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A People's History

7 Dec, 2002 By: Dan Bennett

There are several reasons Black History Month promotions provide opportunities for enhanced sales. Some of the titles are classics -- traditional big-sellers repriced and repromoted. Others are recent theatrical successes, still feeding off wide consumer appeal. Projects featuring African-American actors are abundant, in number and theme, though many in the entertainment industry admit there could -- and should -- be so many more.

Also, documentaries and other titles detailing African-American history are used for educational purposes more than ever before. Their value is further buoyed by increased national awareness of Black History Month in February and Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January.

“This time of year is a prime opportunity to release first-rate titles that were major studio films,” said Todd Rowan, VP of marketing for Fox Home Entertainment. “These are strong, recognizable titles that speak not solely to an African-American audience, but to a wider audience as well.”

Fox has repriced several titles on VHS and DVD, including Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Soul Food.

“These are high-quality titles that have a lot of relevance to people,” Rowan said.

The studio also is repromoting Men of Honor and is offering the vintage title Carmen Jones and the Robert Townsend-directed music-drama The Five Heartbeats on DVD for the first time.

Carmen Jones has been a great seller on VHS,” Rowan said. “The DVD looks great, as this was one of the original Cinemascope films. They did an actual restoration for this title, and we're expecting it to do well worldwide.”

Success with these titles is not exclusive to the first quarter, Rowan said.

“It's not only the end of January and the month of February -- these titles do well for mass merchants month after month, Rowan said.” What this time of year does offer is a chance to do price reductions and position these titles even better. A title can come out of the gate at $19.98 and then get repriced down to $9.98.”

These first-quarter promotions also work well because they land after the holiday rush and before the summer launch.

“All the noise from the holiday titles has subsided. It gives us a chance to help raise awareness for these titles,” Rowan said.

Artisan Home Entertainment has plenty to choose from when designing its annual Black History Month promotions, culling the best of the properties it has acquired over the years.

“We are fortunate to have a varied and deep catalog,” said Hosea Belcher, SVP of marketing for Artisan Home Entertainment. “We mine our catalog for the best it has to offer in this genre, and these promotions have been very successful.”

The jewel of this year's promotion is Mama Flora's Family, new to DVD and starring Cicely Tyson, Blair Underwood and Queen Latifah.

“It's a wonderful title, critically acclaimed, with name actors,” Belcher said. “It's an epic kind of story that is perfect for consumers, no matter what their background.”

Artisan catalog titles include The Piano Lesson; Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; and Run for the Dream.

“These are titles we have promoted before, so they already have recognition,” Belcher said. “These titles are very successful at impulse pricing, and $9.98 gives them a chance to really move off the shelves.”

Increased awareness of black history activity this time of year helps.

“It's the right time,” Belcher said. “There is a lot of activity, both locally in individual communities, and nationally. With Martin Luther King's birthday and Black History Month, it's a two-month window.”

Retailers who push titles during the long weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday are likely to see results, Belcher said.

“Retailers can take advantage for the holiday weekend,” he said. “It's a national holiday, so there is increased retail traffic. The merchandising can be perfectly timed.”

Artisan also offers titles in the wide-ranging urban category throughout the year, including during the first quarter, as many suppliers do.

“We'll have another urban promotion that streets in January,” Belcher said. “It's not necessarily family oriented, but the black experience includes both family-oriented experiences and other experiences. Titles that range from dramas to silly comedies can all touch on the many black life experiences.”

Successful companies releasing black-themed product year-round have proven this, including Xenon Entertainment and Delta Entertainment, in partnership with MTI Entertainment.

Xenon blankets the marketplace with top-tier titles year-round, including its recent release of Thug Immortal, the documentary on the life of the late rapper Tupac Shakur.

Delta, too, finds room for both dramas and comedies, stories of inspiration and stories of despair, all covering the black experience.

“We try to make all kinds of titles available, with subjects that speak to everyone,” said Joe Kelly Jackson, president of Delta Entertainment.

Delta is working on an upcoming release featuring Martin Luther King Jr. speeches before his famous “I have a dream” speech. The title will be called The Speech at Galilee.

“We've found some archival footage that highlights Dr. King's sermons and speeches, and really tells a story,” Jackson said.

Another vital King title can be found on PBS Home Video, which offers the catalog title In Remembrance of Martin. PBS offers rich resources for retailers seeking to increase documentary stock. Available Jan. 8 in partnership with Warner Home Video is the DVD version of Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, a biography of the enigmatic social figure.

“That title had a screening at Sundance and created a nice buzz,” said Dan Hamby, VP of PBS consumer products.

The PBS catalog is loaded with other relevant titles.

“The titles are truly a reflection of our television broadcasts, where we seek to chronicle the African-American experience through as many avenues as possible,” Hamby said.

PBS gained attention several years ago with its “Eyes on the Prize” series, and has kept such titles flowing under different labels, including many of the titles in its “American Experience” series.

“We like a mix of biographies and bigger-picture stories, and we especially like to introduce lesser-known people and stories,” Hamby said.

Such a title would include Ipi Ntombi: An African Dance Celebration.

“It highlights the artistic energy of Africa,” Hamby said. “It's fascinating.”

PBS also has Jazz, the acclaimed Ken Burns documentary, highlighting the achievements of dozens of prominent and lesser-known black musicians. Baseball, the previous Burns documentary, paid special attention to Jackie Robinson.

“Ken's films always place an emphasis on exploring issues of race,” Hamby said. “One of his next projects is a history of the boxer Jack Johnson.”

So along with sheer entertainment titles, there is also a market for more studious efforts. Chicago-based Facets Video boasts not only an extensive catalog of black-themed films, titles such as The Art of Haiti and Maxwell Street Blues, but also its powerful “African-American Film Heritage Series.”

“Some of our first releases in the early 1980s were these two collections of legendary race films from the first part of the century,” said marketing director Ray Privett. “These were films made largely by, about and for black people, and showed on a circuit of black-owned and -operated theaters across the country.”

Among the most celebrated works are Body and Soul, starring the great Paul Robeson and written and directed by iconoclastic legend Oscar Micheaux, as well as Native Son, starring famed author Richard Wright in an adaptation of his novel.

“These are must-have titles for stores seeking depth in their film sections,” Privett said.

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