live in, Babyface and Tracey Edmonds are also rather unassuming, no different from any middle-class professional couple. But they reveal a knowledge about both the creative and financial sides of the entertainment business that is expansive. Not only do they have a firm grasp on the economics of the music business, but they have proved to be fast learners on the costs of making and marketing motion pictures.

Their body language offers two contrasting studies in self-confidence. Guitarist Bootsy Collins may have dubbed him Babyface (a moniker he has reluctantly embraced), but the only childlike thing about Edmonds is his hush-hush speaking voice and those large dark eyes that seem to be in a constant state of watchfulness--the way the new kid in class pays extra close attention to his new surroundings.

He doesn't try to command a room like fellow impresarios Jones or Winfrey; he insinuates himself into it. He appears, casually dressed, introduces himself and folds into the living room sofa. He is a man of few words, but none of them are wasted.

Tracey Edmonds is more direct. Sitting beside her husband, she crosses her legs and makes direct eye contact. Her answers are detailed and analytical.

The Edmondses' access to the movie business came in 1995 via the best-selling "Waiting to Exhale" soundtrack, which Babyface produced and largely wrote. Its sales of more than 7 million opened the door to "Soul Food." The $6.5-million ensemble drama was the surprise hit of the fall 1997 season, grossing more than $43 million.

"Hav Plenty," a sophisticated romantic comedy that the couple personally financed, was well received at this year's Sundance Film Festival in January and picked up by Miramax.

Both "Soul Food" and "Hav Plenty" were buoyed by Babyface-shaped soundtracks. In addition to his own singing and songwriting, Kenny has produced such mainstream performers as Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men and Eric Clapton.

He co-owns LaFace Records, which is released through Arista. His name has been attached to about 120 Top 10 R&B; and pop bestsellers, representing sales of 30 million singles and 80 million albums. The "Soul Food" soundtrack (featuring Puffy Combs, En Vogue, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Boyz II Men and Edmonds himself) was released on La Face Records and spawned hits such as Total's "What About Us" and Milestone's "I Care 'Bout You." (Milestone was a group formed for the film consisting of Edmonds, two of his brothers, Melvin and Kevon, as well as K-Ci & JoJo.)

The "Hav Plenty" soundtrack on Tracey's Yab Yum Records already has a hit single, Babyface and Des'ree's cover of the sexy Bruce Springsteen ballad "Fire." Other Yab Yum artists, including Jon B. and Shya, are featured on the soundtrack, as is R&B;'s rising star Erykah Badu. The Edmondses hope the "Hav Plenty" score feeds the film's box office in the same way that "Soul Food's" did.

Like their music, both films reflect the Edmondses' style. Babyface has been criticized for his mainstream, largely apolitical music--mostly classic romantic R&B; ballads in an era when in-your-face rap rules. While both films feature mostly African American ensemble casts, the characters are largely college-educated white-collar professionals. They are smart, urbane and neurotic--not unlike the people who inhabit a Woody Allen or Ed Burns movie--and little of the humor derives from their ethnicity.

"I'm character driven when it comes to stories," says Tracey. "Soul Food" appealed because it touched on her own family experiences. "And with 'Hav Plenty,' these were characters I hadn't seen before: quirky, intelligent--what people like Allen and other white filmmakers have always been doing," she says.

Neither film is political on the surface, but both venture into an area that even most mainstream movies generally avoid: class tension. The black professional protagonists come into conflict with friends and family members who are not as upwardly mobile.

"Hav Plenty's" writer-director-star, Christopher Cherot, portrays an unemployed aspiring novelist who happens to be homeless and is crashing on the couch of a former college schoolmate (Chenoa Maxwell). She is definitely on the power track, as are many of her female friends.

Much of the film's humor derives from failed seductions--only it's the women who are the aggressors. Since they are all more successful than Cherot's character, they can't understand why he won't succumb to their charms. It's a delightful switch on traditional power games.

Since "Hav Plenty" cost only $150,000--"less money than most music videos," according to Tracey--it is likely to more than recoup its investment. Yet even with the Edmonds' considerable music industry clout, neither it nor "Soul Food" was an easy sell. Edmonds Entertainment had to personally bankroll "Hav Plenty," and the couple found that even with "Soul Food's" modest $6.5 million budget, securing studio financing on "Soul Food" was a series of small battles.

The "Soul Food" script came to them, says Tracey, "because the William Morris Agency was looking to package a soundtrack as a way of helping to sell the script." The comedy-drama by George Tillman contained many of the elements they were looking for: strong female characters and a developed, multilayered story.

"Soul Food" was aimed directly at the same women the Edmondses have so successfully attracted with their music. Last year, for the first time, women purchased more records then men, and Babyface was ahead of that curve with his music.

"Females have been so predominant in music over the past few years--Mariah [Carey], Celine [Dion], Whitney [Houston], Jewel, No Doubt," notes the singer. "My music has always been aimed at women. Pop and R&B; have always been female driven and that's true back to the days of Motown."

"The same women who buy that music are the ones who went to see 'Waiting to Exhale' and 'Soul Food,' " adds Tracey.

But unlike the music business "where you have more authority," according to Tracey, "because you're spending a few hundred thousand dollars, films require much more money, into the millions, and so you have the politics of studio input. There are many more cooks in the kitchen."

And the Edmondses learned a great deal about studio politics on "Soul Food." Before trying to sell the film, they cast the three central characters: Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox and Nia Long.

"But we got turned down everywhere we went," says Kenny. Though "Waiting to Exhale" had already unearthed a hunger for material appealing to the African American female audience, "they kept saying, 'Who's the audience for this movie? Who's going to go see it?' " Tracey says with a laugh.

"They weren't turned down by me," says Laura Ziskin, who heads 20th Century Fox's division called Fox 2000, which financed and released "Soul Food." "There was something about the script that touched me."

And there was something about the Edmondses that reassured her.

"The script was a little bit raw when we got it," Ziskin says, "but they had a tremendous vision of what they wanted to do with it."

The success of 'hood movies and ethnic-oriented comedies has attuned the studios in marketing to African American males. But, argues Kenny, "Why do you just have to get black men in? Did white men go see 'First Wives' Club'? And, beyond that, why just one particular race?"

"Maybe they have a better perspective than I do," says Ziskin. "But in recent memory, there hadn't been a family drama aimed at African Americans that had made money. It was a nice movie for an audience to which there was no proven niche yet."

It took the promise of that tight $6.5-million budget and a Babyface-produced soundtrack to cinch the deal, though the Edmondses made it clear their recordings would be issued on their labels, not the studio's (meaning most of the revenues would come to them). Still, with his connections, Edmonds can attract everyone from established musical talent such as Madonna and Stevie Wonder to emerging stars like Erykah Badu. And a hot soundtrack is a powerful marketing tool for a movie.

Even with Kenny's clout, however, the production of a successful movie soundtrack is a painstaking art. On the plus side, "the artists get increased exposure and extra money from soundtrack work," says Tracey. "But there are roadblocks; managers and record labels sometimes get in the way. The artist may have an album out and they don't want the soundtrack competing with it. And then you have to negotiate singles rights; it's hard to promote a soundtrack without singles."

"Soul Food" became the cement in securing an overall three-year deal with Fox 2000 for Edmonds Entertainment.

"I got a sense from them that they really have their finger on the pulse and are very determined to succeed," says Ziskin. "These were people who were not going to fail. We wanted to be a part of that."

Ziskin's instincts proved correct. She was impressed by their follow-through as producers, particularly Tracey, who rode shotgun on the film's production and marketing.

"Opening weekend was a nervous time," says Kenny. "You do a quality project that you know deserves to do well, and whether it does or not depends so much on the marketing. But it wasn't a surprise. We always thought it had a chance."

"Fox did a great job getting the film out there," says Tracey. "They had promotional screenings for church groups and 'Soul Food' recipe place mats in restaurants.

"But if we had to do anything differently," she continues, "it would have been to create TV spots directed to a white audience. The important thing about 'Soul Food' wasn't that it was about an African American family, but that it was about a family."

Having been a producer herself, Ziskin knows that certain movies can play beyond their target audience, if it can only reach them. When "Soul Food" was screened for specially recruited white audiences, they responded enthusiastically. But the studio was ultimately unable to access that audience.

"We failed to cross over with this movie. It's something we have to study and work on in the future."

Crossover potential, however, is also hampered by the policy of releasing African American themed films in a narrower range of theaters than other movies, says Kenny.

" 'First Wives' Club' was released in 2,000 theaters. But most African American films usually don't play in more than 1,100. So even if Oprah recommends a film, some of the [white] women can't go out to see it because it's not playing in their neighborhood, but someplace on the other side of town where they're less likely to go. That's why it's hard for black films to get the big [$100 million] numbers."

Nonetheless, "Soul Food's" sleeper status was like finding a magic decoder ring in a box of Cracker Jack for the Edmondses. Suddenly the studios were calling them and "we started getting garbage bags full of scripts," mostly African American stories with musical elements. They had produced one film and were already being pigeonholed.

"But we don't want to be thought of as making only black music-driven projects," says Tracey.

This, in part, led to the creation of E2 Entertainment, a subsidiary intended to produce edgier, artier, low-budget fare such as "Hav Plenty" "for young filmmakers who have something to say, but can't get the studios to pay attention to them," says Tracey. They are also attached to produce Cherot's next film.

The battles are not over yet. Even after proving themselves, the Edmondses are encountering the same entrenched attitudes in the film industry. "The first thing they want to know is if there's a role for a white piece of talent, so the film can cross over," says Kenny.

"And then they want to know, 'You think you can get Cuba [Gooding Jr.]?' The same five names: Cuba, Denzel [Washington], Morgan [Freeman], Sam Jackson, Will Smith. With women there are only two: Whitney and Angela [Bassett]."

All other African American performers, says Tracey, "are considered interchangeable." While trying to work around the busy schedules of Vanessa Williams and Vivica Fox for "Soul Food," and stay on budget by completing the film in 36 days, Tracey encountered the interchangeability factor at Fox. The studio couldn't understand why she was working so hard to accommodate the two actresses. "Can't you just get someone else?" was the response.

"We really need more African American studio executives," says Kenny.

Ziskin agrees: "The people they have to sell to are mostly middle-aged white guys of a certain generation. If you're not like the people you're selling to, you always have to work harder. The studios need African American executives. We're aware of it. But have we successfully accomplished that? We haven't."

If the Edmondses were unprepared for the intricacies of studio politics, their forays into the world of television have been even more daunting.

"There you have production companies and networks and studios," says Tracey. "TV is even more reticent to give new people a chance."

Still they have navigated the minefield--again thanks to the success of "Soul Food," which will debut as a half-hour sitcom on Fox TV at midseason. "It's more of a 'dramedy' than a sitcom," explains Tracey. "It will be shot one-camera and on film like 'The Wonder Years.' "

They are also working on another sitcom, "Schoolin'," about college life for African Americans today, "a genre that's been missing on TV since 'The Wonder Years,' " says Tracey.

Another hurdle will be to create a black one-hour TV drama, which has thus far been "close to impossible. All they do is hit you with statistics on how it has failed before," says Kenny. But as they have in the past, the Edmondses are planning an end run, hoping to devise a one-hour show that has the same smarts and offbeat appeal as their current favorite program, "Ally McBeal."

The Edmondses have half a dozen film projects in various stages of production. In October, they begin production on "Light It Up," an action film set in the inner city with a mixed racial cast, directed and written by Craig Bolotin. Again, it will boast a power-packed soundtrack.

They are currently awaiting a new draft of "L.C. Soul Unlimited," a semi-autobiographical project based on the formation of Edmonds' first singing group in the early '80s. At MGM they are developing a remake of "The Idolmaker." The original was the story of two Italian American singers who were groomed for stardom by an unscrupulous manager.

Their two high-profile projects are an as-yet-untitled dance-driven love story set in New York, in which John Travolta will star, and a suspense thriller about the murder of a recording icon, in which Garth Brooks will make his acting debut and Brooks and Kenny Edmonds will collaborate on the soundtrack.

Beyond that they are looking to develop film projects to help some of their management clients cross over into film acting, from Chico de Barge to Usher.

'Doors are opening everywhere," says Kenny. "One success leads to another. I'm working with people I might never have come into contact with, even musically. If I hadn't done 'Save the World' (for the 'Phenomenon' soundtrack), I wouldn't be working with Eric Clapton on his new album ['Pilgrim']."

The success of Edmonds Entertainment is key to the growth of African-Americans in the film industry. Now that there are black actors and directors with box-office clout, producers with power are the next logical piece of the process. Each of the few who already have that power brings a strong individual voice, and the more of those voices the better, says Michael Henry Brown. "It's all about the diversity--the permission to get all kinds of material, from the mainstream to the edgy, made."

Todd Boyd of USC agrees.

"We need to look at this in a much broader capacity," he says. "We shouldn't be able to name the producers who have this kind of entree because the number should be so big."

And, at least at Edmonds Entertainment, that seems within reach.

"As these doors open, there's no limit to what we can do," Babyface says, turning to Tracey.

"The sky's the limit," she says with a smile.

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