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'This Is About Lifting Culture,' Says History-Making Producer Charles D. King

Charles D. King
Charles D. King

The film Judas and the Black Messiah has already made history at the Oscars. It's the first Best Picture nominee with an all-Black producing team, which includes two Kings and a Coogler: Ryan Coogler, Shaka King and Charles D. King, who brings a new vision for Hollywood.

King has always had an eye for spotting talent, and he knows diverse audiences are thirsty for their stories to be told in Hollywood. It's why he created his own multiplatform company, called MACRO, "to focus on telling stories from and about people of color, " he says. "There were just not enough of these types of movies."

King remembers the phone call he got from his good friend Ryan Coogler, whose superhero movie Black Panther was a hit. He says Coogler was ready to produce a film about a real life Black Panther leader. "He said, hey, there's this incredible script written by Shaka King about Fred Hampton," King recalls. " And I'd like to see if you and MACRO would be interested in collaborating on it."

"We were just blown away by the story," he says, a story examining the work and life of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, and the FBI informant who infiltrated the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party.

As a producer, King helped develop the script for Judas and the Black Messiah; he was on the set and he was intensely involved with the film's release and marketing. Writer/director Shaka King says Charles King's support was crucial.

"He committed 50 percent of the budget before we even went out to a studio, which is which is incredibly rare, which also gave us just a certain level of autonomy," says Shaka King. " If he had put in less money, the studio would have had more control ... I think one of the reasons [Charles] wanted to put up 50 percent was because he wanted to make sure that I got to make the movie that I wanted to make, which was very generous of him."

King knows that representation matters. He was born in Harlem in 1969 and grew up in an Atlanta suburb, where his father was a pediatrician and his mother wrote novels and poetry. While studying political science at Vanderbilt, a friend suggested he become an entertainment lawyer.

"Growing up in Decatur, Georgia in a middle class family, I just didn't know what an entertainment lawyer did," he says. "But I watched this television show with my mother called L.A. Law, and I remember there was this one Black character on the show played by Blair Underwood. He's this charismatic African American attorney at the firm and he stood up for himself and he was just the man."

King was inspired to study at Howard University School of Law. After graduating in 1997, he packed up a U-Haul truck and moved to Los Angeles with a few hundred dollars to his name. His ten-year plan to lead his own entertainment and media company began in the mailroom of the famed William Morris agency.

"I looked at the agency world as as the perfect launching ground to get my feet wet, to build relationships, to understand the industry," King says.

Even as a trainee in the mailroom, King brought in new clients, like hip-hop star Missy Elliot. He got to know the company's CEO; he networked at conferences and wrote reports on cultural trends such as hip-hop, and on the viewing patterns and revenue potential of Black, Latino and Asian audiences. King moved up quickly.

This is not just about building a entertainment and media brand that will be around for generations. This is also about lifting culture. It's about creating opportunity. It's about making our world better.

"When I got promoted, it was the first time in, I believe, 101 years, [to be the] first African American to go from the mailroom to film and television agent, at least in the Beverly Hills office," says King. "I was very good at being an agent, and I broke tremendous ground. I became the first Black partner in the history of Hollywood when William Morris and Endeavor merged."

As an agent, King grew an impressive roster. Among his clients: Oprah, Janet Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Tyler Perry, who he signed before anyone else in Hollywood knew who he was. King introduced Perry to studio executives and got them to see Perry's plays. King also helped set up a deal at Lionsgate for Perry's first film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

"Everyone was like, oh, my God, I can't believe this five million dollar movie made fifty million at box office and sold millions and millions and millions of DVDs," he says. "And that was just the launch of this incredible franchise and business."

King also helped Perry set up a new business model for syndicating TV projects, starting with Tyler Perry's House of Payne. With Perry's lawyer, King structured what was called the "10-90" distribution deal, designed to maximize profitability: an arrangement where a network test runs ten episodes of a new television series. If it does well, the network then orders 90 more episodes and guarantees the entire 100-episode package will be sold for syndication.

"My nickname was 2005," King recalls. That was the year, his fifth as an agent, he not only struck gold with Tyler Perry, but he also brought in filmmaker Craig Brewer, whose film Hustle and Flow was a big seller at the Sundance Film Festival. King began repping the film's star, Terrence Howard, who earned an Oscar nomination. And he began representing Prince.

King says as an African American man, he had to make ten times as many phone calls as his colleagues representing white movie stars and filmmakers. And he did a lot of educating about the value of diversity.

"The leaders at the top of William Morris and, frankly, the senior chairman level of a lot of the studios that I would interface with, they would usually get it," King says. "A lot of times, you find it's the people in the middle that are that are less visionary. And so, yeah, of course, there were moments where I would be discussing things or bringing up concepts and meetings and literally got laughed at. And then a few years later, I was running the meetings because I was generating ten times more revenue than they were."

In 2015, after nearly 20 years at William Morris, King took a leap of faith. He left the agency to create MACRO with his wife Stacey and a few partners. They launched a month before the #OscarsSoWhite movement began, and hit it out of the ballpark with the first film they produced, Fences. The film's star Denzel Washington earned an Oscar nomination, and co-star Viola Davis won Best Supporting Actress.

Then Mary J. Blige was nominated for another MACRO film, Mudbound. Since then, MACRO has produced other films, including Just Mercy, Sorry to Bother You and the series Gentefied and Raising Dion. Earlier this year, King's company inked a first-look deal with Warner Brothers to develop and package features.

King says up to 70 percent of his team leaders are women, and everyone at his company is encouraged to present ideas. He says MACRO's mission is to present a new paradigm in the media landscape, to disrupt the way things have always been done.

"This is not just about building a entertainment and media brand that will be around for generations," he says. "This is also about lifting culture. It's about creating opportunity. It's about making our world better."

King says his empire in Hollywood has only just begun.

This story was edited for radio by Nina Gregory and adapted for the Web by Mandalit del Barco and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.