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For more than a decade, Soul Train creator Don Cornelius labored to develop a film based on his influential musical variety program. Those efforts foundered, but his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound Feb. 1 in Los Angeles might jump-start interest in a Soul Train movie and other ventures that would exploit the storied brand.
Soul Train, which Cornelius started in 1970, aired in syndication until 2006. Two years later, Cornelius sold the franchise to MadVision Entertainment and private-equity firm InterMedia Partners, which named the new venture Soul Train Holdings and retained Cornelius as a consultant. (In 2011, Magic Johnson Enterprises and Ron Burkle‘s Yucaipa Cos. bought a stake in Vibe Holdings, the parent company of Soul Train Holdings.) Terms of those purchases were not disclosed.
Cornelius shot himself at a house he had owned and resided in since 1978 — a 3,000-square-foot Mulholland Drive property. The house, near Jack Nicholson‘s residence, has an assessed value of $1.53 million, according to tax records. Cornelius’ son Tony Cornelius says the Soul Train host, who was 75, had been upset over health issues and a messy 2009 split from second wife Viktoria Chapman Cornelius. But he says his father had not appeared suicidal. “I can tell you, due to health, things like divorce and relationships, there’s all kinds of things that may trigger a reaction like that. But as his son, as one who was really close, I can’t tell you [why],” says Tony, one of Cornelius’ two sons.
On top of those personal issues, Tony says his father was dealing with a radically changing industry. He was “really catching up and trying to understand” how the franchise could move forward in the Internet era. A film could have introduced Soul Train to new audiences.
Producer Darryl Porter (Dead Presidents), a longtime Cornelius friend and business associate, says he and Don tried but failed to launch a movie with Universal during the 1990s. As recently as 2009, Warner Bros. showed interest in a project. “He wanted to do a buddy action comedy, like Rush Hour set in the world of Soul Train,” says a Warners source. But that project also stalled. Porter, who would have been a producer on the film, says a second script, which turned the project into a coming-of-age dance movie, “was not the kind of movie Warners was going to make.”
Now, Soul Train Holdings is working with WME to explore ways to grow the brand, including a film, musical and TV show. “Certainly we want to proceed in a way that will highlight the contribution of Don to the creation of the brand and its subsequent impact on American culture,” says Kenard Gibbs, CEO of Soul Train Holdings. One major obstacle to exploiting the Soul Train brand for a film or other venture is securing rights to use the music that filled each episode. Obtaining such clearances can be costly, though Gibbs notes that Soul Train Holdings was able to clear the necessary songs for The Best of Soul Train, a DVD boxed set the company released in 2010.
Porter says that in recent years, Cornelius continued to examine potential business deals — including a Soul Train TV channel and radio station — but was interested only in ventures “he thought reached a certain level of dignity and magnitude.” Tony says his father felt that overall, the franchise’s current owners have “done a great job,” though he adds that for the Soul Train creator, it was “very difficult to part with something that you started and be satisfied all the time.”
A private memorial for Cornelius is planned for Feb. 16 in Los Angeles.
Email: Daniel.Miller@THR.com; Kim.Masters@THR.com
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