Mark Harris is both a prolific filmmaker and one of the last men standing. He has turned out 18 indie films over a dozen years and now finds himself among a handful of Chicago’s African American filmmakers in what was once a large and strong community.
How did that happen? “Well, a lot of the Black filmmakers went to LA or Atlanta and the others left the industry because they couldn’t get a foothold here,” he shrugs philosophically. “Finding financing is tough.”
Harris of 1555 Filmworks in Englewood has been making a successful string of features since 2004 that deliver sincere, relatable stories to his predominantly Black audience.
Of these, he has produced seven rom coms, including “Black Butterfly,” “Black Coffee” and “36-Hour Layover” now in postproduction for release this summer. “Black romantic comedies are the highest grossing projects and the best seller among Black people, in particular Black Women,” he says.
While Harris’ films have large, impressive casts, he admits he works with low budgets, under $1 million and recently several were in the $150-$175,000 range.
His last three films were made for an Atlanta-based group of investors who were specifically looking for Black romantic comedies to finance.
The trio delivered on the ROIs. “Black Coffee” had a theatrical release, “First Love” aired on BET and “Stock Options” on TV One. “I believe what we do, in terms of storytelling, speaks to the nature of people. So, I think it’s easy for audiences to accept these films and respond to them in a positive way,” Harris says.
A writer, an English major at the University of Wisconsin/River Falls, Harris started producing his screenplays out of frustration and necessity. “Studio doors are never open to small indies. After being told ‘no’ for so long I decided I would direct my scripts myself,” he says.
“Why Do Men Cheat” was his first self-made film in 2004 and he distributed it guerilla style on the South Side. “I had copies made myself and sold them on street corners and door-to-door. Neighborhood businesses were very helpful. I was encouraged to continue filmmaking.”
Englewood Film Festival strives to change attitudes
Harris also believes in giving back to the community, in the form of his annual Englewood International Film Festival, of work from Black filmmakers internationally, founded in 2010 and held the last week of October at the Chatham Theatre.
His overall dream for the festival “is to have it make Englewood a better place” and counteract its negative publicity. “Art and entertainment are very powerful tools for good influences which can change attitudes among politicians, pastors, people and young people. Using filmmaking’s positive energy, sending the right messages can help stop the violence.”
Addressing the current diversity issue in Hollywood, Harris is blunt. “I don’t believe in going into places where I’m not wanted or forcing diversity on people. As Black people we have to get over this inferior mindset. Black people are trendsetters. Black people are energy. People should be fighting to be a part of what we are doing.”