After the wildly successful 2011 concert film “Laugh at My Pain,” it was only natural that Kevin Hart would find a larger venue for the sequel “Let Me Explain.” But for CodeBlack Entertainment, the distributor of both films, Hart’s latest standup act at Madison Square Garden sets the stage for something even bigger.
Finding great success during the 2000s in the direct-to-DVD business, CodeBlack is beginning to strengthen their theatrical arm at a time when most distributors are going in the other direction, a particularly exciting development since their specialty — films about African-Americans — have long been a rarity at the multiplex. In recent months, CodeBlack has been laying the groundwork to change that, making their first-ever purchase at the Sundance Film Festival of George Tillman’s coming-of-age drama “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” earlier this year and more recently, hiring frequent Tyler Perry producer Paul Hall to lead development and production for the company.
“There’s an audience out there for these indie films, but it has to be cultivated and unfortunately, it’s not something that the studios are going to do,” says Jeff Clanagan, CodeBlack’s founder and CEO who anticipates releasing two to three films per year. “We think we can get to the audience, especially if we have good quality films because then the word of mouth will push it from there.”
Clanagan knows a thing or two about word of mouth, having started out in the music business as a concert promoter. Before breaking into filmmaking as president of Master P’s No Limit Films, Clanagan was a jack-of-all-trades when it came to the national tours of Will Smith and LL Cool J, overseeing the entire process of dealing with talent and booking the venues to marketing and advertising.
“It really gets you ready to deal in the movie industry because you have to wear so many hats,” says Clanagan. “Most consumers probably don’t understand that when they go to a concert, there’s a person back there that had to put everything together.”
Increasingly, that same skill set is becoming necessary in the movie business, though even some in the industry may not understand, given how such groundwork led to the remarkable $2 million opening of “Laugh at My Pain” on just 99 screens and still came as a surprise to many. Yet it was only the start of things to come for the company who released the religious-themed “Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day” seven months later and scored a nearly as impressive $650,000 opening weekend on 102 screens. Although those two films were extensions of the company’s bread and butter – comedy and faith-based films – since launching in 2005, it marked a shift towards a whole different arena for CodeBlack, which has long endorsed a transmedia approach to their content, but was perhaps most known for lining the shelves of Blockbuster with “Shaquille O’Neal Presents: All-Star Comedy Jam.”
“The days of when you could just put a DVD out and sell hundreds of thousands are gone, so you now have to focus on higher quality films that can generate theatrical revenue that will then push your ancillary markets,” says Clanagan. “If you have a good theatrical film, your DVD sales will be good, your VOD will be good.”
Bolstered by a distribution deal with Lionsgate in early 2012, CodeBlack finally had the resources to take the full plunge into theatrical distribution and with it, the release of more commercially risky films that seem to be paying off for the company. Heavily relying on social media as opposed to traditional advertising, CodeBlack partnered with Tugg to create a real communal experience for their spring release of Shola Lynch’s documentary “Free Angela & All Political Prisoners” about the trial of activist Angela Davis and recently showed their might at the American Black Film Festival in Miami where they had no less than three films showing, including “Let Me Explain,” “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” and their other recent acquisition “Things Never Said,” featuring “Shameless” star Shanola Hampton as a woman who finds refuge from a dull daily routine in spoken word poetry.
For Clanagan, the challenge of figuring out the right way to bring such films to audiences is nearly as exciting as the films that he’s been able to acquire recently.
“I have been in the DVD business since the beginning and have been very successful in that space, so there’s really nothing more that I could accomplish and it was just time for me to move into another area that could challenge me,” says Clanagan. “Now that we have a couple acquisitions under our belt, we have some films that we can schedule all the way through next year and we are going to start developing and producing our own originals.”
Simply by existing, CodeBlack has already successfully produced at least one.