*There have been many great battles fought in the not so secret war for control of Black images and ideas. The American descendents African slaves are arguably the most universally creative people in the world. No matter how many times this has been said in the past it is no less poignant a phrase today.
With that being said, African Americans generally have little to no control over the means by which their arts are distributed. Modern times find Blacks in a better position to create, distribute and reap the benefits of their creations more than ever. This is especially true in the film industry.
Tyler Perry has managed to turn his wildly popular morality based stage plays into a multi-million dollar company and has created a character in Madea that is known by at least half the country. He has even obtained the golden-fleece of black filmmaking by opening up his own studio (TP Studios) in Atlanta, Georgia.
However, Perry’s recent victories in the war would not have been made possible if it weren’t for battles fought by Spike Lee in the 90s and 80s. Though they differ philosophically, Perry and Lee are both officers in the same army in the battle for black control of black imagery. Perry could not be without Lee, just as Spike Lee is on the shoulders of Melvin Van Peebles and Van Peebles rides the shoulders of Oscar Micheaux and others.
It is in that same tradition that real estate mogul Emelyn Stuart decided to start Stuart Films in 2008. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Ms. Stuart at the 3rd Anniversary Stuart Films celebration held at Pascha in New York City. First thing on my mind was what would make a successful real estate company owner decide to start producing films on her own dime?
“You know, it’s as funny as somebody giving me a script three years ago and they had no resources, no money, no cast and they said they wanted me to help them,” she explained. “All while I’ve been sort of in the entertainment world, but always as a spectator. So, I called a couple of friends, one in particular at NBC, and said I want to make a film. He said ‘Crazy woman, if you’re wanting to put your money behind a film call us. We’ll help you.’
According to Emelyn, she had only intended on being in the game for one project, but saw a need and figured there was no one better suited to fill that need than she.
“Then I saw that there was a need for producers like myself to take talented people and give them the platform that they need,” she continued. “A lot of the people you see here are unknown and we’re starting to attract B-listers and A-listers to want to join us, which is great. We have Paul Mooney who’s looking to join us on Tony Clomax’s ’12 Step’s To Recovery’, Vanessa Williams is a part of ‘Game Night’. We have tremendous names, some names I can’t release, that are looking to join us on these projects.”
We understand how altruism can draw well intentioned individuals into films, but the bottom line is always cold hard cash. I asked why would she put up so much of her cash to create projects that might not recoup until later on if at all?
“A lot of it has been sponsors where people will say ‘If you put my stuff in your program’ or ‘if you cut a commercial for us then…’, she explained. “I have a real estate background as well. I own a real estate company. Being an investor on some of the smaller projects wasn’t that big a deal for me, but the money has come back to me in so many other ways. I’ve been able to leverage one product for another. For example, ’12 Steps’ is already on cable (Black Broadcasting Network). ‘Boyz, Girlz and Sparks’ is the other TV project right behind it sort of following in its footsteps. ’12 Steps’ already opened a lot of the doors that we need so then the money flows a lot easier.”
If you’ve never heard of “12 Steps to Recovery” then you can log on to www.youtube.com/12stepswebseries. It’s described as “Sex in the City” meets “Curb You Enthusiasm” and recently won an award at the 9th Urban Mediamakers Film Festival. Though that web turned television series features adult humor, Stuart says “Boyz, Girlz and Sparkz” is something that was designed specifically with teenagers and young adults in mind.
“‘Boyz, Girlz and Sparkz’ came out of my desire to have a safe show for teenagers, representing a lot of different peoples,” emphasized Stuart. “Not just certain kids from suburbia or city or whatever. We’ve got that great mixture, weve been shooting and we’re on episode number 3. Once we get a couple more episodes we’re going to go ahead and start pitching it around to the networks.
“I think more than having great projects, it’s more important to have marketable projects. I think of a lot of people with great projects that go nowhere because they’re not marketable. So, there has to be a combination of talent and marketability and I really think that is the gray area that people are not catching in this business.”
Yes, marketability is certainly very important when it comes to making films. After all, they’re not being made for the sake of having been made. They’re usually created with a particular audience in mind. So, what type of audience would a 5 foot 9 inch tall Black woman with a decidedly curvy physical disposition get you? Actress Vanessa Williams is hoping that audience is wide and diverse. I happened upon the woman who made the term “Rock-a-bye baby” a permanent part of the American film going lexicon in her role as Keisha in the cult classic “New Jack City” at the Stuart Film Anniversary party. She and Stuart Films are about to put out a project she says is near and dear to her heart.
“This is the part of the vision of really doing it for ourselves,” said Williams of her relationship with Stuart Films. “My production company Love and Life, in conjunction with Red Wall Productions and Stuart Films are getting together to do a film called ‘Game Night’. I’m the star and co-producer. It’s really exciting to take on that producer hat. It’s been a long trek, but we’re going to put it all together and really make it happen.”
“(Game Night) is a beautiful ensemble piece about some friends who have a weekly game night; chess, spades, cards, board games. One of the friends finds out some information about another one betraying him and he takes the whole room hostage. The movie is about what ensues afterward. It’s thrilling and suspenseful. Stuart Films is executive producing and really helping us get it into production within the next few months.”
Sounds like that ought to be worth a gander if not only to see Williams’ smile. The timing of the Stuart Films celebration actually coincided with hot debate over the Oscar’s shutting out African Americans yet again. But it actually goes even deeper than that. Hollywood has not cast a African American actress in anything meaningful in quite some time.
“Not much has changed for black women. But, the thing is, I say that then I take it back,” she pondered. “I say you get what you believe. It’s opportunities like this, companies like Stuart Films. It’s like we can’t wait to be discovered. We’ve got to discover ourselves, invest in ourselves and create the vehicles for ourselves. The beautiful thing is with the paradigm shift with the advent of the Internet we can get to out constituencies directly. We can support each other, create content for the people who want it and get it to them, and make bank that way.”
For additional information on Stuart Films log on to www.stuartfilmgroup.com. In closing Emelyn told me the next great step for Stuart Films is opening up a studio in Jacksonville, Florida. Wow, what a difference three years makes. We will, of course, be keeping you up to date on the goings on of Stuart Films.