Picturing itself in the film business

Movies: Black Entertainment Television helps orchestrate a set of features by and for African-Americans.

July 13, 1999|By Greg Braxton | Greg Braxton,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- The faded brick warehouse on a dirty and nearly hidden street near downtown Los Angeles looks like the last place in the world for a Hollywood revolution.

The building, just a stone's throw from the Lacy Street Cabaret, with its promise of "LIVE NUDE GIRLS," couldn't look more weathered and bland.

The painted brick that reads "Dyer Industrial Textiles" has seen better days. Only the trailers, cable and cars that line the street hint that there is more happening within.

The inside of the building, which was formerly used as a sound stage for "Cagney & Lacey," is another world entirely. Brightly lit offices bleed out into a large "bullpen" aisle with people moving quickly and intently along. Behind large closed doors, a film crew is squeezing into a small bedroom set, trying to get a shot of a sexily clad woman lying in bed. The atmosphere is charged with the electricity of a deadline, creative vision and the strains of John Coltrane playing quietly in the background.

Orchestrating the scene like a jazz concerto is Roy Campanella II, whose production company, Directors Circle Filmworks, is making 10 original television movies for Black Entertainment Television that feature African-Americans and target black viewers. The building is the headquarters for BET Arabesque Films, the brand name for the titles. The venture marks the largest single production order involving black features. Blacks are writing and directing the films, and the crews, though diverse, are predominantly black.

The film series, which is scheduled to premiere this fall on the cable network, will also represent an extremely scarce commodity on television: tales of romance, intrigue and suspense featuring characters best described as middle-class black professionals.

What remains untested is whether a market for these stories exists and, if so, how big it is. But the pressure of breaking new ground seems to be far from Campanella's mind at the moment. He's too busy coaxing lead actress Wendy Davis to seem a little sleepier as she picks up a fateful phone call. The film is "Rendezvous," a suspense thriller that is Campanella's homage to several films ranging from Hitchcock classics to "Pulp Fiction."

"The way I'm doing this film is like scoring it to `Ole Coltrane,' " says Campanella, referring to one of the jazz legend's famous tunes. In addition to directing "Rendezvous," Campanella is the executive producer of all the BET films. But he's in the trenches too -- filling in on second camera when the need arises.

"I had each of the cast members adopt a different solo to define their characters," he says, returning to music as the subtext of this particular film. "I wanted something different from an intellectual approach. Davis, who is playing the femme fatale, Jade, is the flute."

Campanella, the namesake of his Hall of Fame Brooklyn Dodger father, goes on to describe the musicians and solos that he assigned to other cast members and their characters.

"And," he concludes with a wide smile, "I'm Elvin Jones, the drummer. I'm keeping the beat."

Controlling the ideas

The dream of such a series of films is nothing new at BET. As Robert L. Johnson, the cable network's founder and CEO, explains it: "There has always been a desire on our part to deliver filmed entertainment to the black consumer market to tell stories that American television will never tell. We've been wanting to do this for quite a while.

"The fundamental difference is that we are approaching this with our own money, that we are controlling the projects and ideas. We have the distribution. We have the methods to market the films."

Although the purse strings on the slate of films is relatively tight by industry standards -- under $1 million each as compared to the $3 million to $4 million average now spent on a typical network film (excluding the mega-events and miniseries) -- Campanella, who graduated with honors from Harvard and earned his M.B.A. from Columbia University, is working with veterans who sound eager to participate in the project.

There are some young people and interns seeking hands-on experience, to be sure, but most of the behind-the-camera work is being performed by professionals with credits on several shows and films.

Actress Holly Robinson Peete, who is starring in "After All," filming at the studio and at various locations around Los Angeles, could barely contain her excitement when talking about the schedule of films.

"This is the most unbelievable experience I've ever had," says Robinson Peete, who also stars in the WB romantic comedy series "For Your Love." "I've been blessed enough to be on television for most of my life, but I've never been lit by a black man before now! I go to get props, and the prop person is black. I have never been on a set that's 85 percent to 90 percent black. This is truly a labor of love."

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