NAACP doesn't understand Hollywood

Posted: Aug 31, 2001 12:00 AM
"There are practically no people of color at the top," said NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. "There aren't any African-Americans who can green-light a show, hire and fire a director or make any real decisions." A genie suddenly appears. With a snap of his fingers, the genie grants Mfume's wish for more black Hollywood decision-makers. Given the same pressures to make money, why assume a willingness on the part of black decision-makers to green-light projects radically different from those approved by the non-black, allegedly insensitive decision-makers? Mfume fails to understand Hollywood. For understanding Hollywood requires a recognition, if not appreciation, of the La Fontaine Effect. What, you don't know Don La Fontaine? Of course you do -- or, at least his voice. For movie trailers, a La Fontaine voice-over remains the gold standard. You hear his voice in more than 3,000 trailers, including those for "Doctor Zhivago," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "MASH," "The Untouchables," "Ghostbusters," "Field of Dreams" and "Batman." Why, in a country with 270 million Americans, nearly all of whom possess speaking voices, does one person dominate this niche? Given the competitive nature of Hollywood, where, at any given time, some 85 percent of Screen Actors Guild members pound the pavement for acting work, how can La Fontaine crush the voice-over wannabes with a market share that Coke or Pepsi would envy? The answer -- fear. Every decision to "green-light" a project entails risk. Failure sometimes means loss of promotion, loss of bonuses or loss of job. However, if the film failed, but used La Fontaine's voice in the trailer, executives can always say, "But, but, but, I hired La Fontaine." La Fontaine's agent Steve Tisherman told writer Nara Schoenberg of the Chicago Tribune, "They ain't gonna take a chance on something that's unproven. Everybody's job is on the line when a movie comes out. ... No one in the studio will ever get told by their boss, 'Why the hell did you hire that guy?'" How does one get into Hollywood? Nobody provides a step-by-step, here's-what-you-do formula. Because the youth market drives so much of Hollywood, the industry requires an infusion of young talent. So we see the young ingenue who, following her hugely successful sitcom, now lands a multimillion-dollar development deal. And then we see that the once-hot production house gets overtaken by the Young Turks who came up with "X-files," or some other cutting-edge show. But no clearly marked trail points to, let alone guarantees, success. Screenwriter William Goldman wrote "Adventures in the Screen Trade," a brilliant expose/satire on the business. He points out that virtually every studio rejected "Star Wars," the phenomenally successful movie that spawned several profitable sequels. But, at first, nobody got it. Cowboys in space? What? How? Why? Yeah, but? And, despite her marriage to a studio executive, screenwriter Wendy Finerman spent years knocking on doors to get an audience for "Forrest Gump." (It grossed only $330 million for Paramount, domestically.) Black liberal commentator Tavis Smiley recently signed a multimillion-dollar, multi-media deal with ABC and CNN. Smiley, who came from a family of 10, came to Los Angeles inspired by the election of the city's first black mayor, Tom Bradley. Smiley sought work in the Bradley administration but couldn't get through the door. According to a Los Angeles Times article, "Finally ... he sent Bradley a handwritten, tear-stained letter, and persistence paid off. The mayor gave him a call." We call that pluck. Breaking into Hollywood, whether in front of or behind the camera, requires hard, hard work. How can Mfume help? Encourage minorities to follow the path of famed Los Angeles black architect Paul Williams. Williams, later called "Architect to the Stars," became a certified architect in 1915. Because of his race, nobody hired him. Williams went from architectural firm to architectural firm, and offered his services for free. "I remember my first job-hunting week," said Williams. "I made a list of 25 architects from the telephone book, which I arranged in sequence to location. I made the tour, and after each visit I made a notation as to whether the answer was 'no' or 'maybe next week,' and whether it was said with a smile or a frown. If it was a smile I would return next week with some of my sketches which I carried in a smart portfolio. That week I received three offers for a job with salaries ranging from three dollars a week down to nothing per week, but letting me work as an office boy. This was the job I accepted because they were important architects in the city. To my surprise they broke their contract the very first week and paid me a salary of three dollars." So, how do minorities get into Hollywood? Pluck, hard work, and the absolute refusal to think like a victicrat.