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"There was a feeling of ownership," he says.
"I enjoyed the communal experience," says Amanda Seward, an entertainment industry attorney and former senior counsel of Turner Broadcasting Systems, who now sits on the board of Gallery Road Productions.
Seward lives on the Westside near a slew of cinemas, yet she frequently drove to the South L.A. theater.
"One thing about going to a film with an audience that is predominantly African-American is that the audience talks back at the screen," Seward says. "There's laughing, and comments from the audience."
The strong attendance by an underserved demographic delivered a message to movie distributors: "It served as a recognition that African-American audiences were important," Turner notes.
"Before Magic, there was this mythology that black folks were not going to movies and, therefore, anybody that put a movie theater in the black community was going to lose money," says Ayuko Babu, executive director of the Pan African Film Festival, held at the Magic Johnson Theatre for more than a decade.
Babu, Turner and Hunt all say Johnson changed this perception.
The theater showed that exhibitors could "create something successful in the black community and sustain it," Babu says.
This in turn, Turner believes, helped films starring black actors to get made. "Magic, at one point in time, had some of the highest-grossing theaters in the country," he says. "To the extent that studio execs were looking at cinema that was targeted at urban audiences, they took Magic's theaters into consideration."
Still, an international barrier exists. Hunt notes, "One of the arguments that the powers that be in the industry use is that [majority-black-cast films] don't sell as well overseas. I think that's debatable. I don't think there's been major attempts to test the conventional wisdom."
While Rave says some of its screens will target black ticket-buyers, is that a monolithic consumer audience?
Tyler Perry, one of the most bankable African-American actor-directors, serves an audience that adores him. But like all stars, he doesn't speak for all sectors of a demographic. "I think there is such a thing as a black-themed film and an 'urban' film, but it is difficult to define," Seward says. "Will Smith has moved beyond that category and is now one of the most marketable stars in the industry. Part of it is the market perception, part of it is the lack of focus on racial issues in his films."
Turner says his Gallery Road Productions wants "to make high-quality films, using African-Americans and other ethnic minorities as part of a multicultural cast. We want to make films that look like America."
What won't be different at the Crenshaw Plaza is the mall's owner — Capri Urban Investors of Chicago, a black-owned firm. Capri specializes in investing in inner-city businesses, and its management team is made up of top African-American development experts. And that alone signifies change.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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