The Black Box
Baltimore's African-American indie filmmakers search for an audience
The filmmakers interviewed for this story are all shooting for the big deal, the big break. They are all aware of the difficulties of getting anyone who can offer a big deal to pay attention to the footage they painstakingly shoot and assemble over months, sometimes years, much less the slim chances that the outcome of the deal will find a wide audience--it's a competitive attrition that compares with major-league sports. None of them are planning on stopping anytime soon.
In lieu of a commercial DVD deal for China White, the Robinson brothers burn their own discs and offer them for sale on Amazon. Grasshopper, aka 31-year-old Bryan Robinson (no relation to Jonathan and Rick), says he did something similar.
"I put it right on DVD," he says with a sly smile. "I burned it in my computer, gave [copies] to the actors. 'Here you go, thank you for helping me out.'"
So Grasshopper's first and so far only scripted screen production, Passers By ("Shoot Dreams," Film, June 28, 2006), hasn't had a theatrical run other than its 2006 debut at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, nor a life on home video. He cares, of course, but then again he doesn't.
"I send out these letters to production companies, like 'I have this project, it's a comedic episode . . .'--I try to word it right," he says. "Not a lot of letters come back to me. What I want to hear is, 'I just got that DVD and we would love to have you to come to the studio and produce these films for the Bravo network.' That's what I want to hear. But if I don't hear that, it doesn't deter me from doing it."
As a result, few have seen the recent short "The C.U.P." in which he uses his own attempts to make films as fodder for a superhero spoof. As for "Waterboy," the adroit documentary short he shot last summer focusing on the men who sell cold water on hot days at Baltimore intersections, he says no one else has seen it except his girlfriend and this writer. So what keeps him at it?
"Ideas, ideas, overwhelming ideas," he says as he fidgets in a City Paper conference room. "Like right now, I'm thinking about what I could shoot in here. Just ideas. I can't hold them in my head, so let me write this out a little bit, and I can get someone to play this role. . .
"I'm doing it because I love doing it and I have to do it," he sums up, "and if I stop doing it who's going to see it anyway, so I gotta keep on doing it."
And so Grasshopper is working on a feature-length script with two other writers for a film he calls Better Recognize Theater. "The Wire meets Kung Fu Masterpiece Theater is how I want it to play out," he says. Even as they finish up Sweet Dreams and attempt to find a deal for it, Gray and Warren are beginning work on an idea for a drama that Gray says will center on a "trailer-park family"; working title: The Whites. The Robinsons are deeply involved in preparations for their long-delayed full-length feature debut Preparation for a Murder. "We're gonna hit it really hard," Jonathan says. "I have more faith that we can pull this off [this time]." And although any momentum from the minor success of Sinsitivity was sidetracked for several years due to a family illness, Moir says he has never stopped thinking about and researching his next film, a drama revolving around interracial relationships entitled Once You Go Black.
Most of these projects can move forward on some level because of the increasing quality and decreasing price of digital cameras like the ones the Robinson brothers now use. But that advance comes with its own challenges. After years of low-budget filmmakers aspiring to the coveted "film look" of professional grade 35mm film stock, cheap digital cameras are getting closer and closer to it. "Everybody's going to have nice cameras, and [their films will] look really, really good," Gray says. "Now it's not going to be about look, it's going to be about story."
Grasshopper agrees with Gray. "It's easy to get the equipment to make a film," he says. "But is it gonna be good? Is it gonna be able to reach different audiences?"
Reaching different audiences locally remains a big concern. The Creative Alliance has hosted screenings of China White and Passers By (Grasshopper credits CAmm Slamm, the Creative Alliance MovieMakers' 48-hour film contest, with giving him his first taste of filmmaking success), but even Patterson Park-area resident Jonathan Robinson acknowledges "some friends of mine still don't know about the Creative Alliance." Local screening opportunities for local filmmakers are still fairly scarce unless you're renting out the Senator or the Landmark for the evening. For what it's worth, Gray, the Robinsons, and Grasshopper all bring up the fact that they've had their films turned down in past by the Maryland Film Festival.
And yet, they keep trying to make films, even as bills and work and family and the other realities of life off-screen distract them. "If you really love something, you'll miss it, and you'll go back to it," Warren, mother of a 2-year-old, says. "After a while, [you'll be calling people up] like, 'Hey, what are you doing? Are you working on the film?'" She adds: "It's one of those things you have to love, because if you don't it's pointless."
"There's a James Brown lyric where he says, 'I don't want nobody to give me nothin', just open the door, I'll get it myself,'" Moir sums up. "Every opportunity I've had, I've capitalized on. I don't think I've squandered anything. I can kill this business, man. I've always known that."
With special thanks to Violet Glaze.
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