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Still Depending On The Wallets Of White Strangers…


So… awhile ago, Sergio posted an entry on Gary and Sarah Magness, the wealthy couple who put up the $10 million budget for Precious, but who reportedly felt like they’d been essentially ignored, in favor of Tyler Perry and Oprah, who are listed as executive producers of the film, even though they had absolutely nothing to do with the financing nor the production of it.

As Sergio pointed out, it’s obvious what Lionsgate’s strategy is here, by making Perry and Oprah the faces of the film; with the reach and influence both have, not only in the black community, but also amongst whites (in Oprah’s case), tickets sales should be brisk – at least, that’s the hope. Although, nothing is guaranteed. Remember Oprah’s depression over the financial failure that was 1998′s Beloved – despite a major advertising campaign, including two episodes of her talk show dedicated solely to the film, and moderate to good critical reviews, Beloved opened to poor box-office results, ultimately becoming a money-losing venture, to the reported tune of approximately $30 million!

Let’s hope history does not in fact repeat itself when Precious debuts next month.

But, back to Gary and Sarah Magness…

I’d been very curious about this mysterious couple who gave Lee Daniels $10 million for what probably looked like a risky bet at the time, but I never bothered to research them… until now. Specifically, I wondered whether they were black or white, while secretly hoping that they were black, if only to feel hopeful that there are indeed wealthy elite black people in this country who do see some need in helping fund independent black cinema, given Hollywood’s indifference. And I was somewhat disappointed to find out that they’re a white couple.

Let me make it clear that I’m glad that they took a risk when others were afraid to do so, and I’m sure many are thankful that the money was invested in the project.

Now, as Sergio’s post from a few weeks ago stated, they’ve been largely ignored by the media during Precious’s near-historic run since its Sundance win in January, even though they are, we could say, in fact directly responsible for the film’s existence! Tyler Perry and Oprah, who are listed as exec producers, had nothing to do with the financing nor the production of the film, and I can’t help but be a little perturbed by that. Yes, we could argue that it will likely be to the film’s eventual benefit that they did come aboard when they did, to help widen the film’s reach. However, I have to wonder where they were when Lee Daniels was searching for money to get the film made? Both have stated that they’d read the book before the film was produced, so they were familiar with the material. Did Daniels approach either of them during his hunt for financing? Were they aware that Daniels was trying to get the book adapted, but was having difficulty finding the money? And if so, why didn’t either of them consider jumping onboard then?

Now, they both look somewhat like heroes, while the real heroes who coughed up the $10 million to fund the film, have been largely ignored, with very few people aware of who they are, and what their story is. In fact, I’ve read postings on other sites which collectively indicate that there’s this misinformed belief that Oprah and Tyler Perry funded the project, when they obviously did not. And I think that’s unfair to the Magnesses, whose names do appear in the film’s credits, but who really should be given a platform of their own for being the engine behind this little film that’s apparently taking the world by storm. I’d actually like to see an interview in which they talk about how the entire deal came about; how they met Daniels; how he convinced them to take the risk, etc… I think that would make for a compelling story, but no one seems really interested in covering that. If anything, I think it would be informative, and instructive to other indie filmmakers hustling to raise funds for their projects.

My point to all this is, as I’ve talked about previously on this blog, the people with the money (and who are willing to and know how to spend it) are the ones with the power to get projects off the ground, and in theatres. The rest of us have to depend on the largesse of those people, putting us at a serious, obvious disadvantage. There are black people in the industry (and not in the industry) with the money (lots and lots of it), and thus the influence and power to get films financed, produced and distributed. Why does Lee Daniels have to go to a white couple to get what really is a paltry sum of money (compared to the industry average) to finance Precious, a “black film?” Why does Spike Lee have to go to Europe to find the money he needs to make Miracle At St Anna, a “black film?” Just as Peter Jackson did with Neill Blomkamp and his District 9, Tyler Perry had the opportunity to help cultivate a young talent in Nzingha Stewart and her For Colored Girls… adaptation, but he instead took over the project, making it his own.

And the list goes on… so much that it’s actually become something of a joke amongst indie black filmmaker circles I travel in – essentially, if you’re looking for money to get your film made, seek the white man, because you’ll likely have more success convincing him to take a chance on you than you would your brotha or sistah… and I think that’s rather sad!

What’s going on here? Or am I just seeing things that really aren’t there? This likely reads like a variation of one of my many previous posts on similar matters… regardless, enlighten me, if you can.

8 comments to Still Depending On The Wallets Of White Strangers…

  • Hmm.. this is an interesting one. I sense an underlying current of fear. I’m not sure if it’s a real or imagined fear, but it seems there are wealthy black people who kow that they potentially wield a lot of power, but pershaps don’t feel able to use it, particularly in the service of other black people.

    To Oprah’s credit, she did try, and fail woefully, with Beloved and she did’t hide the fact that it hurt her, and not just financially. Apart from not supporting her cinematic endavours (including Denzel’s Great Debaters), over the years there have been instances where people (mainly white?) have cried out about how she chooses to weild her influence – whehter it has been farmers, religious people not keen on her promotion of spiritual gurus and, more recently, her endorsement of Obama and the threat of some of her fan base to desert her… It’s as if she’s being told not to overstep her mark or her privileges will be taken away.

    If she is Perry’s mentor, or at least role model, then maybe he too is watching and learning from her experience.

    These wealthy blacks may appear to have power, but it would seem that, like in many industries (except maybe music and sport), there still exists a nacent one-negro-at-a-time policy, although these days there tends to be two or three at a atime, usually with one having more prominence, perhaps as the other is waning (Denzel and Smith, Naomi and Tyra…).

    So while there are a few blacks who potentially wield a great deal of power, they don’t quite have to power to wield it. We do hear of philanthropic projects that they start up, helping less fortunates out of misery in order to meet the basic needs of shelter, food, clothing and education, but we rarely hear of any kind of mentoring schemes to bring others from their own backgrounds into their sphere.

    It would seem that for these blacks, they realise what I wonder if they’d actually considered when they were climbing/creating their ladders, and which your post has only just made me think about, and that is that as black people: you can do fine… as long as you do fine all by yourself.

    A few negroes at a time… but the negroes already in don’t necessarily get to do the choosing.

    Just my tuppence worth.

  • NothingButAMan

    Well, I’m by no means an insider into the African American “high net worth individual”/”accredited investor” community, but my hunch is that among their very valid reservations are:

    1) The highly speculative and “efficiency challenged” nature of generating a ROI on a film project.

    2) Lack of a process to vet new screenwriters/producers for “quality product”.

    3) Tricky and, in comparison to other ventures, minimal state and federal tax incentives.

    4) General lack of interest in, or awareness of the Independent Film sector.

    I do think it’s worth interrogating why there doesn’t seem to be much of an initiative on the part of African American Banks, Capital Funds and Investment Firms (Ariel Capital Partners, being a quite visible example) to meet independent black producers half-way to invigorate our situation.

    But with all of that said, we have to remember that, no matter how “indie” or “artful” you think your stories are, filmmaking is just as much about the “art of the deal.” It’s not just about finding money, but finding the RIGHT money, for the circumstances.

    I’m not mad at the Magness’s. They are more than liberal white silver spoons… believe it or not, they are in business. “Precious” isn’t their first or only project.

    I’m trying to evolve from the typical filmmaker mindset of hustling for a “big break” or tracking down “angel” donors/investors, and stepping up my entrepreneurial awareness to present equity financiers with an attractive deal that will, at the very least, **PROTECT** their risk in a project (or slate of projects) if not secure them a return.

  • I don’t have much to add to this discussion except to point out that its been a mystery to me as well that with all these reports coming out about the growth of black wealth, we are not seeing much investment in the film arts by our own.

    On another front, I agree with MsWoo about Oprah and Beloved. She did try but that film fell apart on the editing end. I think it would’ve been a bigger success if that had been different. Word of mouth killed it–just my opinion.

  • pnc

    I wouldn’t turn down one white cent to make my feature.

    That said, I find black people tend to be conservative investors who are more likely to finance mainstream projects, ‘important films’, and documentaries rather than a singular vision from an auteur/artist or anything experimental.

    Also, according to Oprah it cost $80 mil to make BELOVED.

  • Sergio

    HEY WAIT! When did Precious’ budget go from $3 million to $10 million? I’ve always read that it was a $3 million film and it looks it. Is the figure also adding the $5.5 million Lionsgate paid for it or what Lionsgate is putting in for P & A for the film? But no way that film cost $10 million to make

    • That’s what I thought too. But, the New York Times piece, and everything I’ve read since then has listed the budget as about $10 million. The New York Times article states, “For “Precious,” Daniels raised the initial $8 million (the budget eventually grew to about $10 million) from Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness, who live in Denver.

      I’ve also read other trade reports listing the budget at between $8 and $12 million.

      But yeah, I said the same thing in my post on the Times article – this didn’t look like a $10 million film.

  • that dude

    If the financiers want to get the credit they deserve, they need to hire publicists.

    As for Oprah and T. Perry getting credit, they are main reasons why people are talking about this film at all, let alone describing it as Oscar bait.

    I haven’t seen it yet, but given that everyone has described it as unrelentingly depressing, this film will probably gross near what BELOVED did.

    If Oprah wants a hit film, she needs to make one that delivers the kind of uplift that she does on her television series.

  • Sergio

    Now $12 million? Nope I ain’t buying that. No way. This is all spin by Daniels or someone else to make the film appear, for whatever reason, to be bigger than it really is. I’m sticking with the original $3 million budget. What’s the shame in it? Just the opposite. It shows what you can make a film for that figure and even less which would inspire more filmmakers I would think.