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'Sankofa' Takes a Different Route to Theaters : Movies: Independent co-producers became entrepreneurs to help get 'Sankofa,' their critically acclaimed but studio-ignored film, distributed.

January 25, 1994|ELAINE TASSY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To complete their feature film on slavery, independent producers Haile Gerima and Shirikiana Aina pleaded for foundation grants, bartered for plane tickets and lodging and charged supplies on their credit cards.

They finished the film near the end of last year for less than $1 million. But making "Sankofa" was the easy part.

Making the rounds of film festivals around the world, director Gerima and co-producer Aina reaped critical praise and a few prizes for the film, which examines slavery through the eyes of a young African American woman. But from the hundreds of distributors who saw the film, they got nary a nibble. "We did not get a peep," Aina said.

"To me, that speaks of the unreadiness of the industry in certain issues," Gerima said. "I think it has to do with the racism within Hollywood that pretends to parade as liberal."

Whatever the reason, the lack of interest is no surprise to industry observers. What's unusual is the back door that Aina and Gerima--husband and wife who are also professors at the communications school at Howard University in Washington--used to get the film into a few theaters.

"There is a not an interest in Hollywood to make African American-targeted films unless they can make money," said Byron Lewis, chairman of New York's Uniworld Group, an advertising firm that specializes in marketing to minorities. The screenplays that demonstrate moneymaking ability have been "the urban psychodramas, the films that talk about young people, gangs (and) violence," said Lewis, whose firm has aided major studios in marketing movies to blacks.

"Sankofa" had another built-in risk for a distributor looking for a return on investment in promotion and distribution costs: No big stars. The lead roles are played by Ghanaian actress Alexandra Duah and Washington actress Oyafunmike Ogunlano, both virtually unknown. Studios spend an average of $11.9 million marketing a film. And they don't want to risk losing money by experimenting with anything outside the tried-and-true format, Lewis said.

Convinced there was an audience for their film, Gerima and Aina turned to friends in their hometown of Washington for help. They formed a committee of local supporters who helped throw a fund-raising premiere that pulled in more than $20,000. With that they rented a Washington movie theater in October, and the film played there for 11 weeks, outlasting many other discount-priced films at the theater.

"Sankofa," Gerima's seventh film, has become something of a phenomenon in Washington, drawing a steady stream of moviegoers largely through word of mouth. Its advertising campaign includes a simple black-and-white poster, leaflets and local radio and TV appearances by the filmmakers.

Gerima and Aina made enough of a profit (which they split with the theater owners) to make copies of the film and release it in a second city. On Jan. 21, it premiered at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and on Friday, it will open at a Boston movie theater for an indefinite run.

"I think it's going to be interesting in Boston. They had to turn away over 500 people the first night it premiered," Gerima said, adding that the interest in Boston stemmed from the film's success in Washington.

The film is scheduled to be shown in a Baltimore shopping mall in February and later in New York. Gerima also expects to show the film in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Atlanta.

The studios' decision to overlook films such as "Sankofa" can be a big mistake, warned Ken Smikle, publisher of Target Market News, a Chicago-based newsletter that tracks developments in marketing to black consumers.

"This lack of risk taking is going to come back to haunt distributors," because blacks are a fast-growing segment of the nation's movie audience, he said. "The future really belongs to those who know how to serve those markets."

For now, Gerima's and Aina's grass-roots distribution may be the only option for black independent filmmakers, said Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

Independent "filmmakers have to be extraordinarily resourceful in finding a venue where they can begin to build a public. Spike Lee (a graduate of NYU's film program) tells students when he comes to talk to them not to wait to be discovered, but to make it happen on your own," she said. "That's the entrepreneurial approach we try to convey."

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