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How Certain Films Find a 'Groove'

Movies: A national campaign courts Hollywood by supporting select African American films.

August 18, 1998|JENNIFER NAPIER-PEARCE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Businesswoman Inez Brand spent all day Friday in Los Angeles attending a conference, but she was determined to fly back to her Dallas hometown in time to see "How Stella Got Her Groove Back."

In Los Angeles, Reyna Gaar had to buy "Stella" tickets several hours in advance on Saturday at the Magic Johnson Theatres, where the show consistently sold out through the weekend despite being shown on seven screens.

In cities across the nation, thousands like Brand and Gaar flocked to theaters to see "Stella," not only because they were eager to see the Angela Bassett-starring film, but also to be part of an effort organized by the L.A.-based First Weekend Club. The club's goal: to grab Hollywood's attention by supporting selected African American films at the box office in their first weekend of release.

"People have been waiting with bated breath for 'Stella,' " says Brand, president of the club's Dallas chapter. "We're anxious to participate in sending a message to Hollywood, and it makes us feel good to know that we are part of the solution."

In get-out-the-vote style, the club mobilized more than 4,700 members (each of whom committed to recruiting 10 more people) nationwide to see "Stella," contributing to the film's healthy box-office showing over the weekend. The 20th Century Fox film, based on the bestseller by Terry McMillan, grossed about $11.8 million in its first three days, coming in second only to "Saving Private Ryan."

"Stella" is the latest of several films the First Weekend Club has endorsed over the last year. Part of the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, the club hopes that supporting films made by and starring African Americans will remedy the dearth of nonstereotyped images on the big screen, says Sandra Evers-Manly, 38, club co-founder and president of the Resource Center. Money talks in Hollywood, she says, and such financial advocacy is particularly effective.

"If we want to make a difference, we've got to go out the first weekend," she says. "We want to make sure there is consistent support for quality shows."

Over the last year, First Weekend chapters have sprung up in Dallas, Sacramento, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Oakland, and the club's strategy of catching the attention of studio executives is working, says Tom Rothman, president of 20th Century Fox Film Productions.

"It started with [1995's] 'Waiting to Exhale,' and in the weeks leading up to 'Stella' we saw a strong growing interest," Rothman says. "You take a chance when you make a film, and to know that there's an audience out there that passionately supports the kind of films you make is gratifying. What we've seen is a strong appetite for positive films not only in the African American audience but in all audiences."

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"Stella" producer Deborah Schindler agrees, saying Fox has recognized that there is a market for "quality films and positive images of everybody." She says the public's increasing knowledge of how the film industry works is helping to give viewers a voice.

"People want to see these movies. It's interesting that people have an awareness, but also that they realize there is strength in numbers," she says. "Because the market is so dense, the first weekend box office often decides whether a movie sinks or swims."

Recognizing this fiscal reality, Evers-Manly helped organize the First Weekend Club in March 1997. After hearing friends complain about the lack of characters and story lines depicting blacks in all their diversity on the big screen, she decided to start encouraging African American film fans to put their money where their mouth is.

The club hopes to teach moviegoers about the Hollywood system and to reward the film industry's good behavior with good profits.

"It's an educational outreach," says Evers-Manly, a former chair of the Beverly Hills-Los Angeles NAACP. "We want to let people know that there are certain times you need to go to the movies."

The group targets a variety of films, including those starring African American actors ("Jackie Brown," "Amistad" and "Dr. Dolittle"), directed by African Americans (Forest Whitaker's "Hope Floats") and others that the group believes portray people of color in a three-dimensional way ("Deep Impact"). Films are carefully researched and screened by a panel of club members before getting the club's stamp of approval, Evers-Manly says.

"We want movies that show blacks in healthy relationships and romances, films that show the importance of family," she says. "We are selective because we want to encourage Hollywood to promote the diversity of the African American experience."

And while the club didn't rally to support the prostitution-themed "The Player's Club" earlier this year, Gaar says the club's not passing judgment. "It's not our goal to tell people what's good and what's bad. That's for other people to take stands on. We just want to expand the vision and promote films that offer alternative visions."

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