If you only know Byron Allen as a stand-up comic and host of the syndicated series “Comics Unleashed,” you’re due for a primer.
Allen has graduated from cracking jokes to media mogul status. In the last five days, the executive stunned Sundance by offering $20 million for Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation.” He lost the historic bidding war, but helped drive up the price to the record $17.5 million that Fox Searchlight paid for the slave revolt drama.
Undeterred by the loss, he then turned around and dropped a $10 billion lawsuit on the Federal Communications Commission and Charter Communications over the latter’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable.
Allen, who heads what he calls “first studio that happens to be African-American-owned,” says Obama and his FCC have “really abandoned the African American community.”
Allen started his company at his dining room table in 1993. How does Allen now have a seat at the Sundance table? And a reason to go after President Obama’s regulatory body? Let us explain.
Allen’s Entertainment Studios has 40 television shows and specials in syndication, spread across seven 24-hour HD networks carried by the likes of AT&T U-Verse and Verizon Fios. He says that gives him the cash and the cause to pursue both the buzzy film endeavor and a beef with the FCC.
TheWrap reached Allen at the end of his busy week to recap events, and discuss the future of Entertainment Studios.
TheWrap: Many were surprised to see Entertainment Studios in the running for Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation.”
Byron Allen: I went up to Sundance and had a four-hour dinner with an adviser to Nate Parker. I was intrigued and blown away and said, “Let’s really focus on this.” I knew when that screening was over it was going to be crazy, and we were the first ones on the phone with the agent at William Morris. We took it to $20 million and we tied Netflix. I understand why they went with Fox Searchlight. When I look at it, it’s our rookie year but we made the playoffs. Next year we will definitely win the championship.
It certainly grabbed attention. Was that your goal?
Economically, the movie makes great sense given the comps of “The Butler’ at $177 million worldwide… and “12 Years A Slave” at $188 million. The good part was worldwide rights were available, and I was very comfortable. I also knew it would be a big statement for us. “Birth of a Nation” was going to be the birth of a studio.
This is the first studio that happens to be African-American-owned, that’s able to put out a slate of 15 to 20 pictures a year. We have an output deal with Netflix. When I bought Freestyle Releasing they had that asset in place and that contract has a number of years left on it. To the best of my knowledge, it’s one of the only output deals left out there. We have one of the only active ones. It gives us a very competitive edge, and a lot of people didn’t realize what I bought when I bought the company.
Which makes you a full-service entertainment company, and as you say, the first African-American owned indie studio?
Yes, we bought a direct relationship with every movie theater in the country, but more importantly a built-in output deal with Netflix, thus creating an independent African-American owned studio. It took until 2015 to get there, but it’s a historic moment. When we talk about diversity, it really needs to be achieved thought economic inclusion and distribution. I’m able to have 38 television shows on the air because I learned the distribution side of TV.
I’m dealing directly with stations and advertisers. We’re the largest producer of court shows. We have the largest privately held portfolio of TV networks, we have seven, 24-hour HD networks that are carried by AT&T Uverse, Verizon Fios and DirecTV. Now we have our movie division. When we made that offer on [“Birth”] I knew we were economically protected, but I knew it would do really well for awards and into the first quarter of 2017.
You didn’t only offer up $20 million in Park City this week. You filed a $10 billion lawsuit against the FCC and Charter Communications, over their proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, claiming racial discrimination against African-American-owned media.
It was something we had to do — President Obama and his FCC have really abandoned the African American community… It’s unfortunate that an African America entrepreneur like myself would have to sue the first African American president of the United States for racial discrimination. At the end of the day, he is ignoring the fact that African Americans are suffering economic genocide. It’s being played out in the homelessness, the unemployment and even the violence.
Let’s be honest — when you don’t have an education and you don’t have capital, you’re treated worse than a stray dog. Thus, the murder and the killings we see and no one is being held accountable. And the killings of African American men, especially [those] unarmed. Obama hasn’t spoken to the economic divide… the problem with diversity in Hollywood and America is economic inclusion.
I want them to really talk in terms of economic inclusion. So when Charter does [diversity pledge] with Al Sharpton who, in my opinion, is a category-five brain donor… here’s what they have crafted: If the merger goes through, they will appoint a chief diversity officer. Are you kidding me? You’re telling telling me in 2016, you don’t already have one? It’s unbelievable. You weren’t even going to pretend like you like black people? This shows you how ugly Charter is. The problem with diversity in Hollywood and America is economic inclusion.