6 shooting stars in television & film – African American producers and directors
African Americans spend more time watching television and going to the movies than any other segment of the population. And there have always been films and television shows aimed at this eager audience – but they rarely feature African Americans behind the scenes, writing, producing and directing.
As a result, the stories and characters row models of how white writers believe black people feel, think and live. And more often than not, comedy is the message. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change: Young black writers, directors and producers are increasingly taking a more active role in the industry.
Though problems do persist, the climate is getting better. African Americans still have to fight being stereotyped as ‘hood directors. And black television writers and producers are still more likely to be found creating and writing sitcoms than dramas. Of course, black Hollywood can’t be built in a day. Here are some young African Americans who have the chance to influence the images we see. They are contributing to a new direction for blacks in television and film entertainment – both in front of and behind the camera.
Bentley Kyle Evans
In Hollywood, Bentley Kyle Evans is running the show. Actually he’s running two shows simultaneously for two networks. At 30, Evans is quickly making his mark among the entertainment glitterati. In 1995 he inked a multimillion-dollar development deal with Warner Brothers to create new television programming.
His first effort under the WB deal is The Jamie Foxx Show. The highest tested pilot in WB’s history, it debuted this past September as the No. 1 program in its time slot. Evans is also co-executive producer/ head writer for the Fox comedy, Martin, starring Martin Lawrence.
This double duty puts Evans in charge of a staff of over 100, and budgets in the millions. A typical 12-13-hour day includes brainstorming sessions with writers, working with directors and producers, writing and overlooking scripts and casting extras. “It can be mentally challenging,” he admits, but he uses his youth to his advantage.
Evans hasn’t limited himself to the small screen. He co-wrote A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, a $7 million film starring Martin Lawrence that grossed more than $40 million “Opportunities are here [in Hollywood] as they’ve never been before,” asserts Evans. “It’s a good time for African Americans both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.”
Evans’ first gig in the entertainment business was his acting debut in Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle in 1986. He followed with small roles in a few network shows before moving be hind the scenes to master the dynamics of television writing at Martin. Since the show’s debut, he has been promoted five times – from writer to executive story editor, to co-producer, then producer, to his current title.
“It’s really a matter or taste,” says the young pioneer, reflecting on African American images on television. The Jamie Foxx Show is a family-oriented program that reflects my vision, while Martin is more cutting-edge and showcases Martin’s personality.”
F. Gary Gray
Gray got his first taste of commercial success in 1995 after directing Friday, a comedy set in the ‘hood, and starring rapper/actor Ice Cube and comedian Chris Tucker. Made for under $3 million, the movie grossed $30 million, making it one of last year’s most successful films relative to cost. Now Gray hopes his sophomore effort, Set It Off, a bank heist drama with a female spin and starring Jada Pinkett and Queen Latifah, firmly establishes him as a “new jack” director to be reckoned with.
A former cameraman for BET’s Screen Scene and Fox’s music video show Pump It Up, Gray got his start through a meeting with the members of the rap group, W.C. and the Maad Circle. After some quick talking, he convinced the group that he should direct their next music video. With his foot in the door, he was soon working with such established acts as Ice Cube, Mary J. Blige and TLC.
Gray took home a host of trophies at the 1995 MTV Music Video Awards show, including Video of the Year for TLC’s Waterfalls. His obvious talent led Ice Cube to bring Gray on board as the director of Friday. “They could have easily put someone in there who had directed a film before,” Gray says. “It’s never easy to get your first film, but [Cube] and New Line believed in my vision and here I am.”
Currently, Gray is in talks with studio executives about directing a feature film version of the TV series SWAT, produced by Oliver Stone. But Gray isn’t taking any of his success for granted just yet. “The thing about the film industry is one hit can put you on the map. But at the same time’ if you don’t consistently deliver, especially if you’re a black filmmaker, you can go as fast as you come.”
Five years ago, Kim Greene and Camille Tucker dreamed of writing and directing films. Today, they’re living those dreams, dealing with multimillion-dollar budgets and more work than they can handle. The African American femalewriting/directing/producing duo has three upcoming feature films at three major studios: Golddiggaz, with Boyz ‘N’ The Hood director John Singleton for Universal Pictures; M’Lady, a romantic comedy produced by Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Film at TriStar; and How To Marry A Black Man, for Whitney Houston’s production company at Touchstone.
Greene and Tucker’s talents extend to the small screen as well; they’re currently creating and producing a dramatic pilot for Fox Television.
How’d they get there? In 1992, Greene and Tucker were working as secretaries when they decided to try their hand at making a film. The result, Sweet Potato Ride, is a 40-minute short about the adventures of a 10-year-old boy from L.A.’s Crenshaw district, who runs away from home to escape a spanking. It was shot in two weeks on a meager $22,000 budget, but the response was tremendous.
After meeting director Bill Duke at a party and convincing him to serve as executive producer, the pair focused on fundraising. They received support from the Hollywood/Beverly Hills NAACP, and obtained donations and supplies from Kodak and Technicolor. Greene and Tucker also received financial support from various individuals. Sweet Potato Ride was so successful [at fundraising] because we were determined to raise capital, whether it was a $25 donation from the corner grocer or a $5,000 contribution from a major corporation,” says Greene.
Fundraising woes now behind them, Greene and Tucker are embarking on a “sweet ride” of their own, and they’re planning on taking television and film audiences with them.
Tell Laura L. Hunter that her job at Nickelodeon is just kid’s stuff, and she’ll probably agree with you. Her new post as vice president of programming is nothing to make light of, but when you’re in this line of work, there’s got to be room for levity.
Hunter joined the network in 1992 as a project manager and, in just four years, became one of the major players responsible for Nickelodeon’s superior ratings. She started making waves in 1993 when, as director of international operations and business development, she launched the network’s first international channel in the United Kingdom. today, this Los Angeles native takes charge of long-term and day-to-day scheduling for Nickelodeon. She meets with researchers, determines what kind of programming is needed nd figures out how to play and premiere shows.
“The big challenge is keeping ahead, especially with all of the mergers that have taken place,” admits the 34-year-old Yale graduate. “Other networks [ABC/ Disney, Fox and the Cartoon Network] are now realizing that the kids business is a viable one.”
Hunter is keeping one step in front of the competition through a number of projects, including her development of a sophisticated Media Planning Department, and her work on youth-related ventures. Both The Kids’ Choice Award, a People’s Choice Award for Kids, and The Big Help, an initiative to encourage community service, have achieved record-breaking responses from kids across the nation.
Hunter is in the company of a number of African American female vice presidents at Nickelodeon who have followed a similar path of achievement. Meanwhile, she is counting on her awareness of business trends and her knack for sparking new ideas to help keep Nickelodeon the No. 1 rated, 24-hour basic cable channel.
The next time you’re watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show on television, you may have Jennifer Warren to thank for it. As counsel, business and legal affairs for 20th Television, Warren is one of five lawyers who negotiate and draft licensing agreements for the basic cable library of movies controlled by this unit of Fox Television.
“Through negotiation, we determine who gets to see what on which channel for how much,” says Warren. She recently negotiated a $1.3 million, 12-movie licensing agreement with USA Network that will allow the network to show 12 movies from Fox’s library, twice a day during specific months over the next five and a half years. For example, because of Halloween, Rocky Horror is a hot licensing product for the month of October.
The University of Michigan Law School graduate also negotiates development deals, distribution agreements and financing for new fox television shows. “I just closed a deal for a new teen situation comedy to compete with California Dreams and Saved by the Bell,” says Warren. The sitcom, which will shoot 26 episodes at $350,00 each, is anticipated to debut in 1997.
Warren says she honed her negotiating skills as a securities lawyer at two New York law firms from 1990-095. Then as senior associate attorney for Tenzer Greenblatt, L.L.P., she began doing TV network and affiliate deals. She aggressively learned about the media business, with her ultimate sights set on the broadcast entertainment business. She moved to Fox last May.
“The media and entertainment industry needs more black professionals,” says Warren. “Television is in everyone’s home, but the people who determine what you’re going to see are predominantly Caucasian.”
COPYRIGHT 1996 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group