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The 'Bus' Stopped Here

Movies: In an unusual strategy, a group of 15 black investors came together to finance the making of Spike Lee's latest film.

October 16, 1996|JUDY BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Traveling in a coach packed with personalities from South-Central Los Angeles to Washington was one thing. Negotiating a commercially questionable, highly personal vehicle through the treacherous straits of Hollywood finance was something else. Call it the little "Bus" that could.

Spike Lee's "Get on the Bus" arrives in 1,207 theaters today, on the one-year anniversary of the "Million Man March"--a tribute to three determined producers, one passionate director and 15 committed risk-takers.

Lee's film was shot in three weeks and lacks the frills of a typical Hollywood movie. It tells the dramatic story of a group of Los Angeles men, bus-bound for Washington on a common cause but who wind up exploring much more about themselves. The story is punctuated with humor and sadness similar to Lee's breakthrough film "Do the Right Thing."

It was made for a mere $2.4 million, financed by 15 athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and others (through a production company they named 15 Black Men), some of whom put up $100,000, others $200,000. In what producer Reuben Cannon calls a precedent-setting financial arrangement, each was repaid in full on his investment, with 8% interest, before one reel was shipped to theaters. They stand to share in whatever profits may result. (The actors worked for scale; those who worked the most will share in the profits.)

But most investors said the venture wasn't about money.

From the moment Robert Guillaume (best known as the title character in TV's "Benson") opened his pitch letter from Cannon, "I thought the movie was an excellent idea. It was an idea whose time had come. I believe in it, since one never knows how a film like this could play out."

Asked if he had preferred to star instead of invest, Guillaume said: "Well, I guess the actor side of me asked, 'Why didn't they use me?' But the other side of me said, 'Sure, this is a risky venture, but why not?' I talked about it with my wife and realized this is one of those things where you have to put your money where your mouth is . . . or shut up."

While backing a project like this with guerrilla-style financing sounded noble, it was far from easy. The responsibility fell to Cannon, a casting director ("The Color Purple," "Fly Away Home") and TV producer who was producing his first feature film. He also cast the film.

After being turned down by what he said were some major figures in entertainment and sports, Cannon eventually formed a lineup that included actors Guillaume, Danny Glover, Will Smith and Wesley Snipes; San Antonio Spurs basketball player Charles D. Smith; record mogul Jheryl Busby; businessman Olden Lee; record producer, manager and attorney Larkin Arnold; investment banker Calvin Grigsby; Black Entertainment Television Chairman and chief executive Robert Johnson; stockbroker Lemuel Daniels; attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.; the film's screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood; producer Cannon; and director Lee, who also served as executive producer. (The production, seeking to mirror the march's theme of African American self-reliance, solicited only black investors. In lieu of a cash investment, Bill Borden and Barry Rosenbush, who are white, provided all other producer services and will share in the profits, Cannon said.)

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"I've known Reuben for years," Smith said. "I think he saw me at the march from a news clip. Next to my son being born, that march was one of the most important moments of my life. So when Reuben said they needed help, I knew I had to be a part of it. I knew it was a risk, but what isn't that's worthwhile? Besides, I creatively trust Spike. This was something I believed in and I would absolutely do it again--despite the box-office results to come."

It is an important legacy to leave to his son, Smith said, as well as the statement he hopes it will make to the African American community at large.

Cannon, meanwhile, is quick to credit Borden and Rosenbush with creating the film's concept and keeping the effort afloat. They bankrolled the production operation significantly.

"It was Bill who said, 'What if we were to make a movie about a group of black men on a bus headed to the Million Man March?' Barry enhanced it. It wouldn't have happened without them or Spike," he said. Or Columbia Pictures, for that matter.

It has been one of the worst years in memory for that studio--mired in internal turmoil with management turnover and numerous flops--but the backers of this film believe it could help the company end the year on a positive note. The studio will spend $10 million to $12 million to market "Get on the Bus."

Columbia's deal with the producers hinged on them raising the production budget from investors, then in turn paying them back once Lee delivered the final cut to the studio.

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