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Movie Supplier Finds Success Catering to the Black Market

Film: Decade of persistence pays off for a blond-haired, blue-eyed entrepreneur who saw a niche.

June 04, 1998|MARION FLANAGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Marion Flanagan is executive editor of Video Store magazine, a weekly trade publication serving the home video industry

When Leigh Savidge ditched his rinky-dink wholesale video operation in 1986 to tap the upstart African American film market, his motive was largely Darwinian: He figured the only way to survive in the increasingly glutted marketplace was to find a niche.

And based on industry feedback, black cinema was an untapped segment of the business with enormous potential on video.

For a blond-haired, blue-eyed white guy from Seattle with not a lick of experience marketing the genre, turning that elusive dream into Xenon Entertainment Group--now the leading supplier of low-budget, independent films aimed at black consumers--it's been a long road trying to overcome retailer skepticism.

But thanks to black cinema pioneers such as directors Spike Lee and John Singleton, the critical success of films such as "Menace II Society" and "Eve's Bayou," and the reemergence of 1970s "blaxploitation" doyennes like Pam Grier in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," black cinema is expanding.

"I don't think anyone at retail understood just how potent the black consumer base is for video rental and sell-through," Savidge, 39, says. "It was clear to me there was a big need for black-audience content that was not coming from the studios or indies."

From its 35-title line of 1970s blaxploitation chestnuts such as Melvin Van Peebles' "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" to Hong Kong action films to current independent projects like "Black Spring Break," Xenon has built a unique video library of 250 titles. And retail demand for the supplier's product is swelling.

In fact, Xenon made more money in 1997 than in any other year in its history. Revenue hit $7 million--up 300%--driven in part by a strong sell-through market and its recent documentary "Thug Immortal," a tribute to slain rapper Tupac Shakur. Savidge says the title, which was released in May 1997, shipped 250,000 units.

Although that title was more the exception than the rule--50,000 units is a more typical haul--it did signal a new era for Xenon.

"It took us 10 solid years of trying to convince retailers and distributors of the viability of independent black cinema," Savidge says. "But you just don't go away; there is a tremendous advantage to sustaining yourself in a market where other people tend to go out of business."

To be sure, Xenon is not the only supplier of black cinema. Trimark Pictures, New Line Cinema and Universal Pictures, among others, have released titles ranging from "Booty Call" to "Boyz N the Hood."

And although Xenon has a lock on the blaxploitation market and was one of the first suppliers to rescue the titles from the dustbin, the genre is engendering a new breed of peddlers. Orion Home Video released a five-title "Soul Cinema Collection" in May.

What differentiates Xenon, Savidge says, is that most of its titles have "an authentically black point of view," primarily because they are written and/or directed by African American filmmakers outside the Hollywood system who make films in which the prevailing aesthetic is bone-dry realism "more reflective of black life."

"Black consumers tire of black images bandied about by white-run studios that are framing stories for a mass audience," Savidge says. "They're hungry for portrayals that are more authentic."

Although some Xenon product does have crossover appeal, such as its 75 Hong Kong action flicks that Savidge says account for 40% of the company's releases, the majority of Xenon's titles appeal to a specific audience.

"I firmly believe our customer is Nike's customer," Savidge says. "Our audience is the hip hop audience--the age-14-to-25, mostly male, Tommy Hilfiger-wearing kid drinking Sprite and watching MTV."

For Savidge, being white and owning a company that appeals to a young black audience is at times a difficult dance. Even with Xenon's long track record, some competitors grumble.

"Xenon is not black-owned; there's a lot they don't understand about" the black experience, says Billy Wright, president of Bill of Wrights Entertainment Inc., an African American-owned distributor that specializes in "the black urban genre."

"It bothered me a lot at first, but [running BOWE] is my way of doing something about it. And this [market] is growing. I'll bet there will be 10 more black distributors by the end of next year."

Savidge concedes that his skin color fuels a running debate and that the racial gulfs are sometimes impassable.

"Clearly, there are people who will not do business with us because we are white," Savidge says. "But we offer a service to black filmmakers; this is where they can get a deal. The fact that we're white--most people get past that quickly if there is a decent economic deal on the table. When you are focused and motivated to deliver good product, the race part of the equation becomes immaterial."

How does a magna cum laude Boston University graduate with a major in film and a minor in English come to own a black cinema label?

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