Despite a lack of experience, resources, and contacts, Florida A&M students Rob Hardy and William (Will) Packer shattered the Hollywood myths to produce a feature film. In the early 1990s these students produced and directed Chocolate City, a story about the struggles of a young man trying to define himself at a historically Black college. The feature was made on a budget of $20,000 and released nationally to home video and distributed independently over the Internet. After completing their first feature, Rob and Will went on to form Marietta-based Rainforest Films and produce a string of successful movies. While Chocolate City didn't generate a substantial return, the exposure and experience paved the way for more fruitful projects.
Rob Hardy recalls the early challenges of trying to get Chocolate City off the ground.
"I wanted to be a filmmaker but I was majoring in something else and my school didn't have a film program. I spent the summer trying to land a film or television internship but nobody accepted me. So I wrote a treatment, which later became a screenplay and galvanized some other students to try to make the film happen. We also got together with some students at nearby Florida State University, developed a list of equipment that we'd need, and began raising money. We did a lot of fundraising and because we were at a state-funded school, we could get people to donate things as a tax deduction. We also got money from on-campus organizations and, as a result, we were able to do all of our casting and crew selections. Our director of photography, ACs, and script supervisors came from the Florida State film department but the rest were non-trained A&M students.
"We began shooting our film with no real concept of what it meant to have a real story structure. We had no concept of character development or first, second, and third acts. I learned that all on the fly. I knew a lot of people who did music, so we pulled our musical resources in and developed a soundtrack and score. After the shoot we had to get the film processed and cut so we went out and raised more money for that. A local video company that produced the sports show for our football team donated their editing bay. We used a linear, and I underscore linear, editing system to do the rough cut. With non-digital linear editing, you have to put in one tape, then a second tape, and then flip the switch to do your manual dissolve and it outputs the scene to a third tape with a certain amount of generational quality loss.
"At the same time, one of the artists who was on our soundtrack, a guy named J.R. Swinger, got signed to a production deal with Motown. Motown picked up the Chocolate City title track for a compilation album and then contracted us to shoot the music video. They paid us $30,000, which back in 1994 felt like big money for us. As far as the film, we only had about $5,000 in cash and the rest was in-kind services. So we shot the music video and BET started running it and we got a lot of publicity and love behind us. By the time the students came back to school after the summer, they had seen the music video, heard the hype, and were seeing commercials about it on local TV. We thought we'd release Chocolate City in local theaters and charge students to see it. We showed a video projection of the VHS copy, which gives you an idea of the quality. We also had a whole Chocolate City week of activities, selling t-shirts and hats and as I'm an Alpha, we got all the Greeks to step in.
"Needless to say, the movie wound up making a lot of money in the theaters. Suddenly I'm in my fourth year of a five-year program with all this cash in a bag. I had never seen that before and it seemed like the biggest scam. It was like, Wow, you mean you'll all actually pay me to do something I like? Chocolate City wasn't ever about the money. It was about wanting to make a film and I've got to thank God because there were so many instances when I didn't know how things were going to happen. A lot of things, like cameras, came at the last minute but, lo and behold, we were somehow able to roll film."
Many aspiring filmmakers buy into the Hollywood myths, such as needing a film degree from a prestigious school to be taken seriously. Rob doesn't look at his lack of training in film as a disadvantage. In fact, he believes it was an asset for completing his first feature.
"Students at the film school at Florida State did shorts but never feature films. They were taught you have to have XYZ to make a film. For us it was like being poor. You don't really know you're poor so you just go and have fun. If you're born with more, you may feel like in order to have fun you have to have certain items. Well, we didn't know anything about filmmaking, so ignorance in that instance was bliss because it made the tasks not seem insurmountable. It was like, Hey, if I get a camera and some money then I can shoot a feature, right? That was our state of mind when we shot Chocolate City. If you're not in a position to go to film school, that doesn't mean that you can't be a great filmmaker. That shouldn't be something that holds you back.
"We also recognized that Hollywood didn't release many Black films and thought if you get a Black film made then Hollywood should come running. We contacted all the Hollywood studios and invited them to our premiere in Tallahassee, Florida, starring no one they'd ever heard of and needless to say no one came! But with the money that we made from Chocolate City we went on the road and took it to other cities. With the help of the Black Filmmakers Foundation, which later spawned the Acapulco and then the American Black Film Festival, we also got screenings in New York and L.A. Another company called MOBE (Marketing Opportunities for Blacks in Entertainment) brought us to Chicago. Between those screenings we wound up with a home video distribution deal with Cinequanon Pictures International. We were their first domestic release and became their highest seller. We made very little money in the end but got good exposure."
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