Black Directors Using DVD to Their Advantage

Associated Press

Most moviemakers want to see their work on the big screen. But many black independent filmmakers have found a profitable venue long considered the kiss of death: straight-to-video.

Even before the surging popularity of DVDs led major Hollywood studios to focus on the home video market, black filmmakers saw the advantage there. Not only could they target their films directly to an underserved audience, but with lower budgets and overhead, they stood a better chance of making money.

“It’s the best way to go,” says Carl Seaton, a Los Angeles writer-director. His 2000 melodrama, “One Week,” got a limited theatrical release and decent reviews; the New York Times called it “scrappy and earnest.” Still, he has opted to go direct to DVD next year with his feature “Sacred,” starring the rapper Nas.


“It costs so much money to release a film theatrically,” says Seaton, who made “Sacred” for $300,000, which he financed himself. “If you’ve shot your film on a small enough budget, you can make money very quickly on rental and retail sales, and Hollywood Video and Blockbuster are buying large amounts of product.”

Filmmakers of all ethnicities have gone straight to video for years. But black films were among the first to prove the market was more than a dumping ground, and they have subsequently paved the way for other genres traditionally shut out of theaters.

“We’ve seen a huge growth in product coming out of the Latin market and South Asia, specifically India -- the whole Bollywood phenomenon,” Nick Shepherd, chief of marketing and merchandising for Blockbuster, says from his Dallas headquarters. “There is now a big requirement to stock our shelves in certain demographics with certain localized tastes.”

Ethnic genres are part of the booming $2-billion direct-to-DVD market. On their own, they’re considered too risky for major Hollywood investment.

“If it doesn’t appeal worldwide, it isn’t important to the big studios,” says film distributor Doug Schwab, president of Maverick Entertainment and controlling partner of the production company Breakaway Films.

Schwab, a former buyer for Blockbuster, says he jumped into the urban video market six years ago when “there were only one or two video labels releasing African American product, and African Americans were the number one demographic group.”


Schwab’s companies annually produce as many as 15 films (budgeted at less than $1 million) and distribute 48 black and Latino titles a year. Among them: “Senorita Justice” with Edith Gonzalez and Tito Puente Jr. and “My Big Phat Hip Hop Family” starring comedian Reynaldo Rey, sitcom veteran Anna Maria Horsford and rapper Choppa for Breakaway Films.

Schwab is bidding against three other companies to distribute “Game Over,” a martial arts film featuring Daz Crawford (“Blade 2”) and stuntman Andre “Chyna” McCoy (“The Matrix”) by freshman producer Kasim Saul.

“Everything in the studio system is designed to slow you down,” says Saul, a New York actor who found little work in L.A. outside commercials and TV guest spots. “If the door is shut to you, you can sit and stare at the door or you can gather the troops.”

It wasn’t so long ago that “straight to video” was a phrase no filmmaker wanted to hear. These days they can be the difference between life and death for films such as Tim Reid’s 1998 self-financed drama “Asunder,” starring Blair Underwood, or “Pandora’s Box,” starring model Tyson Beckford, Monica Calhoun (“Love & Basketball”) and Kristoff St. John (“Young & The Restless”) and reportedly shot for $800,000. It had a limited theatrical run in 2002.

“I’d see great films at festivals that never had a life after the festival, before these straight-to-video deals,” says writer-director Carol Mayes. Her romance “Commitments,” with Victoria Dillard and Allen Payne, aired last year on the BET cable network before it went to video.

“Now at least these films will have a life, a forever life,” Mayes says. “The bottom line is to get your film seen by any means necessary.”


Not all independent films are created equal. Budgets range from $75,000 to $2 million, with tight shooting schedules that call for lickety-split decisions.

St. John of “Pandora’s Box” says his director “couldn’t take a lot of time to set up his shots because we were working under such a strenuous five to six week shooting schedule. He had to take pretty much what he got after the first couple of takes.”

“It’s guerrilla filmmaking,” says LisaRaye, who has become one of the most recognizable up-and-coming black actresses and co-stars on UPN’s comedy “All of Us,” produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith.

With a starring role in Ice Cube’s “The Players Club” in 1998, an appearance in the 1999 sleeper “The Wood” and in Neema Barnette’s $500,000 babes-behind-bars DVD release “Civil Brand” in 2002, LisaRaye’s career has straddled quality productions and third-rate pictures where “we didn’t have any trailers.”

“It was about getting the experience,” LisaRaye says in a phone interview from the “All of Us” set in Studio City. “Directors and casting people know what to look for even if the quality of the film is not there.”

Well-produced movies are becoming increasingly important as the market has been quickly “over-saturated with too much low-priced, low-budget, low-production-value urban product,” says Scott Hettrick, editor of “DVD Exclusive” magazine. “There was a sudden craze for hip-hop [movies] and now we’re back to where consumers are a little more selective about what they enjoy.”


“The good news,” Hettrick added, “is that this is a whole new category in programming that now exists.”