WAITING TO EXHALE," THE RECENT hit film about the love trials of four middle-class black women, bore all the marks of Hollywood. The movie, a Christmas release that opened on 1,253 screens nationwide, was based on a hot novelist's best seller and featured a star-studded cast (Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett) and a marvelous soundtrack (produced by hitmaker Babyface). Rupert Murdoch, Twentieth Century Fox boss and global media baron, is pleased: ticket sales now total more than $66 million. By contrast, few films could be as un-Hollywood as "Once Upon a Time ... When We Were Colored." Opened on 14 screens and directed by veteran TV actor/producer Tim Reid, the $2.6 million film tells a warm coming-of-age story of a black man in Glen Allan, Miss., in an era (1946 to 1962) when the Ku Klux Klan reigned in the segregated South. No big stars here. The box office now totals $1.1 million. So why is Robert Johnson, who controls Black Entertainment Television (BET), which owns half of the movie, as happy as Murdoch? Ask him: "We have moved the needle in a big way. We produced a quality low-budget movie. We got distribution. It opened to critical acclaim."
Among the media world's vast array of major players, Bob Johnson stands out. One of the nation's most successful African-American entrepreneurs. he owns BET stock worth well over $200 million. BET is the only cable network aimed at African-Americans, with music shows ("Video Soul"), public-affairs programs ("Our Voices") and sitcom reruns ("Roc"). Don't forget news: BET pulled the highest ratings of any cable program recently with its O.J. interview. With BET's fortunes soaring, Johnson last month joined an elite group of media moguls, studio heads and network bosses at the White House powwow on TV violence - the only black person present. But in the smoke and mirrors of showbiz, things aren't always what they seem. Despite all his success, Johnson, like most African-Americans, is a Hollywood outsider, operating at the edge of the industry's small nucleus of real power brokers.
But Johnson has a plan to change that. His goal: to build the first black-controlled studio, from scratch, and break the color barrier in America's most high-profile industry. He wants to create a place where black filmmakers can explore the diversity of African-American life-"fiction, fact, fantasy and myths, positive, negative." In the Hollywood system, that just won't happen, Johnson argues. For African-Americans to grab a chunk of control in Hollywood, the key is ownership-of film and TV show libraries, music, images and other other entertainment copyrights. Venturing to Tinseltown from BET's glass-sheathed headquarters in a Washington, D.C., industrial park, Johnson has tried to enlist top black stars as partners in his quest. And his ambitious pursuit is unfolding at a moment when race has once more become a troublesome concern in filmland. In a blistering cover story two weeks ago, People magazine detailed the exclusion of African-Americans from the inner circles of Hollywood power.
Johnson's adventure in Tinseltown is turning out to be a tale of brave intentions. contradictions, missteps and suspicions. In principle, many Hollywood blacks believe that Johnson is on to something. "I'd love for BET to be involved in the business of original productions," says Nina Shaw, an African-American lawyer whose clients include talk-show host Montel Williams and actor Laurence Fishburne. "It would be a tremendous boom for black Hollywood and for BET." But so far, such big-name stars as Denzel Washington and Whoopi Goldberg have said, "No thanks!" Why? Many blacks in Tinseltown, while proud of BET as a showcase of black entrepreneurship, believe that Johnson has scrimped on programming. (The same criticism can be heard from many cable operators, most of them white, who buy his service.) For example, if you want original TV shows - like black dramatic series-don't tune to BET. If your taste runs to infomercials on exercise equipment or back-to-back music videos supplied by record labels, then BET is the place. And skeptics fear that Johnson's approach to the movie business will be modeled on BET--low-budget.
By the numbers, it's hard to believe that African-Americans haven't gained more clout in showbiz. Blacks, who constitute 12 percent of the population, fill one of every four theater seats - 25 percent of movie audiences. The result: while the average Hollywood movie loses money, black-cast movies generally produce profits.
Johnson, 50, isn't one to overlook that kind of opportunity. With a master's degree in public affairs from Princeton, he has worked as a congressional aide and a staffer for the Washington Urban League. Until 1979, he lobbied for the cable industry. Around that time, the proverbial light bulb went on in Johnson's head. just as the cable industry was taking off, he envisioned a channel catering to African-Americans. Ah! Diversity in TV-just what cable operators (almost all white) needed to help persuade black-led city governments to let them bring cable systems to the lucrative urban markets. Cable titan John Malone's TeleCommunications Inc. (TCI), which today owns 17 percent of BET, backed Johnson, as later did Time Inc. (now Time Warner).
Like the rest of the cable industry, BET has enjoyed monster success. It went public in 1991, only the second black-controlled company (and the largest) ever to do so. And its stock lately has reached new highs; BET's market value is now $500 million. The company generates more cash than Johnson knows where to invest, analysts say. Lately he has launched a jazz cable channel and formed a venture with Microsoft to take BET into cyberspace. The company also owns magazines (Emerge, YSB and a new weekend entertainment guide) and a pay-per-view service.
Now some of Johnson's excess cash will go to bankroll his three-year-old studio dream. Since the early 1990s, Johnson has explored several plans. He has approached Denzel Washington and other stars to join him as partners. The idea is for talent to appear in two or three low-budget ($2 million) movies for cut-rate pay--plus a piece of ownership. The biggest stars, Johnson says, would have bigger movies ($10 million budgets). Money to make the movies would come not only from BET's profits but from other black and white investors and even Wall Street, Johnson says. So far, the two movies he has on a few screens--"Once upon a Time. . ." and "Out of Sync" have been financed through BET joint ventures with white-owned companies: Blockbuster, TCI's Encore pay-TV unit and a video company, Live Entertainment. Both films were made by United Image Entertainment, a production venture belonging to BET, boxing promoter Butch Lewis and Reid, the director of "Once Upon a Time . . . "
Still, Johnson has fallen short of his goal. A-list actors such as Washington and Wesley Snipes have balked at investing their talent with Johnson. Besides being wary of Johnson's tight budgets, advisers and others close to African-American talent say, stars don't want to commit to film projects before they know what they are. Then, too, Johnson has been short on details about how much of an equity stake he intends to share with them.
Undaunted, Johnson treks on. No thanks, he says, to Hollywood's out-of-control cost structure. His shareholders come first. He defends his decision not to do more original shows for BET by arguing that the cable network simply can't afford it. Advertisers and cable operators seeking black customers won't pay the bigger fees and rates Johnson would have to charge if he carried all-new programming. "BET will make a black studio happen," Johnson declares.
Maybe so. But the chances would be better with some big-name African-American talent on board. Opening BET's wallet a little wider to woo them won't impoverish BET's shareholders; the Denzel Washingtons have earned the right to be paid. And Johnson must invite black Hollywood into his planning sessions, not just take his plans to them. But the reverse is also true: if black Hollywood wants a piece of the action as much as Johnson does, it will have to join him in taking some of the risk.