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How ''Bus'' Got Up to Speed

Behind the scenes of Spike Lee’s Million-Man March film

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Ever dedicated to doing the right thing, Spike Lee rejected an offer from Columbia TriStar to underwrite the $2.4 million budget of Get On the Bus. ”I wasn’t going to kiss their feet when my directing fee is between 4 and 5 million dollars,” he says. ”I didn’t want to do a film for that small amount and make them rich in the process.”

Instead, he financed a movie about black men coming together for last October’s Million Man March by coming together with a small group of investors. Lee and 14 other African-American men — including Danny Glover, Will Smith, Wesley Snipes, Robert Guillaume, Bus screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood, and O.J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran — funded the film, turning a quick 50 percent profit in August, when Columbia TriStar purchased distribution rights to their independent production for $3.6 million. (The investors will see greater returns if the studio recoups its costs.)

Lee and producer Reuben Cannon didn’t have an easy time finding people with whom to share the wealth, however. Without a script or cast attached, many entertainers and athletes solicited as investors wouldn’t take the risk. Says Cannon: ”I was being turned down by [their] attorneys and accountants. They wanted to get involved, [but] the people they pay money to said, ‘You shouldn’t do it.”’

Louis Farrakhan’s sponsorship of the march was not an impediment to investors, says Lee, who adds, ”I’m very respectful of the minister, despite not agreeing with everything he says.” And though Bus touches on the viewpoints of the Nation of Islam leader, Bythewood, 31, who is supervising producer of Fox TV’s New York Undercover, says the movie was never ”about Farrakhan. It’s about self-reliance.”

Which is what both the film’s characters and makers learned. Lee, who now calls any early obstacles to Bus just ”bumps on the road” that led from idea to release in 11 months flat, considers tapping private capital the wave of the future. After Get On the Bus, says the director, ”we can raise $10 million much easier next time.” Cochran, who invested $200,000, agrees. ”In the African-American community, we always complain about the movies that are being made,” he says. ”You have to put your money where your mouth is.”