We interrupt reports of Titanic‘s rising box office to bring you news of another watershed film, which can claim credit for keeping a studio afloat.
Think of Eve’s Bayou, the multigenerational African-American drama written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield, as the little movie that did. Rescued from the script junkyard after being rejected by every studio in town, the $5 million flick has grossed nearly $15 million theatrically, an unexpected pot of gold for the Leprechaun-producing Trimark Pictures.
Propelled by Bayou and the $4 million grossing Kama Sutra, Trimark’s 1997 indie box office rivaled that of established companies like October Films and Sony Pictures Classics. With Bayou likely to generate another $7 million on video, the studio known for direct-to-tape titles like Another 9 1/2 Weeks has now acquired hip, baby-indie status.
Trimark’s image turnaround is due to a savvy marketing strategy that’s let Eve’s Bayou shatter the art-house color barrier. Conventional wisdom on African-American art films had been, white audiences won’t see ’em, and black audiences aren’t big enough to support ’em. ”The model suggested it would gross about $1 million, so we remade the model,” says Ray Price, a Trimark senior VP. Emphasizing different aspects of the film for different audiences, a mainstream trailer featured the film’s only gunshot scene and was laced with hints of sexuality. The art-house version was a character-driven story about a good man with a tragic flaw. And, finally, the trailers tar geted at African-American women pitched the movie’s strong female characters and featured a quote from author Alice Walker.
Using Bayou as a calling card, Trimark then swept into 1998’s Sundance Film Festival and bought the poetry-in-prison drama Slam for $2.5 million, days before it won the festival’s top prize. Director Marc Levin says he was won over by Trimark’s selling strategies, like a plan to get endorsements (a la Walker’s for Bayou) by showing the film to NBA players. ”I’d never heard of Trimark, but I was aware of Eve’s Bayou,” says Levin, ”and that was enough.”
If Trimark can market Slam as successfully as Bayou, it’ll be a major mogul on next year’s Sundance slopes. First, though, it must survive the financial write-downs it’s had to take for such check-your-brain-at-the-door comedies as Rodney Dangerfield‘s Meet Wally Sparks. ”We’re in the process of reinventing ourselves,” explains Price. ”We’re going from quantity to quality.” A sure sign the company is becoming a player: Competitors are firing potshots. One top indie exec calls Trimark chairman Mark Amin ”a used-vacuum-cleaner salesman,” referring to the company’s B titles. Another rival says Eve’s Bayou is ”Trimark’s 15 minutes.”
But they’ve been great minutes for Lemmons, who says, ”I owe my career to them.” And Trimark may owe its future to Eve’s Bayou.