A de facto monopoly in Jamaica (it also operates a cinema in the Cayman Islands), Palace Amusement, the century old cinematic exhibitor fiercely guards its box office receipts from public scrutiny. In spite of this, the anecdotal view is that movies featuring Jamaicans or depicting Jamaica (whether positively or negatively) tend to score higher with Jamaican audiences than the Hollywood fare that still makes up over 90% of the company's offerings.
This was certainly the case for Perry Henzell's (reggae) pop culture masterpiece The Harder they Come with reports of scores of patrons being turned away from the legendary Carib cinema on opening night. There were similar crowds for the film adaptation of Anthony Winkler's comic novel The Lunatic (both book and film well worth the time if you've never tried them), bobsled story Cool Runnings and more recently the socio-political drama Better Mus Come and the boxer's success story Ghetta Life.
All of the foregoing casts a peculiar and unflattering light on Palace with regard to the current situation concerning what is being billed as a gangsta comedy - a novelty certainly in the Jamaican context. Blind Shotta music producer Diavallan Fearon's foray into indigenous filmmaking, was shot for a reported J$5 million (roughly USD 57,000), an amount which can barely buy a serviceable movie camera on the international market, let alone pay cast or crew or support marketing. But in the true Jamaican spirit of resourcefulness, he finished it and though he divides his professional time between Jamaica and the US, he was (and is) unequivocal in the belief that the film should open in his home country a practical belief given the above-mentioned track record of Jamaican films.
For some reason, the folks at Palace are not inclined to see it this way. They declined to run the film (which would, if accepted, be subject to Ratings Board pre-screening and approval). Fearon, who led a small protest outside the Carib (now a multiplex) recently, says principals at Palace denied him on the basis that his cast was not established enough for their liking.
Speaking to local TV news at the protest (see link -http://www.televisionjamaica.com/Programmes/PrimeTimeNews.aspx/Videos/17583) the director made the point that Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, two reliable box office staples at least over the previous two decades, were similarly unknowns when their debut features (Rocky and Pumping Iron respectively) came out. In this respect, he is correct, and it leaves one to wonder why the folks at Palace would have preffered such a patently indefensible reason.
Of course, the suspicion is that Palace is snubbing the film because its producer lacks the social pedigree to be presenting a feature, simply put, that he and his film are too ghetto. You may guardedly, substitute black here but the issue is more strictly classist than racist, albeit with undertones of the latter. The company, by retreating into its customary shell and not speaking directly to the issue, is making the situation worse. While it certainly has no obligation to any producer and nominally reserves the right to pass on any movie, this kind of ducking for cover keeps them painted in the negative when the opportunity is there to come clean, and in fact, fairness and public interest demand such forthrightness.
Fearon said in the clip that failing a turnaround from Palace, he will seek alternative venues for his film, which would actually be a negative development. The once booming cinema industry has been hard hit by the alternatives of the digital age, and with fewer total screens available and ticket prices increasing, Jamaicans are being denied a movie-going experience that still has considerable magic in it, particularly if the people on the big screem (Jamaican patois, forgive me) look a lot like the average Jamaican. One hopes good sense (and sensitivity) will prevail, but the Palace ownership have shown a marked bull-headedness in the past. It would serve everyone's best interest if they take the blinders off.
Notwithstanding its recent triumph at the Reggae Film Fest in Kingston, Blind Shottas is not likely to join the blockbuster ranks, nor to contend on red carpets come awards season. In the US, the early summer of blockbuster films is underway, but a curious development is taking hold. Producers of the all-star Marvel comic book adaptation The Avengers and of the classic game adaptation Battleship have decided to shop their films to the world opening in big global markets like China, India, Malaysia and Europe before coming to the US. While the individual per-venue receipts may be smaller than at home the aggregate totals are quite impressive: Battleship took in over 130 million and Avenger 170 million in wide global release ahead of their US cinematic runs.
This kind of return, while not fully covering the monster production and promotional costs of these films, provides a welcome boost going into the more bruising Hollywood summer slugfest. It also, nominally, helps to combat (or at least modulate) the growing villain that is piracy, although true success on that score remains to be seen.
Here in Jamaica, filmgoers have often had the benefit of certain Hollywood features being released here prior to their Hollywood debuts. The X-Men franchise is a recent example ; a more enduring one is the James Bond franchise, the first of which Dr No having been filmed here, and the latest Skyfall tentatively set for a November 2012 release. Who knows, maybe Fleming's 007 and Fearon's Blind Shotta might coincide in competition for viewer loyalty. Its an interesting match-up.
Picture credit to Reggae Film Festival
Editor-in-Chief's Note: Michael Edwards is a freelance contributor with MNI Alive