Savidge says that after college, he came to California, where he spent 2 1/2 years in the stand-up comedy circuit with then-unknowns such as Sam Kinison, Arsenio Hall and Jim Carrey.
In 1986, he decided to take a gamble on the burgeoning home video business. With $17,000 in his pocket, Savidge went to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and blew it all on prerecorded tapes. Within two days, he had become an instant wholesaler, having sold off his entire inventory.
Savidge knew he needed a niche, and he believed there was a demand for more black films. But as a start-up company trying to market a new genre, Xenon was mired in credibility problems. "We were a joke for years," Savidge says. "People didn't know what to make of us."
Indeed, Savidge says he was so desperate for buyers that he once hired a ranch hand to take a donkey to an Omaha retailer, whose corporate headquarters neighbored a farm, as a joke. "After 65 unreturned phone calls, the guy bought $3,000 worth of product," Savidge says. "He got a kick out of the time and energy we put into getting his attention."
What makes the market easier to tap now than 12, or even three, years ago?
"The video retail world has a weird collective consciousness," Savidge says. "Many of them arrive at the same conclusions at the same time."
While he says Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It" in 1986 was "the dawning of the modern era of black cinema," it was the sudden explosion of the sell-through market in the mid-1990s that ultimately paved inroads for Xenon into retail. A title selling at $19.95 carries a lot less risk to a retailer than a $70 rental title.
"It's hard to take a chance on something [at a rental price] that doesn't have any built-in star power or a franchise," says Cliff MacMillan, video buyer for Tower Records/Video, which started buying Xenon product two years ago.
A few video retail chains, such as Blockbuster Video, have been providing what Savidge calls "crucial support" for the company since the late 1980s.
"We carry a tremendous amount of Xenon product," says a Blockbuster spokesperson, "a combination of martial arts films, 1970s product and some of the newer titles. There's a definite audience for this, and it very consistently rents."
And thanks to the growing popularity of soundtrack-driven direct-to-sell-through titles such as Xenon's "Soul in the Hole" and "Black Spring Break," Savidge says big chains such as Musicland Stores Corp. and Best Buy are ramping up their buying.
"We did a line review and saw some positive sales trends" on Xenon titles, says Joe Pagano, music and movies merchandising manager for Best Buy, which has sold 9,000 units of "Thug Immortal" in the last year. "So we both broadened and increased our commitment to these offerings."
Xenon's market penetration is not just growing domestically. The company is expanding its operations overseas, eyeing Europe and South Africa. An important peg in those expansion plans is Xenon UK, launched in February.
"I see London as a window to Europe," Savidge says. "Black films have not been marketed overseas correctly. Specific distribution infrastructures haven't been laid in."
Xenon also is planning to market its first children's title, "C-Bear and Jamal," in June.
And although Xenon will consider carrying "non-ethnic product" in the future, Savidge says the company's chief focus will be the continued expansion of independent black cinema--the genre it wagered on more than a decade ago.
"There were times when I thought, 'Am I nuts here or is this really going to fly?' " Savidge says. "But like any entrepreneur, you have the assumption you're onto something and you're just ahead of the curve."