Johnson, Weinsteins form a studio

July 14, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

For decades, Hollywood observers have said African-Americans and whites would not operate on a level playing field - or sound stage - until the ranks of studio executives and producers opened to black talents.

Yesterday, Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, moved to even the landscape. He announced the formation of Our Stories Films, a company dedicated to producing African-American family comedies. He's chosen partners who've proven themselves at making fresh inroads with audiences and moviemakers: Bob and Harvey Weinstein, co-founders of Miramax and co-chairmen of the Weinstein Co.

"The one consistent cry I've heard from the black creative community in Hollywood is, `Why is there no black-owned film studio where a black person green-lights the movies?'" says Johnson. The obvious answer, to Johnson, was, "No African-American was in the position or willing to take the risk to put up his or her money to put that studio in place."

On the phone from Aspen, Colo., Johnson said headquarters in Los Angeles and offices in New York should be up and running by midfall, with their first pictures entering production early next year and reaching theaters that summer. He and the Weinsteins weren't ready to announce target numbers. "Right now, what we've got to do is find the head of the studio," he says.

JP Morgan Chase has pledged $175 million for the project. In a statement, managing director John W. Miller calls the project "long overdue in Hollywood."

"We could not be more excited about working with Bob Johnson, a partner who clearly understands the financial realities of the film business ... and urban-based consumers," says Miller.

Johnson, also owner of the NBA Charlotte Bobcats and founder of the RLJ Companies, a business network based in Bethesda, initiated the creation of Our Stories Films five months ago. He did what he says he always does: Look for "strategic partners, who in this case would (1) believe in making films and marketing films that can target a group that has been underserved, and (2) add value to what I bring to the company."

Johnson has long respected Harvey Weinstein for being "as passionate about movies as he is aggressive from a marketing viewpoint, as well as being very good at brand-building - like my group at BET." In addition to the Weinstein Co., the brothers control Dimension Films, which has enjoyed consistent success with urban audiences since Bob Weinstein founded it in 1994. The division boasts numerous lucrative genre franchises such as the Scary Movie and Spy Kids series.

So, Johnson said, he called Harvey Weinstein and asked, "How would you like to create a black-Jewish combination as great as Roy Campanella and Sandy Koufax?' "

Johnson's company will call the shots on production, "but it will be a collaborative partnership - I wouldn't think about making a film without talking to Harvey and Bob about the script," he said. Dimension Films will distribute the movies.

Johnson wants major African-American talents to "see this as a unique opportunity to help grow a studio." By offering them a piece of the box-office action and establishing a reputation for honesty and transparency, he hopes established actors and directors will "get into the risk business with us. We won't make it a shell game where you hide the profits."

Under the family-comedy umbrella, Johnson includes romantic comedies such as Will Smith in Hitch, ensemble comedies such as the Barbershop movies, outrageous comedies like Tyler Perry's drag farces, even buddy movies like 48 HRS. - with violence and language toned down for family audiences.

"I like fish-out-of-water stories," he says, such as one that actor-filmmaker Tim Reid has mentioned to him, The Don: An Equal Opportunity Employer, about an African-American who becomes a made man in the Mafia. Doubtless, if it does become a family film for Our Stories, it will never be mistaken for an episode of The Sopranos.

In a statement, the Weinsteins said, "We are proud to be behind this venture and are confident in Bob Johnson's taste and his ability to identify projects that will be successful. We are committed to releasing a slate of films focused in the African-American family genre and to working with Our Stories to launch their exciting new brand."

Like the Weinsteins, who built their success at Miramax and Dimension on everything from The English Patient to Bad Santa, Johnson doesn't want to rely on one winning formula. "If we have a home run, we won't just try to repeat it. I want to stay in the sweet zone, swing for singles and doubles and every now and then a triple."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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