Interview with Dr. Roland Jefferson, producer
Give something back

by Elizabeth Jackson

from Jump Cut, no. 36, May 1991, pp. 89-93, 46
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1991, 2006

Dr. Roland Jefferson is a Los Angeles based psychiatrist turned film producer. Initially enthralled with the world of writing and storytelling, Jefferson diverted his attention to medicine when his family urged him to lake the more traditional and "safe" career route. He received a B.A. from USC and his M.D. from Howard University in Washington DC. After years in private practice, he eventually succumbed to his first love. Jefferson has independently produced three films — WHACK ATTACK (1979), a story of drug usage and its devastating effects on the community; DISCO 9,000 (1977), centered on the popular, Hollywood-based disco and its mysterious underworld connections; and PERFUME (1989), his feature drama about an elitist group of black women who own the nation's leading perfume company. Jefferson says that aside from his contributions in medicine, he wishes "to give back in terms of artistic vision, something that people in our community would enjoy and feet proud of."

Elizabeth Jackson: Dr. Jefferson, you are both a psychiatrist and a full-scale film producer. Isn't that a rather unusual career mix?

Roland Jefferson: I'm not the first one who has tried this. THE ROAD WARRIOR and THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK were both produced and directed by physicians, the latter by George Miller, an ophthalmologist. I'd love to get into film full time, but I think I'd always keep a day or two open to see clients. If I'd known that this is what I wanted to do, I'd never have studied medicine.

I'd always wanted to write short stories but couldn't get any kind of encouragement from anyone. As I look back on the kinds of things I did as a youth, they were all leading to that — it just wasn't recognized as such. To tell the truth, had I known then what I know now, I'd have picked filmmaking over medicine any day of the week. I'll know when PERFUME comes out whether my background in psychiatry has helped me any.

PERFUME is really geared for black women — specifically for this target audience. It may also have a large an house market to white women, because it deals with women's issues. For example, one woman gets her children taken away by the authorities for no valid reason. I don't think you have to be black to identify with this. Also any woman can identify with a love affair gone wrong, a lover who's jilted her, or the death of a husband. So I think PERFUME may have an appeal beyond its target audience.

As a writer and psychiatrist, I tried to inject as much broad characterization as I could. I have been working on this film for almost eleven years — this one project, trying to get it together. I've rewritten the script several times trying to get the characters to ring true. I had a number of offers to sell the script, but I held onto it because I had the desire to produce it myself. Now, after nearly a decade, it'll be released soon.


PERFUME is purely a relationship drama. Its not made to be anything else. It deals with the interpersonal relations between five middle-class, relatively affluent black women. In terms of something more viewers would be familiar with, it's like STEEL MAGNOLIAS with less humor. It's from the Tick's Black Women Series, which takes a issues about black women seriously.

The women have been friends since they were children. Some are married, some divorced, some widowed. They're independent, in a range between relatively affluent and extremely wealthy.

It is a romantic drama, rated "R" with no violence. I was criticized by all the major studios when they viewed the final cut because it didn't have any violence, shoot-outs, or car chases. It was as if, "Why would anybody want to see a film that didn't have any of that?" It's as if we're pre-computed to watch only certain kind of films.

The women have five distinctly different personalities. One is a feminist, another a neurotic, another an alcoholic. Another is a lonely, needy woman, and another promiscuous. The film's theme is that diverse individuals who have different views and different values can be friends and come to accept one another in spite of their flaws. This film isn't any different from what Woody Allen makes except it doesn't have a cast of box office names, (I think there will be one when the film comes out.) We used talented unknowns with a good male supporting cast. They included Ted Large, from LOVE BOAT; Felton Perry, from ROBOCOP; Don Wilson, from IRONSIDE; and a couple of unknown actors, J.D. Hall, Cal Wilson, Melvin Howard Taylor. Because it deals with relationships, it shows the way these women relate to their men.

A white audience will not understand this, but a black audience will. The way relations happen demonstrates enormous depth and feeling in a way we've never seen before. Probably only SOUNDER, years ago, indicated that tenderness and warmth that you don't normally see. I don't want to give too much of the story away, but this film has something for everyone. Somebody once asked me, "Did I speak for all black women?" That's absurd. Of course I don't. But this film shows black women as how they may choose to become.

I strongly suspected, and this has been proven in test screenings held around the country, that some characters would be liked and others not. That's OK. That's what film is about. Surprisingly at a screening in Washington D.C., the audience liked one of the characters that test audiences had not particularly liked. It really depends upon where a viewer's head is at. Some audiences, for example, don't like the character who's a feminist, but other audiences do. Some audiences do not like the one who's an alcoholic or one or two of the male characters. Yet other predominantly female audiences fell in love with some of the male characters. It just depends on who sees it.

You mentioned that this film was targeted for black women. As a black producer, do you feel a responsibility for producing for, or otherwise serving the black community?

We have to do that. I am a product of the community, so I feel a moral obligation to give something back. I can't finance the world, and I can't stop poverty. But what I can do hopefully is to give back in terms of artistic vision something that people in our community would enjoy and feel proud of.

You purposely set out to make this feature film with a black audience in mind. Was this a financially feasible move on your part? Is there money to be made with this kind of exclusive audience?

There is a huge market for films for and about the black community. For a long time the studios, to avoid making films about the black experience, used the failure of THE WIZ with Diana Ross. But that film made $10-I5 million, and it was only seen by mostly black people. It had little or no white crossover at all, and it cost $30 million to make. A healthy strategy when making black films is to always keep the cost under $3 million. That way, when you recoup $12 million (if it shows to an exclusive all-black audience) you've made money.

A good example is THE DISORDERLIES, which had no white or black appeal; it had no audience appeal. Michael Schultz directed it. This film went off the charts at about $9 million. Warner Brothers produced it, probably because they thought that the Fat Boys (the funniest thing in CRUSH GROOVE) would be able to capture the audience. As it turned out, that didn't happen, and the project lost money.

I don't mean to criticize Michael Schultz because lots of good directors direct films but, for some odd reason, the audience doesn't catch on. Even for Spike Lee — his films were done for under ten million dollars. He can go up to eight because he has distribution. That's the key. He can show his film in 1,000 to 1,500 theatres. Obviously, the lower the budget, the greater the chance of recouping finances. But films are all
relative. DO THE RIGHT THING made $25 million on an $8 or $9 million budget — whatever they gave Spike.

Spike Lee is absolutely correct in saying that this film would have grossed double had not the media distorted the threat of race riots in the theatres, so that many white viewers stayed away. It's an example of how inappropriately bad press destroyed a film. It could have earned $50 million. I think Universal and Spike would agree with me on that.

On the other hand, look at Prince's latest film, GRAFFITI BRIDGE. Now my understanding is — and I can't verily this — that the film cost probably $7 million to make. It only made about $4 million in the box office, and it had a big distributor behind it. It shows how even well done films with big-name stars and seemingly commercial appeal sometimes fall flat. Sometimes cost isn't always a factor, though the lower the budget, the greater the chances are of enhancing a financial return. It would have been very interesting to the scene if, let's say, Universal Studios had picked up Spike's first movie, which he made for $179,000. If they'd opened that on a three, or four, or five million dollar advertising budget, it would've been very interesting to see the return on that.

I know this was a lengthy film from conception through completion. Any particular problems you encountered that other black producers could benefit from?

My number one problem was not enough money. The second problem I can we in hindsight. To any black filmmaker I say, know who you are hiring. Unfortunately I allowed somebody else to hire a good part of the crew because I trusted that person's judgment — not realizing that that person was an opportunist and using the film for his own needs. So lot of the crew were not qualified to work on the film, even though many were extremely qualified. What I know now about producing that I didn't then was to go through each resume page by page personally. But the second thing which proved even more disastrous was to have cast members and/or crew members who don't see the film the way you do. Get rid of them immediately or it will cause all kinds of problems down the road. To indicate what happened, someone called a major distributor claiming that they owned the film — owned all the distribution rights — but he was nothing but a paid technician. The studio sent me the letter, which I still have. That's how arrogant and opportunistic people are. Unfortunately, he's a black. That's what makes it really bad.

Black producers want to use black talent. There's an enormous amount of black talent out there, both in front of and behind the camera. But some you really have to watch out for. I say that without any problem. If there are any lessons to be learned, it is know who you are hiring and make sure they see the film the way you do. If they don't, get rid of them. I don't care if they are black or white. The best film in the world will be about the making of PERFUME, an unqualified hit. It was a nightmare. But we all learn, and the mistakes I made on that I will never repeat in life.

Who is the distributor?

An east coast company called Video Pick-Wheeler Films.

What would you like to brag about with Perfume?

It has an excellent music track by Willie Hutch, who comes out of the Motown stable and did a number of very commercial films during the 70s. So he did the music track on this film with some new vocal artists — Marci Thomas and Alice Adams. The sound track plays a very integral role. As the music director came up to me and said, "This is a film for black women in love." In all the previews, audiences may not like certain characters, which is fine, but the film works on them unconsciously. Several different women viewers asked in several different parts of the country where they could find women like that. We did something right

So you are saying that in producing a black film, one must really consider ways of keeping costs down?

Exactly, especially if you don't really care if anyone else sees your project. A film has to make two and a half times its cost to make a profit, so if you spend $3 million on a film, $3 million must also be spent on advertising. Before this film ever opens in the theatre, you are now $6 million in debt — so now the picture has to earn that $6 million dollars back. You'll begin to see some profit at about $15 million.

One cannot spend $30 million dollars on a black film. As producer you need to be very realistic. Let's assume that you have an all-black film that has no appeal to white audiences, but it has enough of an appeal that you could draw an exclusive black audience. Assuming that your black audience would only come to see it one time, realistically your film would be able to make maybe $10-12 million tops, and many studios know that. Films like THE LAST DRAGON, produced by Motown, made $25 million, and that was because there was a lot of repeat business. By the way, that project went way over budget and should have made more.

When PURPLE RAIN was initially filmed, the producers knew they were going to make their money back just on the black audience because Prince had a big name. They had no idea initially that he had that much white crossover appeal. It pulled $75 million, and probably half of that came from white audiences. But much of the money came from repeaters — those that had seen the film more than once, and probably more than twice (more like four or five times, it was on the verge of becoming a cult film).

Now PURPLE RAIN was marketed as a rock film, when in reality it was a black film. If you stripped away all the music, it was a story about a brother and what happened to him in relation to his world — and to the other brothers [Black men] around him. The film was about black lifestyle. On the other hand, his second film died before it got out the box office [UNDER THE CHERRY MOON]. People wanted to hear Prince sing. They did not necessarily want to see him act.

THE COTTON CLUB was a $50 million film. It would have to have made $150 million to make profit, but it only made $20 million. The mistake that they made was to spend $50 million on it in the first place. They should have made it an all-black film that was in fact about the Cotton Club [emphasis his], instead of about some of the white characters that surrounded it. If they had done it as an all black project — and made it for about $2 million — they would have made a fortune.

On the other hand, if THE COLOR PURPLE had been made by Gordon Parks, it would not have made anywhere close to what Spielberg had drawn. It could have been the same, identical film, with the same cast, the same cinematography. But of course Spielberg drew in the white audience, so the film got an automatic crossover.

So strategies in marketing films are ticklish. THE STING, with Robert Redford, was initially an all black project that Sidney Poitier and Richard Pryor were to be part of. At the last minute, before they were to start shooting, they decided to whiten the cast and make it a "white" film. It would have been commercial with Poitier and Pryor, but they felt they could make it even more commercial with Redford — so Redford it became.

Were you able to use this financial formula to turn profit on your first two feature films, Whack Attack and Disco 9,000?

I was able to recoup monies and turn profit on WHACK ATTACK, which had an exclusive all black audience. This film was financed by the networks and by private individuals.

You say yourself that your films are made for predominantly black audiences. Does this mean that your financiers are predominantly the black middle class?

Unfortunately, no. I believe that if one tenth of 1% of the black middle class suddenly made its resources available, in 24 hours we could turn around the face of black America in film and television. But the middle class has detached itself morally and ethically from the underclass and sees no real need to subsidize the arts.

In fact, their attitude is that they would rather pay taxes than deal with artists that wish to do anything on stage, TV or film. This is really a matter of philosophy and personal commitment. If you talk with a number of independent black producers you'll hear the same thing. I mean, I have talked with black people who could put up the money from just the interest earned from their certificates of deposits and not even feel it. They will sit across from you, tell you how much money they have, how many franchises they own, and they won't give you ten cents. Yet, in the same breath, they will tell you how much money they lost at the gambling tables in Las Vegas. So this issue is really one of moral bankruptcy.

My philosophy has always been, give us the money that you we going to lose or have to pay taxes on. I don't want to change your lifestyle — just give us money you have to pay or play away. But you would be surprised how difficult that concept is to sell. Sometimes I think the hardest thing for a black man to become in the United States is enlightened. But again, I place the blame in the middle class black. We, and we alone, are in a position to turn our images around, and quickly. If that were the case, if those of us that could would invest, there would be scores of good films coming out annually, scores of plays — there wouldn't be enough good TV stations to hold that many programs.

I was at a seminar that Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans [co-executive producers of HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE] gave. They told a story about a recent black millionaire who was so bitter about the time and effort it took him to become rich that he vowed never to help another black acquire money. His struggling brothers would have to pay their own dues, just as he had. And I've heard this philosophy espoused from wealthy blacks — people who have so much money they couldn't spend it in their lifetimes or their grandchildren's lifetimes. It's basically moral bankruptcy. That is what Townsend was running up against. The thing that gets me particularly angry is that these are the same people who criticize the images on TV and film.

Assuming that more blacks take on the task of producing film at some point, will their participation alter the presentation of on-screen images regarding the minority character?

Yes, if the producer is so inclined. But many black producers arc as biased and greedy as any other producer, and they will not hesitate to exploit a particular audience for financial gain.

Certain filmmakers have a sense of ethical, moral and social responsibility to make films which have intensity and depth and a great deal of thought behind them. Some don't. Unfortunately, the black filmmakers who make the kinds of films which'd really enhance the image of blacks in this country are the directors who are obscure because their films don't have distribution.

A classic example of that is what Charles Burnett has said about how TO SLEEP WITH ANGER has been distributed. Here's a film that'd simply alter the perception of black images. Yet it's had basically lukewarm distribution, even though it's carried by a major distributor. Fm quite certain that would not happen with the film called HOUSE PARTY. I'm not denigrating HOUSE PARTY nor am I denigrating the other brothers — they're very good filmmakers. But TO SLEEP WITH ANGER is a film that people actually have to think about.

My real gripe is that so with many films, people get spoon-fed. When they go the theatre, they don't have to think, so the brain isn't exercised. Filmmakers like Haile Gerima, who made BUSH MAMA, and a number of others remain obscure because their films are thought-provoking and have a real sense of commitment. These films cannot find their way into the market, which is controlled by the major distributors.

Is there a common philosophy peculiar to the black producers you know?

The single most difficult task facing black producers is raising money. Unfortunately, raising money for a film targeted at a black audience presents enormous problems. One, money sources view films strictly as an investment. That's important to understand. Because they view it as an investment, they don't care about social responsibility or image or process. They want their money back. That's the bottom line. And that means that the filmmaker has to make a decision. "Do I compromise my script because this particular investor is going to give me a million dollars and wants a lot of sex and violence? Or, do I walk away from this investor, keep my script intact and spend another twenty years trying to get them to do it the way I want?" That may become a philosophy. Some black filmmakers have fallen into that category.

Spike Lee said, get a film made by any means necessary. Some black filmmakers will say, "Get a film made at any cost, no matter what compromise you have to make." As a result, some filmmakers end up making junk, but they got a film made. You have to balance how important it is to get a film made. My own personal philosophy is, "Yes, you can get the film made, but if it's junk and nobody sees it, then you may as well have not made it all." The flip side of the coin is, "Now I've got a track record of having a project finished, even though nobody saw it. From a business standpoint, I got the film made." I think such a philosophy depends on one's own particular view of making films.

Yes. I hate to say this, but I think that most black producers are ultra-conservative. Dealing with some of them is almost like dealing with white people. Saying this does not make me very popular with them. While there may be an element of realistic understanding on their part, they are not inclined to take risks. You don't do a black version of KRAMER VS KRAMER, or TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. You don't do films that are thought provoking, deep and require audiences to sit down and think. I think most black producers would shy away from that. Their basic philosophy is that if you program to and for the black audience, the show must be simplistic, have a great deal of music and dance, a lot of humor, and as little intellectual thought as possible. That seems to be the general working attitude among black producers today.

I don't entirely blame them for this. Some of their outlook is dictated by financial sources. Many black producers have adopted the attitude that if they want to do anything, then they have to do it the way the money sources dictate. That attitude has a certain degree of reality. If we were living in a country like France, a country that subsidizes film and does not involve itself in the kinds of artistic restrictions we've placed upon ourselves here, you would see a different kind of film attitude.

In creating product for the black community, is there more need to entertain or inform?

I think we need both. It would be myopic to force the two into a single entity. There's an audience for everything, for every kind of film and programming. An intellectual audience will only look at Public Television. A teenage audience will look at MTV and anything Michael Jackson does; another audience will look at serious drama. You have to fill one need at the exclusion of the other.

Many minority technicians are complaining that they are often not hired. But the folks in the industry who are hiring claim that there are no minority technicians to hire. What have you found to be the case?

All the films I produced have always had a preponderance of minority technicians. PERFUME, my latest film, had a 90% black crew. At least 50% of the technicians in WHACK ATTACK were Black. Minority technicians are not at all difficult to obtain. In fact, there is a directory of black technicians for the Hollywood area that Sandra Sharpe put together. People who say they cannot find anyone qualified are telling a lie.

Are there any final words of advice that you would care to lend to aspiring producers?

Whatever field you are interested in settling into as a producer — be it stage, radio, TV or feature film — you need to be intimately familiar with the necessary procedures and protocols. You also have to anticipate and expect difficulty. You will face much rejection, but it has to be so much a part of you that it ceases to be surprising or disappointing. If you let it get next to you, you will become despondent, lose faith, and burn out very easily. After that, people have a tendency to give up and to chuck the whole thing. So you have to be prepared to hang in and be tenacious, because success will not come easily.

You must also know how to seize opportunity when it is there, to recognize that you may be shooting for the stars, with a chance to hook onto the edge of the moon maybe. Use any kind of ingenious methodology you can come up with to get some money.

If there's not enough money, don't give upon the project. Figure out ways to make the film or video with what you have. Figure out ways to borrow money or defer payments to participants — whatever way you can to complete your project. Too many people think that because their budget is $10 million, they have to wait until they get $10 million, when they may only get $1 million total. You need to know how to do it for $1 million.

Longevity is what will really pay off in the end. You can't give up on anything, because if you give up, there are 10,000 people waiting who won't give up. This business is very difficult to break into. It requires an enormous amount of patience and fortitude. If a person is hungry enough, and really wants to do it (emphasis his), then a way can be found. I think Robert Townsend had a stroke of genius. Using credit cards to finance HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE was brilliant. If he were white, he'd be a studio executive now. They'd have offered him the job on the spot because that kind of ingenious inventiveness is so rare. Those are the kinds of people the studio would hire, but of course he is not white, so he is not going to be head of a studio. But that's the kind of ingenuity that makes film successes.