There is a story that Elijah Muhammad would often tell about a mule that was chained to a tree for many, many years. Finally, when the mule was unchained, he still didn’t leave the tree’s side. You may already know where I’m going with this: When I was a young record guy, I would go to Hawaii and hang with the chairmen of various media companies (mostly music). Sure, the hotel suites were a bit expensive, but there I was, hanging with some of the most exciting people in the entertainment business (many of them have now become some of my longest friendships). Even though we are talking over 30 years ago, I never got to see a sign that said “Whites Only” — real or imagined…
There is a story that Elijah Muhammad would often tell about a mule that was chained to a tree for many, many years. Finally, when the mule was unchained, he still didn’t leave the tree’s side. You may already know where I’m going with this: When I was a young record guy, I would go to Hawaii and hang with the chairmen of various media companies (mostly music). Sure, the hotel suites were a bit expensive, but there I was, hanging with some of the most exciting people in the entertainment business (many of them have now become some of my longest friendships). Even though we are talking over 30 years ago, I never got to see a sign that said “Whites Only” — real or imagined. The fact is that good business relationships in communications businesses are mostly built outside the shared workspace. If you want to make lasting connections, you too will have to go outside of your comfort zone and make new friends.
I guess about 29 years ago — before I could even afford it (and for the record, this place is still expensive to me!) — I would go to St. Barth’s during the holidays, because I knew that was where a lot of the record, fashion and film executives would vacation. If that was where a lot of the successful people with common interests were hanging out, I was going to crash that party — and eventually throw the party. (The last 17 years I have thrown the best party on the island.) Many of them I got to know personally before they even knew what kind of businesses I was trying to create. In fact, I didn’t always know either! Who would have thought I would meet David Rosenberg and we would build a multi-hundred-million-dollar-valued financial-services company? Many of these friendships have been some of the most rewarding relationships in my lifetime. I have so many examples of my success through honest integration that it would take a huge manuscript to go into all of them here, but I will provide a few examples: The truth is that Aerosmith didn’t seek out Run-DMC; we went to them. It was a white kid from NYU, Rick Rubin, who later became the co-founder of Def Jam, who saw the potential of the Beastie Boys. I built clothing companies with Syrian Jews from Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn. I had at least 20 different licenses with 20 different families. I couldn’t guess how many Shabbat dinners I had. I got so close to that community that I almost moved to Ocean Parkway. (That is a joke, kind of; Kimora was having so much fun and making so much money with Baby Phat that she actually was looking at houses there.) I then introduced these friends to Jay Z and Nelly. We went on to build, conservatively speaking, over $8 billion in business.
Years ago a young video director called our mutual friend Brian Grazer and told him about my idea to remake The Nutty Professor. The next thing I knew, I was the only black guy riding around in a golf cart on a major movie set. I guess that job was not reserved for white guys only after all? Funny thing is that neither Brian nor I realized that no African Americans were making $60-million pop movies at the time. It was just two friends making a fun movie. And by the way, the young video director was Brett Ratner, who is now funding one of my movies.
When I returned to Hollywood last year, I was met by two lifelong friends: Richard Plepler, CEO of HBO, and Emma Watts, President of Production at Fox. Immediately they wrapped their arms around me and were open to partnering with me on new film and TV projects. I have known Richard for over 25 years, since before he became the power broker he is today. We spent many hours on beaches and at parties. I went to his wedding, and he came to mine. Emma Watts I have known since the days when she was my intern. Over the years our friendships strengthened, mostly outside work. Within just a few months of being out here in Hollywood, Richard trusted me and kissed me into a project with Steve McQueen directing that — fingers crossed — is soon to get an order for a full series by the coolest TV network in history. Emma could be a day or so away from green-lighting a new film project that I am producing — fingers crossed again. These kinds of relationships can take decades to nourish and often lead to amazing opportunities for both parties involved.
As we all know, segregation is alive and institutionalized in Hollywood. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is 94-percent white, and that is just the film industry.
The music business is light-years ahead of the film industry in this regard, because the artists collaborate, and they have helped insert people of color into the infrastructure. We certainly shouldn’t put the burden on the creatives of Hollywood to do this work, but as an agent or manager of these careers, it’s your job to integrate. After all, how many black managers start to develop and cultivate black artists only to lose them when an artist becomes popular? In these cases, the artists have been convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the current manager or agent does not have the resources or relationships to take that client to the next level.
If you are a promoter who has been given the “black comedy” night, make the leap and be inclusive in your casting. There are funny Asian, Latino and white people out there. Put them on your stage. You are not doing your comedians any favors by having them play in front of only African Americans on Chocolate Sundays or Terrible Tuesdays. Why limit them to being seen by only one 10th of America’s population? My own weekly comedy show is just as likely to present Kevin Hart, Dave Chappelle or Mike Epps as it is to welcome Sarah Silverman and tons of other non-African-American comedians. My HBO show Def Comedy Jam launched many, many careers because the stars were seen by everyone. If they were limited to only black households, most would still be flying under the radar.
None of this is meant to belittle the hugely profitable, underserved African-American audience that can be accessed by blacks telling black stories. But again, if you are trying to reach a bigger audience, this roadmap is my recommendation.
The question for you is: Who is going to be your Richard Plepler or your Emma Watts? What relationships are you cultivating now that will blossom into lifelong friendships and partnerships? As the minority-majority population becomes more of a reality, Hollywood has to go through a metamorphosis. I would guess that most smart executives know this and are looking for the kinds of partnerships that will keep them relevant. This is the fourth or fifth time I have witnessed a resurgence of black film and TV. We must seize this opportunity and break down the tough walls of segregation in Hollywood. Remember that as we push for change, we must also be the change.
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