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July 2006
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BET Founder Forming a Film Studio

Source: Washington Post
July 14, 2006


Robert L. Johnson, the cable pioneer who founded Black Entertainment Television 25 years ago and sold it for $3 billion in 2000, is forming a film studio with independent film producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein.

Johnson's Our Stories Films will produce family-friendly films aboutAfrican Americans, to be distributed in theatres by the Dimension Films unit of Weinstein Co., which will be part-owner of the venture. New Yorkbank JP Morgan Chase has agreed to raise up to $175 million to fund the company.

"For a long time I've wondered why there was no major movie studio where African Americans had the green light authority to make broadly distributed films," Johnson said. "The two answers I came up with wasblack filmmakers have historically had no access to the capital to do it, and there was no one with the business and management capability to make it a going concern. I think we have the answer to both in Our Stories."

Our Stories Films marks a return to the entertainment industry Johnson left when he resigned as chairman of BET, now a unit of Viacom, 18 months ago. In recent years, Johnson has used his own funds and money from several well-heeled partners to get into a variety of business ventures, including a Charlotte NBA franchise, hotel ownership, consumer banking, investment management and a nascent corporate buyout fund.

The deal with the Weinsteins was finalized this week in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Johnson is attending the annual media and technology mogul retreat put on by Wall Street investment bank Allen & Co. Johnson said he had been discussing the deal with the Weinsteins for several months.

With Weinstein's Dimension Films as a distribution partner, Johnson nabbed one of the most successful marketer of films to young and black audiences in recent years. Dimension is known for producing highly profitable horror, comedy, thriller and action films such as the "Scream" franchise, as well as "Spy Kids" and "Bad Santa." It's also made a fortune spoofing it's own releases, especially in the form of the "Scary Movie" movies and the upcoming "Superhero Movie."

Dimension was begun in1994 as an adjunct to Miramax, the Weinstein production company that put out a string of critical and commercial hits for the Walt Disney Co. in the 1990s before the Weinsteins left Disney last year to form their own company.

The Bethesda-based Johnson will be chairman and chief executive of Our Stories, which will be headquartered in Los Angeles. He said yesterday he will first hire a chief operating officer who knows Hollywood better than him.

"I'm a business man, and the creative side is best left to people who do that for a living," he said. "I'm sure I can find a talented chief operating officer with the Rolodex and the business acumen to help me run the company."

Under Johnson, BET became the dominant African American broadcast network, but was the frequent target of critics, especially in the late 1990s before it was sold to Viacom, of the network's relative lack of original programming and its reliance on sometimes raunchy music videos.

"What they (critics of BET) don't seem to understand is that I'm first and foremost a businessman," Johnson said. "And the business model that worked at BET was music videos. That's what the market called for. And I'm still a business man, and I know well enough the market to know that there is a desire for family-friendly films. It's that simple, and I don't see a contradiction in it."

Johnson said he picked the family-friendly, comedy genre because "comedies make more money than other films. They're less costly to produce, they have a broader audience, and they get a better after-distribution market. You get a better Wal-Mart bump from a PG film.

 

 

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