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Three black filmmakers work to make historyBy STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
In mythology, Pandora's box had to open only slightly to unleash forces that shook an empire.
In the real world, producer William Packer believes his new film, Pandora's Box, can shake up Hollywood by opening on only a few dozen screens nationwide.
Packer, a 1991 graduate of St. Petersburg High School, accomplished that feat before. Two years ago, his Atlanta-based Rainforest Films released the sexy thriller Trois after he barnstormed theaters in selected markets to arrange distribution personally. The strategy harkened back to the 1930s and Oscar Michaeux's similar methods, and it paid off.
On 22 screens, Trois posted the highest per-screen average ($11,540) of any new film on Valentine's Day 2000 weekend, higher than the star-laden, studio-driven Scream 3, The Beach and Snow Day. Trois became one of the top 50 moneymakers among independent films that year, according to Daily Variety. After one release, Hollywood Reporter put Rainforest 34th in a ranking of the top 200 movie distributors.
Trois cost $200,000 to produce and eventually grossed $1.16-million.
Sony Pictures Entertainment noticed. The company's home video division bought distribution rights for Trois and turned a profit. Impressed with those results, Sony formed a partnership with Packer's company, resulting in financing for Pandora's Box, although the responsibility of getting the movie into theaters still resides with Rainforest.
"Technically, the whole run of distribution is on us," Packer said during a recent visit to St. Petersburg. "The difference is that this time we get to do it with other people's money, so it's a lot more fun."
That money comes from Sony through a "negative pickup" deal in which the studio signed a contract promising to pay Rainforest when Pandora's Box was completed. Packer took that promissory note to a bank and borrowed the money.
"It allows us to still be independent and have some autonomy, still making a totally Rainforest production," Packer said. "We still have to book our own theaters. I still have to call theaters every week to make sure the one-sheets are up and trailers are running.
"It makes sense to Sony because they can write a check, tell us to go and then we'll come back with the box office."
Pandora's Box has grossed nearly $800,000 since August in 15 theaters, mostly in the southeast. The film expands to 60 theaters today, including screens in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. After that, Sony will handle home video distribution, adding "Trois 2" to the title -- although it isn't a sequel -- for extra market awareness.
However, Packer and his former Florida A&M fraternity brothers Rob Hardy and Gregory Ramon Anderson want to make more than money; they want to make history. Though major studios commonly have "boutique divisions" that handle foreign films and alternative cinema, none has invested in a boutique serving black audiences. Packer hopes Rainforest will be the first.
"It's not a component at any studios to handle urban niche films," Packer said. "We're not talking about African-American fare that would be released on 1,000 screens with a big marketing budget, but smaller films like The Brothers and Brown Sugar. Those films have to be released in a much different way."
That includes films with mature themes such as Pandora's Box, an erotic mystery Packer says isn't what black moviegoers typically pay to see because they typically don't have this kind of option.
"Just to generalize the African-American audience for a second: We support comedy, and we support action," Packer said. "That's just about it. That's what we support, so that's what we get. Just a thriller with African-American (actors) is unheard of, but an erotic thriller? You're not going to see much of that."
Major studios with art-house boutiques generally don't understand that reaching black audiences requires a special strategy. For example: Foreign films are traditionally premiered in New York and Los Angeles to build box office credibility and publicity before wider release.
"With a project like Pandora's Box, the demographics are stronger in the Southeast," Packer said. "It's also a lot less expensive to advertise in those smaller markets. We do huge numbers in Jacksonville and Charlotte. Studios won't see them as prime markets, but $10,000 per screen in Charlotte is the same as getting $10,000 in New York. We actually take a bottom-up strategy as opposed to the other way around."
Because Rainforest is familiar with that method, Sony is asking Packer to handle distribution for other films requiring special attention. The first non-Rainforest release Packer will oversee is Lockdown, a prison drama slated for a Jan. 31 opening. Sony is backing Rainforest's next film, a comedy directed by Hardy, and another project seeking a director.
"If there wasn't a Rainforest Film to take out films like Pandora's Box and Lockdown, they probably wouldn't see the light of day," Packer said. "They're not ghetto-market films. They're films that, if an audience knows about them, they'll respond. Our grosses to date have proven that a little bit.
"Basically, Pandora's Box is yet another opportunity for us to explore that distribution track. In the long term that is what will help us make our mark in the film industry. We kind of feel like we're in the early stages like Miramax because that's how the Weinsteins (Miramax co-chairmen Bob and Harvey) started out, taking these little art house films that nobody else wanted. We think we have that same potential."
Packer said the music industry has embraced smaller distribution companies catering to African-American tastes. "It's only a matter of time before we do the same thing in the movie business," he said. "We like to think we're on the ground floor of a movement."