A frustrating reality for many moviegoers is that Hollywood continues to be a battleground of images of race and ethnicity and their relation to the American Dream. Only rarely do mainstream movies not exclude African Americans. Whether discussing D. W. Griffith's 1915 "Birth of a Nation" or Steven Spielberg's more recent "Private Ryan," minorities in general, and black Americans specifically, have yet to figure out how to combat Hollywood's monopoly over the motion-picture image.
Or so it would seem.
In Petersburg, one man is hard at work trying to effect change. "Against all odds" is how Tim Reid, actor-turned-director-turned-struggling studio head, describes the progress made at New Millennium Studios. Just getting people to embrace the idea of a minority-run studio was difficult enough, but to place it a continent away from the epicenter of the movie business seemed to ensure its quick demise.
"Everybody keeps expecting us to fail," says Reid, "I remember at the groundbreaking hearing people talking about being able to buy everything for 25 cents on the dollar soon. Well, that was four-and-a-half years ago and we're still here."
Still here, indeed.
On March 24, with little fanfare, Reid and New Millennium took another giant but necessary step toward helping African Americans chart their own cinematic destiny: the creation of New Millennium Releasing. Although the announcement didn't even register as a blip on mainstream America's cultural radar screen, Hollywood took notice. Because while it's one thing to make a movie, if that movie never makes it to the screen, it's worthless. And playing on-screen, even for as brief a run as two weeks, can mean a significant boost in the cable-market interest and video sales and rentals.
"People who aren't in the business think that [a film] has to open on 1,500 screens to be successful," says Reid, "but that's far from the reality. We thought, 'Well, if we truly are going to be an independent, then we ought to be releasing films for and by people of color.'"
Or to put it another way, "Necessity is often the mother of invention," Reid says, laughing. When he began to shop the studio's first feature film, "Asunder," around Hollywood, no one seemed interested. "The return numbers were too small," explains Reid, "because if it isn't a 'hood' movie or doesn't have a $5-$10 million star in the cast, the big studios are not interested in it."
Shot in just 22 days and with a budget of $2 million, "Asunder" was assured to make money if it could just get on some movie screens. "We've already sold the foreign rights," says Reid, "so we've already gotten half the picture's cost right there." On April 7, the psychological thriller, starring Blair Underwood ("City of Angels"), Michael Beach ("Third Watch") and Debbi Morgan ("Eve's Bayou"), opened on screens in Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News. On April 14, "Asunder" opened in Chicago; on April 21 it hits screens in Columbus, Ohio.
The ever-pragmatic Reid knows exactly what he's doing. "If 'Asunder' works well in limited release," says Reid, "we might roll it out to more screens across the Southeast. But mostly we're looking for this limited release to boost home video sales and the cable market. Plus, this is a great opportunity for the staff at New Millennium to learn the distribution end of the movie industry."
Although "Asunder" may not the best work done by any of its stars, the thriller will enjoy an admirable place in movie history. Not only is it the first feature film produced at the nation's sole minority-run studio, it can also be recorded as the first film released by that same history-making studio in the 21st century.
That Y2K reference is necessary, because Reid isn't breaking new ground. Instead, he's breathing new life into a long-standing, if not profitable, tradition. To combat Hollywood's chokehold on the images put on the silver screen, major independent African-American film companies sprang up during the 20th century in such diverse places as Chicago; Omaha, Neb.; and at one time, even rural Texas, releasing as many as 500 films between 1915 and 1950. But faced with the growing post-World War II prosperity and increasing competition from Hollywood, most of those independents were forced out of business by the early '50s.
Forty-plus years later, Reid hopes he's adding more than just a footnote to movie history. "What we've been able to accomplish at New Millennium," says Reid, "is a testament to what can happen when people share a passion and faith.
"We're just like the big boys," he adds proudly, "All of this done right here in what once was a soybean field in Petersburg, Virginia. Who'da thunk it?"
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