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Indians Investing, but Carefully, in Hollywood

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  • Indians Investing, but Carefully, in Hollywood

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    Indians Investing, but Carefully, in Hollywood

    Paul Drinkwater/NBC Universal
    Ray Halbritter, chief executive of the Oneida Indian Nation, with Jay Leno in
    January at an NBC concert benefiting tsunami relief efforts.


    Published: April 25, 2005

    Rick Schroder, center, directed "Black Cloud," which includes Eddie Spears,
    right, and Janelle. The movie was financed by Indians.

    ecades after John Wayne and his cowboys vanquished the Indians for
    generations of white movie audiences, American Indian tribes are beginning to invest
    more than just lingering bad faith in Hollywood.

    A few tribes are starting to put money into the same mainstream media that
    once glorified their demise. One Indian-financed movie, Rick Schroder's recently
    released "Black Cloud," is about a young Navajo boxer who wins a spot on the
    United States Olympic team.

    In an alliance between Hollywood and Indian country, Mr. Schroder rallied 12
    tribes around the country to finance his $1 million project, which he also
    wrote. After 50 cold calls and six months of rejections, Mr. Schroder got his
    first yes and a low six-figure commitment from the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma.

    The Oneida Indian Nation of New York partnered with NBC sports to present
    "The World of American Dance" in 2003, the first Indian-financed documentary to
    be shown on network television. The tribe, which fully financed the $350,000
    production and took a loss on it, is also the first, and so far only, one to
    hire a Los Angeles public relations firm to help handle its Hollywood ventures.

    "We wanted to begin to understand the business and for others to understand
    us, so our motives weren't solely for profit," said Ray Halbritter, chief
    executive and nation representative for the Oneida Nation. "It was important for us
    to show the industry we were capable of actually producing something, that we
    were a player."

    These ventures are seen as loss leaders to help tribes gain a foothold in the
    mainstream media. What has made their investment possible is the growth of
    the lucrative casino business. According to the National Indian Gaming
    Association, tribes collected $18.5 billion in revenue in 2004, a 10 percent increase
    from the previous year.

    Hollywood producers have called on Indian financiers in the past, but almost
    all entreaties have been turned down by tribal financiers unimpressed with
    often non-Indian storylines or what they deemed to be clichéd depictions of
    Indian culture. Both the Oneida of New York and the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut
    turn down about a dozen script submissions a year.

    "Hollywood in its own infinite deteriorating wisdom has always thought of us
    as invisible," said Sonny Skyhawk, an American Indian producer in Los Angeles
    who was also a partner in "The World of American Dance." "Now that gaming has
    enabled us to empower ourselves, and people can see we're still here, our next
    hurdle is to make movies and programs that help change the old biases."

    Indeed, many Indian business leaders say they are struggling with another
    mainstream caricature, born not from Hollywood but from 1988 federal legislation
    that allowed gaming on their lands.

    "Indians have gone from the stereotypical impoverished noble savage to the
    stereotypical Mr. Money Bags," said Tim Johnson, executive editor of the
    newspaper Indian Country Today. "It's amazing how quickly we've been universally

    While each Indian sovereign nation has its own culture, there's a common
    ritual for those making business pitches to a tribe. As a candidate, Mr. Schroder
    had to make his case before each tribal council, which usually consists of up
    to a dozen businessmen and women and community leaders.

    "When the elders of the council look you in the eye, if they don't like you
    and trust you, you'll get nowhere," Mr. Schroder said.

    Securing a commitment from a tribe can take months, and producers hoping to
    find one-stop financing will probably be disappointed. The nations are highly
    competitive and rarely partner among themselves to invest in projects. That
    left Mr. Schroder crisscrossing the country in a dogged and scattered pursuit of
    tribal financing.

    Mark F. Brown, chairman of the Mohegan Tribe, which financed the East Coast
    release and media campaign for "Black Cloud," said that a movie "is a very
    risky proposition," compared to the safer returns from gambling. But he added:
    "Our market is the New York area, and Rick's name is well known there from 'NYPD
    Blue.' " Mr. Schroder played Danny Sorenson, a detective, in the ABC drama
    series that ended this year.

    The Mohegan Tribe has also sponsored a premiere of "I{sheart} Huckabees" at
    their huge Mohegan Sun complex in Uncasville, Conn., the largest casino resort
    in the world. The tribe also donated $50,000 to a favorite charity of the
    film's star, Mark Wahlberg.

    If America's 215 gaming tribes are not exactly throwing open their vaults to
    movie producers, they may have good reason. Mr. Halbritter said that his tribe
    wanted to build relationships with Hollywood, but that it was hard to know
    whom to trust.

    Skepticism of Hollywood is not relieved by the industry's track record. Even
    the 1992 film "Dances With Wolves," which many Indians heralded as Hollywood's
    first positive and accurate portrayal of native life, left resentment after
    its release.

    "Our reservations were flooded with New Agers who brought their crystals and
    started hundreds of sun dance cults," said Frank King, editor of the Indian
    newspaper The Native Voice and a member of the Lakota tribe. "It broke our
    culture, and we lost our ohuntka," a Lakota word meaning original route.

    Filmmakers with a television or film documentary to sell may have the best
    shot at loosening tribal purse strings. "Tribes will more readily fund a
    documentary project," Mr. King said. "They trust it more than a fiction film because
    it's a form through which they can directly tell their stories."

    Currently, two major television projects are vying to offer the first
    Indian-run, nationally distributed programming for Indians.

    The most developed appears to be "Indian Country Today on TV," a spinoff of
    Indian Country Today. The newspaper would provide editorial content for the
    program's 39 weekly half-hour shows covering Indian news and issues, which would
    be presented in a format similar to "60 Minutes." The show's executive
    producer, Michael Fields, is petitioning PBS to distribute the series.

    "This program must somehow fly above any contentious issues between the
    tribes," said Mr. Fields, who is not Indian. "It must show the outside world that
    these people have a common history and premise, though we'll portray the tribal
    differences, sure."

    The nascent Native American Television Network, co-founded in Albuquerque by
    the half-Indian investment banker John Francis and his partner Anthony
    Conforti, also hopes to become the first publicly traded and advertising-supported
    24-hour digital cable channel. It recently struck a distribution deal with
    WinSonic Digital Cable Network Systems, based in Atlanta.

    Mr. Skyhawk, the producer in Los Angeles, owns Amerind Entertainment. The
    company promotes his film and television projects both to tribes and to
    Hollywood, where his studio and network relationships make him one of the best-known
    conduits for Indians. He contends that Indians must exploit Hollywood's
    opportunities more deeply so that they can create their own media structures.

    "We can't exist without Hollywood's machinations," he said. "So, I'm trying
    to impress on the tribes nationally that it's vitally important we become
    players. How are we going to overturn the image of the American Indian if we don't
    do it ourselves? Hollywood sure won't."

    Mr. Skyhawk is doing what Mr. Schroder did: pitching to the tribal councils,
    one nation at a time.

    "Our tribes are so afraid of the unknown," he said. "But we need to be
    proactive if we want to coexist on the American media scene. After all, we were the
    original storytellers."
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic

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