December 2003
Blue Hill Avenue: An Interview with Mark Holdom

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

Blue Hill Avenue: An Interview with Mark Holdom

A few months back, someone from Atlanta had email me about where she could see the film “Blue Hill Avenue”, which stars Allen Payne and Clarence Williams III. She mentioned that it wasn’t playing in her area and couldn’t find any theater location when she checked on the internet. I then looked myself and was shocked to discover that the film, which had played in many festivals and received many accolades, had a short run in theaters. In fact, to my knowledge at the time, it had only played in one theater, the Magic Johnson Theater in LA. I tracked down one of the producers of the film and asked him about the short run for the film. In an interview with blackfilm.com, Producer Mark Holdom talks about his role as a producer of “Blue Hill Avenue” and the challenges to getting the film in theaters.


WM: How did you come on board as a producer?

MH: Well, I had seen the film in July 2002 and was asked if I could represent them at that time, and then again this past September. I recently came across the film again because Rand Chortkoff, one of the executive producers, had his office call me looking for money because I had a big house in Studio City during my days as a stockbroker. I found out that they had 3 films that couldn’t be sold so I asked to see all three of them, and Blue Hill Avenue was one of them. I then met Mike Erwin, who was the producer of the film, and we made a deal where I would also serve as an executive producer on that film.


WM: This film had been around for some time before it was finally released in theaters because many folks had seen it at different festivals. While did the process take so long in making it to theaters?

MH: Here’s what I understand, and again you’re talking about a time frame before I got involved. What I understand was there was an offer from Screen Gems and Craig Ross, Jr. (the director) has a pretty good relationship with them. He has done two more films for them since that, although he was just hired as a director on those films. So there was an offer from Screen Gems as well as an offer from Artisan Entertainment. Apparently, for various reasons, those offers were not picked up. I heard of some of the reasons but I’m not certain about the validity of them. When I came on board, I was told that they tried to sell it, but there were some bad feeling amongst the various distributors because they wouldn’t close a deal with anybody for whatever those reasons were. So they were going to have a hard time. I told them I will make it happen, based on my relationship with distributors, who will believe me if I say I can deliver the film, so if you think you can get me a film that I can deliver, then I’ll get a deal for you.


WM: Why was the Magic Johnson Theater in LA the only theater playing the film?

MH: It actually played in 3 theaters but I couldn’t tell you their names. I think one was a Loews theater in Baltimore, and then there was another one in St. Louis. It opened in Baltimore, St. Louis and LA on the 19th of September. What happened was that Artisan wanted to do the deal as a video only deal and due to my knowledge of distribution I knew that there was a better chance for the film, of not just making more money, but at least getting a better profile. When a film is in theaters, the value of the media rights go up significantly. You will get better TV payments, you will be on DISH/ TV networks, and you generally sell more DVDs. Artisan has a Showtime output deal which ends this year actually. The deal is that if Artisan puts a film in theaters, Showtime will buy the film to broadcast it on its cable network. When I found that out, I thought we would have a better chance doing a limited release in theaters. The deal fell apart three times while I was negotiating and I was pushing them until they gave me the deal. It wasn’t the one I wanted, but it was the closest I could get.


WM: After all that, were you able to make money out of this once it hit the theaters?

MH: They spent more than a quarter of a million dollars, maybe around $300,000. They did a fine job, but I had financial issues and could not support their release as I wanted to with additional marketing. It’s quite expensive delivering a film for theatrical distribution. The return was over two weeks in theaters and maybe $15 or $20,000, half of which goes back to the theater where it was playing. The result of having it in theaters was that BET made an offer to play the film on its cable. That deal is not closed yet, but it looks like BET will pick it up in 2006.


WM: As a producer, what are you working on now and what are you looking to produce?

MH: What I’m doing in terms of new films is working with Craig Ross, Jr. on developing a script which I can’t discuss now. It’s based on a book by a well-known, English writer. That film has the backing of the John Davis Company. He has a bunch of other scripts that come with a smaller budget. One of those scripts we are taking to MIFED. We are doing a screening of Blue Hill Avenue for international sales there. Craig has a script called “The Darkness”, which we are looking to film in Italy and get Italian money behind it. I’ve also worked with a Chinese-Canadian director named Yan Qui and we have a deal with Horizon Entertainment and we’re supposed to meet at MIFED with a producer from the company. He lives in Prague and he wants to make a $6 million dollar romantic comedy with us. I’ve also worked with Joe Escalante, who’s the bass played for the band for “The Vandals” and he’s made a couple of small films. I’m also part of an Angelica Huston film called “Living and Breathing” with other producers. There’s another film with Steve Buscemi, Vince Vaughn, and Barbara Hershey attached. There’s also a Holly Hunter film I’m working on. The list goes on.


WM: From your experience with working with “Blue Hill Avenue”, how challenging is it to get an African American film into theaters?

MH: For a variety of reasons, some concerning specifically this film, it was quite difficult. Some of the specifics about this film was that soundtrack was not completed. The music was not licensed for release apart from the festivals. There were some funding issues which made it very difficult to get this thing closed. Mostly, what seems to be the case these days with theatrical distribution for independent films is what they call a “loss leader”. There’s no money in it. You have to spend a lot of money in the hopes of getting some sort of TV deals and DVD deals in place. So it’s very difficult. It’s not just with urban films, it’s with any independent films. As I’m getting deeper into this business, I understand that if you make a film with $25 million dollars or more, you will make money. It’s almost guaranteed. Any thing under that, when you think about the budget and promotion itself, you’ll need to spend a lot of money to get the right amount of people in theaters. IFC has a great way of doing films. They start off with 2 or 3 theaters around the country. They have a great way of picking their films and maybe they don’t make money but they do great set ups and they have the money to do releases and get benefits after that. There are a few other companies that do good theatrical releases, but theatrical is a loss leader, so you have to be with a company that has the money to sustain a loss in theatrical and be willing to make it up later. The good side of working and taking a theatrical loss is that now Blue Hill Avenue has been submitted to the Academy for an Oscar. I don’t know yet what categories but they have the film submitted for, and on November 19th, we’re doing a screening for NAACP Image Awards. Having the film in theaters opens the doors to many possibilities. So it’s worth it, but you have to find someone with the money who’s prepared to take the risk that they are going to lose money promoting a theatrical release and making a print and all that in order to make it up later.


WM: For anyone looking to be a producer in this business, what’s the one thing you would tell them?

MH: For anyone looking to be a good producer, you have to be a good salesman. You have to be able to talk a lot, which is why I agreed to do this interview because I like to talk. Whether you believe in your project or not, you have to believe in the essential elements of the commerciality of the project. You have to be able to impart the commerciality to the person who’s buying your project without compromising the artistic integrity. You have to keep a relationship on both sides. You have to appreciate what your director and writer are trying to put across and protect them and at the same time deliver something to a distributor that they can sell. That’s a real hard equation. That is what I think he should strive for, at least as an executive producer; to try and walk that line between creativity and commerciality.