Fighting for films

Group takes a role in turning out hits

Movies

December 02, 2007|By Lisa Troshinsky | Lisa Troshinsky,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sandra Evers-Manly was 12 years old when she started writing letters to TV stations, asking why there weren't people like herself on her favorite programs. The networks wrote back, saying they were aware of the lack of black people on television and they "were working on the problem."

Evers-Manly wasn't satisfied with that response.

Years after her childhood letters, she continued to look for ways to promote African-Americans in film and television. In 1996, she started Black Hollywood Education & Resource Center, which raises awareness about African-Americans and other minorities in film and television.

"We've seen tremendous progress [in the exposure of minority artists on film]. The numbers grow because of our organization's awareness campaigns," said Evers-Manly, who, before taking her position as BHERC president, was the Hollywood NAACP president.

At BHERC, she organizes film festivals for African-Americans to showcase their work and helps budding artists by offering computer-graphics and animation seminars and resources for TV- and film-writing scholarships.

To gain exposure for African-American movies, BHERC tries to bolster box-office sales when the movies need it the most.

To this end, in 1997 BHERC created the First Weekend Club (firstweekendclub.org), which encourages movie-goers to attend films by and featuring blacks on the first weekend of release.

"The opening weekend of a film is the most important thing in it making a big splash, especially since movies drop off so quickly these days," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers, a Los Angeles-based box office tracking firm.

How many tickets a film sells during its first weekend is often a strong indicator of its success and longevity in theaters before it moves onto a DVD, he says.

BHERC Executive Director John Forbe agrees.

"Studios look at how much money they make per screen," Forbe says. "If a movie [starring a black cast] does well per screen, it encourages the studios to open the film in more theaters."

Evers-Manly cited an example of the First Weekend Club's impact. One California chapter persuaded a Ventura theater to screen Tyler Perry's box-office hit Why Did I Get Married? The theater had not planned to show the movie.

"The chapter members asked how many patrons they would have to bring in to get the movie screened there, and were told at least 200 on the first weekend. They got 250 on [opening] night," she said.

The First Weekend Club has a strong East Coast presence. Cities such as Baltimore and Washington, which have a large African-American population, are major hubs for blacks in film and TV.

Of the 3,700 members in the club, Baltimore's chapter boasts more than 500, Evers-Manly said.

The popularity of filmmakers and actors also plays a huge part in a movie's prosperity.

In fact, some black films that are not big-screen releases earn millions of dollars more than do non-minority movies that are heavily advertised.

Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?, released in October, is a prime example.

The movie earned $21.5 million during its first weekend. The heavily hyped movies Michael Clayton, which starred George Clooney, and We Own the Night, which starred Mark Wahlberg, opened the same weekend. Both those movies earned $11 million, according to Nielsen EDI.

Despite the success of Perry and other filmmakers, such as Spike Lee, Evers-Manly says, "We need more family-oriented stories about the black experience, black professionals and wholesome black males."

unisun@baltsun.com

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