“…it’s probably still difficult to get into a lot of cinemas and there’s only certain cinemas that are going to open their doors to certain exhibitors, Black film exhibitors, and say, oh, you can show films here.” Marlon Palmer
Kush Cinema is a virtual cinema, subscription, archive, and distribution platform that launched in 2022. A seed long in nurturing, Kush Cinema spurred into growth and reality during the pandemic due to the sudden online demand and consumption of digital media; though the fuel that really propelled its growth was the heinous and senseless murder of George Floyd. This led Marlon to develop Kush Cinema, helping disadvantaged independent filmmakers’ showcase, distribute, and monetise their content.
Thank you for speaking to ALT today. Firstly, how did you start with Kush Films and film exhibition?
A film exhibitor is someone who puts the films on the big screen, does deals with cinemas to use their space to show films, hires the film from the distributors, builds relationships with film distributors, like Warner Brothers, 20th Century, Fox, et cetera. You can get a really great deal and put films on a big screen. So basically, how that started, that is a long way back. I was always passionate about film, which I didn’t realize at the time, it was more of a business opportunity that I saw. I suppose I’ve always tended to do things that I like doing, that I really like, I always find some way to make it pay. I was just basically walking into an old cinema in Turnpike Lane, north London, and I was asking the Indian man who was running the cinema, showing Bollywood films, if I could start showing Black films there. My primary goal at the time was to create a space for Black filmmakers, because I just didn’t feel that Black filmmakers were being giving the opportunity to have their films seen. I wanted to see more Black films, and this was in 1998 at a time when it was difficult to get a lot of Black films here, especially African American films. I just wanted to create that space for the public.
I’d previously been involved in entertainment and more so the music industry, especially keeping raves and parties and dances and all that kind of stuff. I’d done that since I was 18 years old. I kind of had a knack of bringing people together and liked doing that. I just kind of left one thing, which was sort of on a downhill slide, you know, drink, parties and all the other things that come with it. I sort of changed my life basically, and restarted again, I went to church, got baptized and restarted life again, as I felt I needed a refresh in life. I decided to move into film with no experience at all…a bold, bold decision. I didn’t go to any film school, or learn anything about film. I just had a passion for films basically, I did know how to put bums on seats. I did know how to promote things and that’s basically what I used.
You talked about creating a space for Black films. What we identified as Black film 20 years ago, is it the same now and how have these spaces for Black cinema and Black exhibition evolved?
I wouldn’t say it’s the same. It’s probably different in different countries, different regions. Would you call a Black film kind of like a Black bridge film? Or would you call it that word that everyone doesn’t like urban film or whatever?Whereas in America, I suppose they’re still Black films, African American films. Are you classing it as Black film and then African film?You’d maybe call that world cinema and then obviously you have Nollywood. So, I think it’s different. I think back in those days, everything was just Black film. We just wanted to see more black, more black this more black that, we’re now seeing that. So, it has changed and sort of split off into its own different sort of regions. How’s it developed? Well at that time when I first started, there wasn’t really much opportunity at all. I was one of the first guys, apart from the gentleman called Mark Boothe of Nubian Tales in south London, there wasn’t really anyone doing what I was doing at that time. I basically had to learn from scratch. The only other person who was doing something was my good colleague, Menelik Shabazz, who recently passed away. I can’t remember what year he started the festival, but he ran Black Filmmaker Festival. Menelik’s film festival was once a year when I was screening all year round, basically. I was screening films on a monthly basis and did so for about 10 years straight. It has developed that there’s more opportunity to see Black films on a big screen now, and to go out into more venues. We were the first to break into The West End and to be in the West End for many years. After years of fighting to just get a prime-time slot, getting the right days, getting the right venues, for years and years we had to fight to get there. Until eventually I got a Thursday night 8:30 slot, which I stuck with for many years once I had got, because that was a prime-time slot. I’m still seeing them now, these days, putting Black films on a Saturday at one o’clock. This is the time and space that they want to give our films. But people like myself went out there and took the horse by the reigns and actually directed things out the way that we wanted it to be rather than them telling us how it should be. That’s the way I run my business.
You touched on Menelik Shabazz. We both have kind of been there along the way with him at some point in the last 20 years. What would you say his contribution is to the UK film industry and what is his legacy for you?
Well, mainly his contribution is a great contribution, but probably one that’s not really and truly recognised. Again, like myself, we come from a different sort of background. We weren’t from the traditional film school, and we didn’t tend to mix with the hierarchy within the institutionalised film industry, you know, institutions like the BFI and Film London, that sort of stuff. We deal with them from the periphery, from the outside in a sense, and keep our independence, doing things the way we feel they should be done. Menelik, his legacy is great. The Black Filmmaker Festival (BFM) was the first Black film festival in the UK. It’s so sad that we don’t have an international Black film festival now where we should have. Menelik brought people like Spike Lee and a lot of the big directors to the UK, he was the first one to do that. Again, it was in the West End, as well as cinemas around London. Also, the BFM magazine is a flagship magazine for Black filmmakers. The magazine, educating people about the resources that are out there, opportunities, what’s going on in America or happening internationally. That was really great in those days where we didn’t have the internet as we do now, to be able to read and connect with filmmakers and actors and other people abroad and to find out what was going on here in the UK.
Menelik’s contribution, as a pioneer and filmmaker, again, he wasn’t given the props and the proper respect. When he died, all of a sudden they were all talking about him. He was on the news, and he was all everyone was talking about, acting like they knew Menelik Shabazz, which was very upsetting. While he was alive, they didn’t want to know. Menelik basically had to start the BFM Festival and also launch his BFM magazine because he wasn’t given the opportunities in the film business to make the films that he wanted to make, especially after he made the pioneering and seminal film, Burning An Illusion. Everyone remembers Babylon, and everyone knows Babylon, but how many people really, apart from the older people know Burning An Illusion. The two of them should really be side by side.
Menelik’s film is one of those films that portrayed a strong Black woman who stood up against abuse and who found her way in life as, particularly in, in the UK, in those times, racism, all kinds of stuff was very prevalent. It’s a very powerful film, but again, I don’t think Menelik’s been given the true recognition for his work for that film. He wasn’t given the opportunity, it’s something that myself and him spoke about for many, many years. So, I was surprised that when he died all the BFI and all these other people were so interested, they weren’t interested when he was alive.
For instance, he told me that he had made a film called The Story Of Lovers Rock. For years, he tried to get the BFI to buy it, and they weren’t interested. It was only when Steve McQueen made his Lovers Rock film, when all of a sudden people became interested in Menelik Shabazz’s Lovers Rock, suddenly he was able to do a deal with the BFI and sell it, yet before that they didn’t want to know it. As we know in our community, The Story Of Lovers Rock is a great documentary film portraying our Black British culture. So, yeah, Menelik is a pioneer, he is like an older brother to me. His legacy still lives on within me and helps drive me. He was someone that was there for a younger person like myself, and I know for many other younger people in the industry like yourself, to, to give us words of wisdom guidance, and just give that unity and strength that we needed, for those of us who weren’t getting the industry handouts and who were just nodding our heads and saying yes,sir.
So fast forward to now, what has been some of the positive things you’ve seen in the industry since you’ve been exhibiting? Positive changes, perhaps in terms of diversity?
For me, it’s different because obviously I’ve been around for so long and they know me, and I can only speak for myself, but for any other young person now who’s coming up and saying they want to do film exhibition, I’m not sure if it’s changed a great deal. It’s changed a bit, it has changed a bit, but it’s probably still difficult to get into a lot of cinemas and there’s only certain cinemas that are going to open their doors to certain exhibitors, Black film exhibitors, and say, oh, you can show films here. I still don’t see lots of Black film exhibitors popping up. There is a couple, yeah, but there’s not a whole plethora of them.
It’s still only a few, I don’t know now it’s five or six maybe, max, probably. You’ve got Soul Film Fest, and We Are Parable, you’ve got Priscilla Igwe, and then obviously you, Alt Africa who is involved now too. Again, that is only five or six people or organisations doing screenings still, which is not a lot really and truly, compared to the amount of actors we have and the amount of directors and producers, in terms of exhibitionists, it’s very few. And then don’t even talk about distribution… I’m probably one of the only people, Black men in the UK, who’s actually dabbling in distribution, trying to move into that field.
Again, it’s not easy. It’s not easy at all. So yeah, I think things appear to have changed on the outside, but really how much have they changed on the inside? It’s some of us who know the landscape, who have trodden the road, who’ve laid the path, people like myself, we can just about get through and maneuver, but how easy is it for a young person who says now that they want to get into the industry? I’m not sure if it’s changed that much really, truly basically, you know?
So, let’s talk about your new project, Kush Cinema. So for anyone who hasn’t actually heard about it, what is it?
Kush Cinema, during COVID, what we’ve all been through in the last two years, some terrible times we’ve lost friends and family members. I was just sitting there, naturally, when the George Floyd incident happened. I said, this is it, this is it. We need to start. This kind of reflects on the question you just gave me before about us trying to get into other people’s places. I would say to myself, it’s about time I had my own screen. I’m fed up of begging other people to come into their cinemas, or trying to get films to sell to Netflix or to Amazon or wherever about us. Why are we own our own sort of thing? So when the George in Floyd incident happened, I was inspired to call up a good colleague of mine, who happens to be a white man who owns an international company who has built Video On Demand (VOD) sites for a lot of big film distributors. For years we’ve been friends and he’s been saying to me, you should get online, you should have something online et cetera. So, I called him and said, look, I want to get online, I need your help. I don’t have all the funds right now to do what I want to do, and I haven’t even got a plan in terms of what I want to do, but I want to build something, I need your help. He was so taken a back in a sense of what was going on with the George Floyd incident, as, as we all were, and he promised that he would help me. He said, don’t worry, Marlon. He is always wanting to try and do something to give back to and to help others. He said he’s going to help me, and basically, we spent a year through COVID whilst everyone was watching Netflix and Amazon and I basically built my own online platform. Kush Cinema is a virtual online cinema, offering rental, one off rentals, TV OD (TV On Demand) as they call it, which is basically transactional VOD. So, VOD stands for video on demand, and transaction, TVOD, is one off rental. So, you can watch the film by paying a one-off price, just like going to the cinema but it is all online,£1.99, £2.99 £3.99, whatever the price is of that film, you purchase that film, and you watch it.
What is going to be unique about KushCinema.com is that it is also going to be a hybrid platform where there will be opportunity for subscription. So, you can commit and take out a monthly subscription for roughly £5.99 and watch content that we have on the platform. Currently, as subscription is coming later, it is just one-off rentals, no commitment. You sign up and get a free film to watch upon sign up, and then basically have a selection of films to choose from. We’re going to be adding new films every month, and you can basically pay for a film, a one-off price and watch it. We are also going to host events, sort of watch-alongs, where everyone will be given specific date, time and film, maybe a new film, and we will say to everyone, come along on that day, watch the film online in the comfort of your own home. We can all watch it together and maybe even have a chat. We have the facility to do watch parties where you can chat to one another while you’re watching a film and that kind of stuff. We can have lots of special events, zooms, Q&A with directors, actors, and that sort of thing, and do lots of different things through Kush Cinema.
Kush Cinema is a pioneering UK online virtual cinema, which has never been done before. It’s a first in the UK. I’m very proud of what I’ve just done. It’s been a lot of hard work, seven days a week for the last year nonstop, and I’m really hoping now that the community, Black folks, white folks, and everybody who supports and likes Black culture, will come on to the platform, see films they like, and they will spend their money, put their money where their mouth is and support what we’re doing, enabling us to get new films for the platform. Again, because of my connections and who I am in the industry, I’ve been able to get films from distributors and probably do what not many else can do in the UK. But if the distributors see that we’re not making money within the first few months, they’re likely to want to maybe say, it’s not working, we are not going to give you any more films or, or we’ll only give you one film or something like that. So, we really need people to support what we’re doing. Not only to support it because it’s a Black thing or it’s for Black film, but because it’s something that I think is needed in our community. It’s going to be the place where you can see the films that represent you, that represent your culture, all the films that have been forgotten about, that are not on Netflix. I know a lot of the Black filmmakers from my years of working in the industry, so, I’ve gone to a lot of filmmakers that I know, whose films have been lost. Leon Herbert’s Emotional Backgammon, Kolton Lee’s Cherps, all these films, my friend, Jason Barrett’s The Naked Poet. There’s lots of other films, too.
The BFI have them sitting in their archives, Black Joy. Why don’t we see Black Joy anywhere? With Norman Beaton, and Dame Floella Benjamin. We don’t see these films on TV. Why not? We’ve got these films on our platform, KushCinema.com. We really need people’s support, come support us, enjoy the films. You can gift films to friends and family members as well. So, even if you don’t watch it, if you see a film that’s good for someone else like your children, you can gift it to them. We have lots of variation and it’s only going to get better and better and better. We need everyone to support this new pioneering platform. This is a breakthrough, a big breakthrough online.
Now I don’t need to beg anyone to get them to go into cinemas. I can now bring films to your house, where you can watch them in the comfort of your own home. Key in going forward is that we want to start producing our own content. I don’t want to be reliant on film distributors giving us their films. And as I say, if we aren’t making enough money for them, they might want to pull their films. So, one of the key things is that we want to start working with young people, young filmmakers, directors, writers, and producing our own content. If people out there have their own content, unique content, then we want to help them monetize that. We are now online, which means that we are international. We’re not just dependent on UK audience. If the UK audience isn’t supporting, we can go to the African American audience, the Caribbean audience, even the white folks in Europe who love all that Black stuff, they love all the reggae music and all that. We want to cater for anyone that wants to support what we are doing and to support Black films, Black filmmakers, and our culture.
You kind of touched on my next question: the content on the platform. Are we to expect big cinematic releases, blockbuster films and a combination of the golden oldies, like you mentioned Black Joy.
Yes, absolutely. Everyone who knows me and knows Kush knows that we’ve always been doing the big films, so we’re going to stick with that. Obviously, through my relationship with film distributors, the key thing is whether they want to give you stuff for online, because right now after COVID, the big initiative is trying to get back to normal is getting people to return to cinemas. So, it’s kind of up in the air, no one really knows what’s going to happen. Is life going to go back to normal like It was before? Or is it really going to stay similar to now where people have gotten used to digesting content online, where they’re not really going to the cinema- they’re only going to go to the cinema for the tentpole films, and you have the indie people who go to specialized indie films.
We are going to have a good range, obviously if there are new films coming out and we can get an opportunity to do a screening on the platform, absolutely. But also yes, we’re going to have a lot of films that are hard to find, hard to come by, we want to have a selection of African world cinema films, documentary films, we have films that represent what’s going on in the world, social injustice, the planet, humanity and human development, things like that. We want really educational content too, and positive stuff, I’m really going to try and stay away from the negative sort of stuff, the gang-banging type films, unless it has a moral to the story and it’s something that we believe can really help people, particularly the younger generation. We want to have real entertaining content that people will enjoy. I think we’ve got a good little selection of it now, which obviously will grow and grow and grow. I’ve just done a deal with an American film distributor, and we’ve got some nice new content that’s coming, as well as some older classics, some old Black exploitation movies, things like that.
We’ll make it our archive, as well as producing our own content, working with young filmmakers, young writers and such and actors as well, one of the key things I’m looking to do is to secure some funding for now. The investment is to create an archive of Black British films, which can be used as a resource, an educational resource for schools to really tell the true story.
At the moment, I just feel that it’s always someone else telling our story and someone else, other than us, who are dictating, what are the best Black films ever made. When we look at these lists, sometimes there’s films that are missing that resonate with us and resonate with our stories and our culture and these films are not in there. We come from the community and are for the community, and we want to represent our community. Basically, we want to have the films that we know our community really love on our platform and have an archive, a written archive, as well.
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