Film to celebrate Jubilee Singers

by Randy McClain
October 18, 2009
The Tennessean

Next up for owner Curt Hahn and Film House may be a feature film about the 1871 creation of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and how a nine-member choral group that included ex-slave Ella Shepherd went on a Northeastern singing tour in a desperate bid to save the new school — and how it worked.

The idea, with a script penned by Hahn and probably directed by him as well, is part of Film House's elaborate plan to own and distribute its own feature films without having to hitch its projector to a Hollywood studio.

"The ultimate goal is to own your own content for movies. If you own a film, the revenue stream for something like that goes over many years and it has many different revenue opportunities — the theatrical release, DVD, cable or broadcast on the Internet. It hangs around forever. You can resell it.

"We're filmmakers, but we're businessmen. If you don't approach it in a businesslike way, what's the point?" Hahn said.

Film House's plan, however, takes money. And that's where a 1-year-old investment fund dubbed The Panda Fund comes into play.

Managing Partner Chip Murray, an ex-investment banker from Atlanta, runs The Panda Fund from offices in Film House's office building on the edge of MetroCenter. The two groups are financially separate, and Hahn has no ownership interest in Murray's venture.

They do work together, though, and have what Murray calls "a symbiotic relationship."

"The Panda Fund needs good films (for investors), and Film House needs the juice to take its work to market," Murray said.

With the Jubilee Singers film project, for instance, Hahn and company are already searching for actors and actresses. Murray has cobbled together an investment circular and started talking to possible investors.

Murray and Hahn hope to venture out on their own though independent film financing is all but dried up.

"We don't want to give a film to one of these big corporations for whom it just isn't going to be that big a deal," Hahn said. "They're interested in the next big franchise film, the thing that can be made into a theme park ride or a giveaway character with somebody's Happy Meal.

"If we release our own film, it will be the most important thing we do that year; if MGM releases our film, it will the 47th most important thing they do that year. That's the difference, and that's the model we're trying to break," he said.

Film House has already been involved in two feature films, but it didn't finance either one from A to Z as it hopes to now.

No Regrets, a romance that starred Kate Jackson, Janine Turner and Brad Johnson, aired as a premiere on the Lifetime cable TV network. Lifetime owns a license for the North American cable rights and has shown the movie almost three dozen times since its 2004 initial release.

And Two Weeks, directed by its majority owner Steve Stockman and starring Academy Award winner Sally Field, got a small 11-city theatrical release two years ago from MGM which acquired worldwide rights. Two Weeks was shot largely in Middle Tennessee.

Hahn said he learned a lot as a minority owner and co-producer of Two Weeks, and the main lesson was to keep control of the money and marketing.

Time will tell if Hahn and Murray have as much luck on the fundraising circuit as the Fisk singers had more than a century ago. They raised $150,000 — a tidy sum at the time — to keep their then 5-year-old university alive.

The budget for Hahn's movie hasn't been finalized yet.

Randy McClain is business editor. Reach him at 615-259-8882 or [email protected].

Copyright (c) The Tennessean. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc.

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