Inside Club 20 Grand, one of the few living storefronts here, the music is a throbbing barrage of aggressive sexpositionist banter. It's hard not to feel the sweat of a place like this. Rundown, far-from-posh, it's the perfect backdrop for the premiere of Hoochies -- a less-than-indie-quality, gritty and depressing comedic effort that you definitely won't be seeing at your local theater.
Hoochies is one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of movies being made for direct-to-video sales throughout the South. Simuel Rankins, who wrote and directed the movie, says she's personally been flogging it to local mom-and-pop video stores.
Rankins' fiance, M'Boya Peters, fronted the 50 grand it cost to make the movie with proceeds from his business, Mim's Auto Body Repair. Some of the vehicles in the movie -- a huge RV and a limo -- appear courtesy of Peters' bartering efforts; he repainted them in exchange for their use.
Actors also work cheaply in this market.
A 23-year-old rapper named Tempest ("One name," she says. "You know, like Madonna") plays the part of Kinky, the lead female role. Tempest has recently worked in four other films -- The Girls, which won first place in film for the National Black Arts Festival 2000; Last Call, Preacher Player and Honeybee. Don't ring any bells? That's because they're all direct-to-video.
Tempest says she's not in it for the money, but she advises that actors should be paid at least $5,000 for a direct-to-video movie. Most, though, work for less.
"It depends on the actor's track record and on the budget of the movie," she says. "I've done movies for free because I was working on a contingency basis."
Honeybee, produced by James Avery (the dad on TV's "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" series), may actually go somewhere. It was shot on 35mm film, something that didn't escape Tempest's notice. And, of course, a known name like Avery's helps. The other films were digital, meaning they were made for video. Going straight to video is cheaper -- it can be edited without slicing up miles of film -- and simpler.
And it doesn't take a Bergman to capture the ambience of the setting, the projects (of Riverdell, actually) in all their dissipated dankness, speckled with cigarette butts and heavy with indolence. The Hoochie-mamas, named indicatively Kinky and Ta-Ta, aren't dreaming about getting an education or a straight job. Their lives completely center on landing a man to take care of them and their multiple offspring who are placed, for the most part, off-camera somewhere, orbiting their scheming mothers like forgotten satellites.
The movie starts with a sex scene that doesn't show much, yet manages to be obscene. Ta-Ta is getting it from behind, hard enough to make her head bob like a piston, the springs of the flimsy bed shrieking with every punch-like thrust, the whole tryst breathlessly narrated thusly: "Aw shit, aw shit, aw shit." It would be a light-year's stretch to say that it's a send-up of Chaucer's Miller's tale, but there is a window where the thruster's steady hoochie, Kinky, watches and listens and says, "I know that bitch ain't fuckin' my man." Technically, she's right. It's obvious to even a porno-innocent that Ta-Ta's the fuck-ee, not the fuck-er.
"Basically, the movie is explaining what a hoochie really is," says Rankins. "That's what they're about: 'Who are we going to meet tonight?' and 'Who's going to pay my bills?' They're all about the money."
Rankins, who doesn't have a college degree but who hopes to enroll at Clark Atlanta University, says she's known some hoochies and to people who've known them, the movie is funny.
"It's a comedy, so some things are over-exaggerated," she says.
In the three weeks since the Hoochies release party, Simboya Films has sold 400 copies at $15 each. Most were sold to people who had heard about the film from people who were part of its production, but dozens have been sold to local video stores and should be on the open market by March.
In the meantime, Rankins is culling through auditions for her next project, a movie about vampires who lure victims by posing as record producers. The working title is Virgin Blood -- a substance nearly impossible to find in a thoroughly hoochie-fied world.
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