BET to create 10 original, prime-time films
June 17, 1999
From Sherri Sylvester
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Black Entertainment Television executives have carefully fashioned their programming to their target audience. And a new plan to make films from a popular romance-novel series is designed to deepen the shows offered to that demographic.
The venture is called the Arabesque Films Project, after the line of romance novels -- the first such publishing endeavor for an African-American readership. The Arabesque series of books was launched by Kensington Publishing Corporation in July 1994. During its five years, the Arabesque line has grown to include a book club that offers four titles each month.
Out of more than 100 prime-time TV shows currently on the air, only 18 feature black casts. And BET, a cable service, plans to increase black programming by making 10 original films. The project is being touted as the largest production slate planned so far of features by, for and about African-Americans.
The new Arabesque films series could be profitable for BET and its advertisers. The buying power of black America is estimated at $350 million. And Arabesque books have become well established, each title getting an initial run of 40,000 to 50,000 copies (sold at $4.99 each), some then getting reprints.
Roy Campanella II is the executive producer of the project. He says that among cable channels, BET can meet the demand for black programming, but has to create its own supply.
"If you tried to program those basic cable outlets with African-American films produced, directed, written (and) starring African-Americans," Campanella says, "you couldn't even fill up a week if you wanted to show basic contemporary pictures."
Tight budgets, excited actors
In June 1998, BET Holdings bought the library of more than 200 Arabesque romance novels. But the production budget for the upcoming films is tiny by commercial Hollywood standards.
So the network has hired writers to adapt the books for the screen and has pitched the project to independent directors, including Julie Dash, whose work includes the 1991 film version of Willa Jo-Zollar's "Praise House" and this year's "Funny Valentines" with Alfre Woodard.
Dash says she's prepared for the budget constraints. "I come from independent filmmaking, so we're just guerrilla filmmakers," she says. "We grab pick-ups and close-ups when we can, cutaways when we can, just go in for the body of the scene."
The $8 million budget for 10 movies is less than some studios would pay just one actor for a major theatrical release.
"The way I'm aware of that," jokes actor Ron Glass, "is they wanted to know if I had any wonderful suits that I wanted to bring in."
Despite the pay, Glass -- of the "Teen Angel" TV series and the film "It's My Party," 1996 -- says most actors are thrilled to appear in the films.
"It's a good thing," he says. "There's a lot of actors out there who need these opportunities, and for BET to step up and do the film division -- I think it's a great thing."
The "Arabesque" films are scheduled to premiere this fall on BET, airing later in half-hour series form. Video releases are planned to follow, and some films are expected to be shown in theaters and on the festival circuit.
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