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The Business of TV and Film: From F.U.B.U. to D.I.F.O.

In the second part of this two-part series, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Editor Mutiyat Ade-Salu explores the ways in which entertainers are resurrecting the business motto “For Us, By Us” and why she’s giving this movement

In last week’s article, “The Business of Music”, I pointed out the fact so many markets were over-saturated due to wider access to and wider reach through technology. However, there was always room for a unique individual or entity to enter therein. Examples were artists like Chance the Rapper, Solange, and MoRuf, who operated by their own rules when it came to their musical craft as well as carrying themselves as a business. Of course, there’s always a few people who have the courage to disrupt the status quo before others follow and such music industry game changers were musical artist Prince and Daymond John of the hip-hop music and clothing brand FUBU. Now, I’m exploring the moves of a few folks in film and television.


The Past

Will Smith

overbrook-entertainment-loAfter the 1997 success of the film Men in Black, actor Will Smith made sure that he would not have to wait for movie studios to produce roles for him by partnering with his longtime friend James Lassiter and creating the production company Overbrook Entertainment. Since then Overbrook has executive produced every film Will Smith has starred in, including Wild Wild West; I Am Legend; Hitch; I, Robot; The Pursuit of Happyness; After Earth, and the soon-to-be-released Collateral Beauty. In addition, he has enabled his own family to step immediately into the acting mainstream as evidenced by Overbrook’s production of the films After Earth and The Karate Kid remake starring Jaden Smith. The production company doesn’t just benefit Will Smith and his family, though. It has also produced The Queen Latifah Show and the film classic Love & Basketball starring Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps. What’s so profound about this company to me is the quiet example it has set for other actors of color to take charge of their careers by choosing and producing the scripts they want to star in.



The Present

Tyler Perry, Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o

tyler_perry_studiosIn the 21st century we can look to people such as Tyler Perry, Viola Davis, and Lupita Nyong’o for films that are FUBU (For Us, By Us). Tyler Perry started out writing stage plays in the American South, then distributed and sold them on DVD format for viewers to enjoy across the nation. With funds from those sales, he was able to produce his first film Diary of a Mad Black Woman and followed it up with 16 more feature films and an entire studio location that tapes 7 television shows – all owned by Mr. Perry. As a result of this empire, Tyler Perry (an African-American man) employs the highest percentage of actors of color out of all American producers. If one follows his career closely, they’ll see that he has always worked for himself and on his own terms.


The great actor Viola Davis spent almost half her lifetime as a hardworking stage actress working for other producers and theater companies before finally being recognized on a large-scale with the film Doubt, co-starring Meryl Streep. After being nominated for an Academy Award in 2009, then again in 2011 for The Help, she created her own production company JuVee Productions to create film projects for herself. She has publicly acknowledged that she cannot rely on an Oscar Award to get consistent work as an actress. Although she did end up winning an historic Emmy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series in 2015, it was JuVee Productions that enabled her to star in her next film Lila & Eve (with Jennifer Lopez) not another well-known producer. JuVee also enabled her to sell 2 prime time television shows to ABC Studios, the most recent being The Zipcoders, as reported by The Hollywood Reporter on October 27th.  With this calculated business move and despite being the face of the hit TV series How to Get Away With Murder, Ms. Davis is bringing in a paycheck that’s substantially larger than a typical lead actress salary. She has made sure that her career literally remains in her own hands.


A younger actor who’s followed in the footsteps of Ms. Davis is the Kenyan-Mexican Lupita N’yongo. Possibly the only actor ever to win an Oscar right after graduating from acting school,  Nyong’o immediately began building her own production company in 2014. Her first big move was acquiring the film rights to Chimamandah Adichie’s  best-selling novel “Americanah”, a film she will allegedly star in. Before appearing as the star of the Broadway play Eclipsed, she also functioned as a campaigning producer for the show by selling its idea to funders . Lupita Nyong’o, still in her thirties, represents a small, but growing number of actors not waiting for their careers to blossom under the anointing of major producers or studios.


Issa Rae


awkward_black_girlKnowing her by her legal name, I am extremely proud of the way Senegalese/African-American Issa Rae has built her artistic platform since the beginning of her career. When we first met as recent college grads working for New Federal Theatre in New York, I saw an incredibly dedicated work ethic in Issa. Her ethic was applied to more than just her own acting career: it was about providing film opportunities for others also. She created the Black Film Academy to showcase films by young Black filmmakers. (There were plenty of them pouring into NYC before the stock market crash of 2008.) After returning to Los Angeles, she began posting episodes from her college film project titled “Dorm Diaries” on her personal Facebook page and it received tons of comments. With her knack for connecting with her FB friends on a unique and sincere level, her personal quotes and videos went viral. She then created the web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl in 2011 and we all know what happened after that! Issa Rae now has her own show Insecure on HBO and she can honestly say she has created and produced all of her own work since she began her professional career. The precedent she has set for other web content creators cannot be denied and I have yet to meet a single person under 30 (regardless of race) who has not heard of A.B.G. To create room for more women writers and writers of color in media, Issa formed the distribution company Color Creative (This chick STAYS giving back!) For more on Insecure, read here.


Lessons for African entrepreneurs:

  • Take the risk of creating your product or service from an emotional and authentic place.
  • Don’t just dare to be a creative or technical individual; become your own financier or producer. Then, don’t stop there. Become a distributor of your work and the work of others.
  • When you get your first large check from a high-paying job or critically successful project, sacrificing a chunk of it to start your own company is equal to buying your first stock with a part of your first salary. The investment grows parallel to your initial career and later on you’ll have a source of work and income that you don’t have to compete for.


I said it before and I’ll say it again: This is the dawn of the creative entrepreneur and the rise of the customer-centric market. Who better to dominate it than the most historically creative, resilient and resourceful people on the planet: Africans?  We are unstoppable and still D.I.F.O (Doing It For Ourselves).

To read Part 1 of this series, click here.

Mutiyat Ade-Salu
Mutiyat Ade-Salu is the contributing editor for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. She is also an actress, vocalist, writer, and budding entrepreneur. The playwright of Sunny Came Home and the creator of #FirstGenIAm, Miutiyat was named 2016’s Miss Black New York Coed. Follow her on Twitter @tiaadetweets.
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