Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Moving To a New Location. Hope You'll Come Visit.

It has been forever since I posted here. And I'm starting to realize that this is a frequent theme. Me hopping on to share something and then disappearing for months.

I suppose the truth of it is that I'm growing and changing. (I'm now the mom of two and the Chicklet who made her debut here at 2.5 is now a full grown kid.) I've learned a lot in the five years I've been sporadically blogging. No surprise then that I'm feeling the need to do something different.

And so I'm transitioning to a new blog that I hope you'll check out.

Follow me to Wrylie Smiley where I'll continue my optimistic screenwriting/producing journey (finally heading into pre-production on one of these bad girl projects, huzzah) and root for me to dodge the slings and arrows the entertainment biz hurls my way.

And for those of you who hung around here to the end. Thanks.

See you on the interwebs, my babies.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Post-Racial America and the Demise of the Black TV Show

Over on Vulture there's a discussion about Hollywood's problematic relationship with black entertainment. Producer Gavin Polone blames the lack of black movies on a false notion among executives that all "ethnic" film is niche film. But can you blame such executive thinking about the big screen given the current segregation of the small one?

In 1992, two black shows were in the Nielsen Top 20 ("The Cosby Show" and "A Different World", natch) with "In Living Color", "Roc ", "Fresh Prince of Bel Air", "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" and "Martin" bringing the rest of the melanin to the network line-up. In 2012, there are... zero. Black shows, in case you're wondering, have relocated to BET ("The Game") ("Reed Between the Lines") and TBS ("House of Payne") ("Are We There Yet?").

This is depressing. Not only because of the raw numbers, but because it's so reductive to think of a great show like "The Cosby Show" as a black show. Still, there's no denying that network shows with largely black ensemble casts have gone the way of your '90s overalls and door-knocker earrings...and it matters as I'll get to later.

But first... is the dearth of black TV shows purely a trend thing? There's a line of thinking I've come across that says "black people no longer need black shows" cause we're homogenous, and post-racial now... as though network TV existed to give black people uplifting fare until there was a black president who said, "Okay, I'll take it from here." But one thing I'm certain of is that television is not, and never was, in the business of making ethnicities feel better about themselves. Plus, those two shows in the top 20 in 1992 didn't get there with only black viewers tuning in.

Good writing makes the personal universal and perhaps we haven't seen a successful network black TV show in over a decade because black TV shows, post "A Different World" and "The Cosby Show", just haven't been good enough to capture an increasingly fragmented audience. This quality factor, coupled with Hollywood's short memory, and the CW/WB merger and its pursuant scramble to the middle to appeal to the widest demographic, was probably the death knell of the black TV show.

And so, in the absence of a "black" network TV hit, a theory emerges that white audiences won't watch black shows. This argument gets easier to make as "Everybody Hates Chris", "The Bernie Mac Show", even "Girlfriends" fade from the broadcast schedule. And JJ Abram's high-profile 2010 flop "Undercovers", starring Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as black undercover agents, cancelled after seven episodes on NBC, won't disprove anyone of the theory in a hurry, either.

As Polone argues, a music megastar may be the only one with the necessary juice to make Hollywood rethink the game (Polone thinks the most likely suspect is "Diddy") but with Tyler Perry and the segregated black audience being the new model, I wouldn't hold my breath.

The real loser in all this is the black actor. Sure there's still diversity on network TV, but with fewer roles, there's a smaller piece of pie to get divvied up. Polone draws an instructive contrast between the global release of Will Smith's "The Pursuit of Happyness" and the niche marketing in black neighborhoods of Tyler Perry's "Good Deeds", even though they have very similar plots. But what made "The Pursuit of Happyness" a global film versus Tyler Perry's "Deeds", was its global star, Will Smith who, in case you've forgotten, started out as an actor on a black network TV show from our 1992 list "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." After all, wasn't Will Smith's exposure to a large network audience on NBC one of the reasons he was able to cross over and wield the influence he does today? Could it be that in shedding black network TV shows, the bankability, cross over appeal and influence of the next crop of black stars is being eroded?

Or put it another way, how many mainstream moviegoers can name a cast member on "House of Payne", despite it being the longest running black sitcom in history?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Dr. King And the Unnecessary Rewrite

Maya Angelou's been stirring up some controversy coming out against the wording on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, saying it makes him look like "an arrogant twit."
Here is Dr. King's original quote, in response to people who accused him of only seeking glory for himself. It's from a sermon he gave designed to encourage people to not be afraid to take the lead.

"If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter."

Somewhere in the "development process", the quote was changed to:
"I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

The problem is the paraphrased quote, edited for brevity I guess, implies the exact opposite of the original's intention. It's like if you decided to defend yourself against the charge of showboating by...showboating. The impression is of a man who's puffing up himself rather than displaying Dr. King's quintessential humility. 

It'll be interesting to see whether the quote gets fixed or whether we're stuck with a truly sloppy edit for all eternity.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Minority Screenwriters, or Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner

The ongoing discrimination lawsuit against WME and CAA from African American screenwriter Justin Samuels (and one little John August post to be precise) has made the issue of underrepresentation of black writers bubble up again in the blogosphere. Unsurprisingly, working and wannabe screenwriters, slaving away in the trenches on the umpteenth free rewrite, have met with a fair amount of vitriol Samuel's blithe naïveté about the long slog that is trying to write and sell the Hollywood screenplay.

According to Samuels, he is due eight million dollars in damages because he had eight screenplays (worth "one million each") that he was unable to submit to the majors because they don't accept unsolicited queries. And since the only way in for an unrepped writer is through a recommendation from an insider-- and the agents and insiders are white-- black writers are effectively locked out, in Samuels' reasoning. That leaves a black writer with much nothing else to do but launch an eight million dollar law suit.

Crazy right? Plenty black screenwriters have bucked the trend. There's Gina Prince Bythewood, Geoffrey Fletcher, and um, who'm I leaving out... Antwone Fisher? Talk about exceptions proving the rule. And while nobody expects Hollywood to be a dream factory for minority writers, we quite possibly never had it so bad.

Despite a WGA diversity department, and a number of programs designed to tackle the imbalance, the report on writers of color in the industry is the worst it's been in ten years. According to the Hollywood Reporter:

In film, minorities are underrepresented by a ratio of 7-to-1, with the share of minorities employed in writing jobs declining to its lowest level in at least 10 years (5%).

So what's at work here? John August raises the question of access. If screenwriting is to whatever degree sometimes about who you know, how do you change a writer of color's connections? UCLA's talked about increasing film school aid to writers of color, which seems solid-- not to moan, but I could certainly have benefited from it going to the exorbitantly priced one I self-paid for. But even with scholarships in place, it's a handful of writers that are going to go the film school route.

I remember when the contention was that there weren't enough African-American distributors and if distribution existed, the story of black film would be different. But now it's starting to look like the back-end problem we thought we had is in fact a front-end issue. And like John August, I'm not sure that legally forcing agencies to read queries would change the landscape much. The system of "by request only" is in place to keep out mediocre material. Good scripts win contests and attract agents, managers or influential champions. The cream rises to the top.

"Practice. Feedback. Network." That's the journey. But as hard as we work at the first two components, that last one continues to be the tough one to hurdle because it's the one most out of our control. I keep thinking more mentorships along the lines of the Cosby Fellowship might be the answer, but I'd love to hear other thoughts.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Is This Thing Still On?

Hello out there. This is embarrassing.

What to say after having dropped off the grid for so long? I mean I haven't blogged in more than a year. If I was in total producing "bs" mode I would start the old canard about how things have been busy and behind the scenes we've been building relationships that will enable us to move forward, and working on the shortlist of directors for the crazy Bollywood musical and blah, blah, blah but truth is...we got stuck.

We got stuck waiting around for what looked like a good fit to direct the piece but dude ultimately passed. So we at long last got our "no", which is strangely energizing...because now we retool, adjust, brainstorm again. I love the "no." The "no" gives you fire. It's the "maybe" that sucks momentum. Plus every "no" puts you closer to the "yes".

There's also been developments on other fronts: mainly the documentary and the Little Movie I Want to Direct, so I'll post on these fitful journeys, as always from the perspective of a Carib gal trying to make good. See you around the interwebs....my babies.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

We Love It...Now Just Change Everything

Crazy Bollywood project has been creeping along at such a slow pace we've had to push back our shoot dates till later in the year. The biggest hold-up has been the script which is stuck in development hell. Investors love it...they just want to change everything.

I was initially bummed by having to wrap my head around big story notes (some sound, some insane), until I came across this Vulture article on the strange evolution of the spec script "Nottingham". The article focuses on the tensions between Crowe and director Ridley Scott but more compelling is how the 2006 Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris script that was loved around town morphed into Russell Crowe's tepidly received "Robin Hood". Basically, the development process stripped the original spec of its hook ("Nottingham" was told from the point of view of the Sheriff of Nottingham with him being a good guy and Robin Hood kind of a jerk), a change that shifted the project's tone and humor towards a more straight, taciturn "Gladiator" style retelling. Read the full story here and marvel at the star-centered development process that takes a cute concept, attracts a star and super-director combo, and then proceeds to excise all that's original about the script in successive rewrites at a cost of $6.7 million.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Back in the Big City Blues

Phooosh. That's me blowing off the cobwebs.

Um...Is anyone still there?

All of January and most of February went by with me up to my eyeballs in day job work. Shooting and editing and making industrial videos, picking up a few new clients, all the while being sustained by the fact that we (me and a tiny crew) were heading to Trinidad in February to shoot carnival for the crazy Bollywood movie.

I'm back now and having spent the last decade of my life passionately defending living in New York to skeptical Third Worlders, I'm strangely bummed to be here. It could be just the winter blahs. It could be the crummy drive from JFK airport to my Brooklyn pad, a drive lined with sidewalks of dirty snow. Man, from the time the taxi dropped us off, I was ready to chase him, flag him down and head back to the Caribbean.

Or maybe this isn't about winter. Maybe it's about the desire to get immersed in making something more creative than HR videos. At any rate, tonight when I heard Alicia Keys crooning Empire State of Mind, Part Two on the radio, spinning all that honey toned love, I did not "put one hand in the air for the big city", I yelled at her to shut the hell up and changed the damn station.

Photo by Adrian Miles