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Opening The "Box" 

Enterprising filmmakers work outside the system

There's never a white guy around when you need one.Writer-director Rob Hardy and producer Will Packer learned that the hard way during the 13-day shoot of their film Trois in 1998. In the low-budget erotic thriller, a married African-American lawyer fulfills his fantasy of a menage a trois, then sees it turn into a nightmare a la Fatal Attraction.

Filming at night in a downtown Atlanta office building, Hardy and Packer were all set to shoot a crucial boardroom meeting. They wanted a roomful of white executives but lacked the extras to play the corporate-looking men.

Thus the young black filmmakers, both in their 20s, found themselves on the street approaching conventioneers in business suits and asking them to be in their movie.

"We'd been in production all day, so we were looking real grimy," Packer recalls with a laugh.

The filmmakers ultimately got the extras they needed by asking their comely operations manager Veronica Nichols to do the approach.

Finding creative solutions to obstacles big and small has been a hallmark of Hardy and Packer's production company, Rainforest Films. Their second feature film, Trois, proved an under-the-radar success story, financed and released entirely outside the structure of mainstream American films. In 2000, Rainforest Films was 34th in the Hollywood Reporter's Top 500 Film Distributors list, with Trois proving to be the second highest-grossing independently distributed black film ever, and the fastest to earn $1 million.

That may not sound like much compared to the fortunes earned by big studio blockbusters, or even the grosses of an indie hit like Memento, which made around $25 million. But it's an impressive achievement for a two-man, shoestring operation like Rainforest Films, which hopes to repeat its success with its newest film, Pandora's Box.

An erotic thriller about a psychologist who finds herself attracted to a murder suspect, Pandora's Box, starring Michael Jai White (Spawn) and Monica Calhoun (The Best Man), will have its premiere this Friday, August 9, in only four cities: Atlanta, Miami, Jacksonville, and here in Charlotte (it will open locally at the AMC Carolina Pavilion and the AMC Concord Mills).

Rainforest Films offers an object lesson on skirting the Hollywood system and making and releasing movies on the retail level. And Hardy and Packer enjoy a classic working partnership. Hardy, 29 and single, is the artistic one, describing himself as a "free-spirited dreamer" driven by ideals and creative ambitions. Packer, 27 and married with a baby daughter, came up with the idea for Trois (he has the "story" credit under the name "Willpower"), but he maintains that he has the head for business and the appetite for the deal.

Hardy's interest in filmmaking began when he was growing up in Philadelphia. "I had a friend who set up battle sequences in his back yard with his toys, took pictures of them with a Polaroid camera, and put them on his refrigerator," Hardy recalls. "Seeing those Polaroid images really stuck with me, and that was kind of my introduction to film."

He attended The George School, a predominantly white prep school outside Philly, but took inspiration from Spike Lee, who inaugurated a new movement of African-American filmmaking in 1986 with She's Gotta Have It.

After graduation, Hardy took the advice of his late father and pursued a degree that he could fall back on if filmmaking didn't pan out. (Trois is dedicated to Hardy's father.) Hardy took up mechanical engineering at Florida A&M University, and that's where he met electrical engineering student William Packer. While still students, they shot a feature film about campus life called Chocolate City, a $20,000 production financed by money donated from other campus organizations and services from local businesses.

They screened Chocolate City in Tallahassee in September 1994 and shopped the film around among distributors in Los Angeles during their spring break the following year. They were fortunate enough to land a direct-to-video deal for the film, but very nearly lost it. Hoping to get a better offer, they continued to shop it around until the original offer was withdrawn.

"We really had to talk them into taking us back," says Packer, laughing at the memory. "That was a learning experience: Don't turn down for-sho' money for mo' money..."

"...and wind up with no money!" Hardy finishes.

As a result, Chocolate City ended up on the shelves of Blockbuster Video and other video-rental stores.

The fledgling filmmakers, now located in Atlanta, named their production company Rainforest Films because they see the rain forest as a kind of metaphor for the African-American experience. Says Hardy, "Just as the rain forest is a resource that needs to be respected and utilized, it's the same thing with African-Americans, who are just as vital a resource to the world. We want to be able to tell different stories and hire people and project a variety of images of African-Americans, and not just ones of the inner city. The inner city stories need to be told, but we want to create an entire landscape of images and stories that can excite and inspire people."

That might sound like a lofty goal, considering the plot of their film, Trois, which could fit right in on a soft-core Cinemax series like Red Shoe Diaries. But for Hardy, that's part of the point. "We're able to take subject matter that isn't particularly African-American or ethnic-specific, subject matter that you might see mainstream actors such as Michael Douglas or Sharon Stone or Robert Redford in, and replacing them with people who happen to be of color. That, I think, is a new and exciting thing for our demographic -- which we hope appeals to everyone."

Their adventure in part-time work (delivering newspapers, moving furniture, selling vacuum cleaners) was merely a subplot to the making of Trois. They managed to raise the movie's $200,000-$250,000 production budget from 50 black investors, and went about the task of writing the script, casting, shooting and editing the film. But little did Packer and Hardy know, they were about to encounter their biggest obstacle yet.

Film distribution companies are the gatekeepers to the moviegoing public. They license the film, they strike additional prints for distribution, they screen the film for exhibitors and book the film into theaters all around the country. Unfortunately, Rainforest Films could not land a distribution deal for Trois.

"We knocked on every door, but no one thought the film was big enough," Packer says.

So Rainforest Films did what many independent filmmakers do: They submitted Trois to the film festival circuit, and a screening at the Acapulco Black Film Festival (now called the American Black Film Festival) succeeded in turning things around for them. They didn't land a distributor, but they were able to raise enough interest to attract new investors, which gave them the money to circumvent the system. With their new bankroll, Rainforest took matters into their own hands and negotiated bookings directly with exhibitors such as General Cinemas and United Artists and, in effect, guaranteed the exhibitors' investment in the event ticket sales did not meet expectations.

Rainforest Films wound up striking 50 prints of the film and playing 134 screens in 53 markets. "It ended up grossing about $1.2 million in theaters and did well on home video and cable," says Packer. But he said they knew they'd finally made it when they came across a bootleg copy of Trois on DVD. "They even downloaded a photo of Rob off the Internet and put it on the back cover, so it'd look more legitimate."

Following Trois' success, Rainforest signed a home video distribution deal with Columbia/TriStar, and they've already made the same deal for Pandora's Box.

Scripted by Hardy and Greg Anderson, Pandora's Box had a longer shooting schedule and a bigger budget ($800,000), which Hardy found to be an enormous boon. In addition to shooting in and around Atlanta, they built sets for the first time, and had a mock studio with breakaway walls for four or five locations. "We could pay closer attention to the production design and give the film a more stylized look," Hardy says.

If Pandora's Box is a big enough success at the box office, do-it-yourself distributors Hardy and Packer will be more richly compensated than if they made movies within the studio system, thus demonstrating the difference between working for yourself and working for "the suits." But even if they hit the jackpot, Packer doesn't expect their lifestyles to change drastically. "We're kind of low-key guys," he says. "You'll never see us with the kind of jewelry that's propagated in the hip-hop culture. We consider ourselves blessed that we are able to make movies full time, and as long as we can do that, we consider ourselves successful."

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