Hollywood's Undercover Hitmakers: Salim and Mara Brock Akil
They're black, Muslim and gorgeous in an industry not known for its diverse embrace. Yet the husband and wife have made one Hollywood winner after another, and now have Whitney Houston's final film, "Sparkle," as their biggest bet yet.
Mara went on the become supervising producer on The Jamie Foxx Show on the WB Network, where she started developing Girlfriends, inspired by her love of Sex and the City. Salim went to work on Showtime's Soul Food.
It's hard not to notice that both Salim and Mara have gotten their breaks in the business doing shows aimed at African-American audiences. "Like anyone else in television, I like to explore my life experience," Salim says. "And I don't think African-American artists see doing shows or art about African-Americans as something 'less than.' I think maybe the industry sometimes does. We don't get as much attention, we don't get critical acclaim and so on. But as far as my perspective, it's a natural thing. And it doesn't limit me because all I'm really doing is telling American stories."
Mara agrees, though she is dismayed that the actresses in Girlfriends did not get the awards recognition that she feels they deserved. And while she believes that much of her success derives from the spice of a diverse writers room, she gets annoyed that there is rarely a similar approach on shows that don't have predominantly black casts. Kenny Smith, who worked with Mara on Jamie Foxx and is now an executive producer on The Game, says Mara relies on writers from different backgrounds and genders to create authentic emotional notes. And she doesn't worry about political correctness. "When we're developing stories in the room, she wants guys to be guys," he says. "And if it's sexist and ugly, she wants the women to respond as they actually would. It's like, 'Let's not sugar-coat this.' It's always courageous."
Mara is also aware that UPN launched Girlfriends -- and other shows revolving around African-Americans -- because they were seen as cheap audience magnets. She says new networks like UPN or Fox, back then, "didn't believe you have to spend a lot of money to get [the audience] to come because we're so hungry to see ourselves that we'll just show up and find it. That is not the case, by the way." But Mara says the experience taught her to do a lot with a tight budget.
After CW bailed on The Game, reruns on BET outperformed first-run shows on CW. Before she took the top programming job at BET, Jones had taken note when The Game went off the air. "Somebody should do something about that," she thought. When she set up shop at BET, she did. It was an unusual deal: CBS, which formerly produced the show, still owns it, but BET finances it and oversees all aspects, from script to broadcast. For Mara, the move gave the show life, but once again, she had to do more with less: A source estimates that the budget, a little more than $1 million an episode at CW, shrank by about 30 percent. But Mara became a network star: Her hourlong drama, Being Mary Jane, will premiere on BET next year -- with a pilot directed by Salim.
Salim first met with Houston about Sparkle at the Akils' loft office in Venice. The singer talked about her hopes that the remake would inspire girls in the same way the original had inspired her. "If you ever get nervous or you feel that things aren't going the way you would like, get on my back and I'll carry you," Salim told her.
The Akils say Houston was joyous and generous on the set. Her death came as a shock. "It was very painful when she left us," Salim says. "It brought up a lot of older issues and feelings with me, about my friends and having come up the way I did. But I would hate for people to concentrate on that aspect of who she was."
After Houston died, sources say executives at Sony Pictures swooped down on the film, handing Salim reams of notes, some of which even came from studio chairman Michael Lynton's wife, Jamie. (Lynton had taken a great personal interest in the film, negotiating to buy the remake rights from Warner Bros.) "This was a nice, small, fun movie until Whitney died, and then it was crazy," says a source with ties to the project. Salim had a cut that he was happy with, but the studio dictated certain changes. When asked about it, Salim chooses his words carefully. "I am happy with it," he says. "There's always the director's cut and the cut. ... I think the wonderful thing about the process is that my voice was heard. Michael Lynton was generous with his time when I wanted to talk something out."
In the end, Salim says, "We came to a happy conclusion. ... So we'll see what the people think. I think Whitney would be very happy."
THE ORIGINAL SPARKLE: Making of a Cult Classic
I met Joel Schumacher in the summer of 1971. We both loved R&B, soul and the movies. The soundtrack to our lives was the '70s Supremes. I said to him, "We have to make a movie about these girls." Joel was doing the window display at Bendel's [department store]. He twisted the mannequins into incredible shapes, put outrageous wigs on them and red dresses covered in sequins. One sequin fell on the floor, and as I picked it up it glinted under the floodlights: "We're going to call our movie Sparkle."
I met Peter Brown, who was running Robert Stigwood's record company. Stiggy managed the careers of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton. Peter loved our idea and optioned it for $5,000. We hired Lonne Elder, who wrote the Oscar-winning Sounder, but his script was terrible. I told Joel, "Unless you write it on spec, the project will die."
John Calley, a very cool, smart man, was running Warner Bros. I told him about Sparkle. Joel had his heart set on directing, and I wanted Ashford & Simpson writing the music. Calley says to me: "I read Joel's great screenplay. I'll make the movie if Sam O'Steen directs and Curtis Mayfield writes the music." O'Steen was the editor of Catch-22, and Warner/Chappell had recently made a publishing deal with Mayfield, who wrote the phenomenally successful soundtrack to Super Fly. Joel said to me: "Curtis Mayfield is obviously our Barbra. As far as Sam O'Steen ... it's painful for me, but I'll step aside." Calley gave us the green light a month later.
Sparkle became a cult movie, beloved by African-American girls because the characters felt like real people, not stock killers, pimps, drug dealers and addicts.
-- Howard Rosenman co-wrote and co-produced Sparkle.