The film Straight Outta Compton is making an impact that’s completely defying Hollywood’s expectations for black cinema’s influence on pop culture. Directed by F. Gary Gray, the riveting rags-to-riches saga of controversial West Coast hip hop group N.W.A. has held the top slot in the box office since its August 14 release, grossing well over $100 million in domestic receipts. Active users of social media customized memes on their profiles using the film’s block logo. N.W.A.’s founder and megaproducer Dr. Dre even came out of a 16-year hiatus, releasing his long-awaited third studio LP, Compton: A Soundtrack, which debuted at number two on the Billboard 200.
One of Straight Outta Compton’s producers, domestic film sales agent Bill Straus, knew it would be a hit movie from the very beginning. Straus was a story editing executive at New Line Cinema in 2004 when the first draft of the script landed on his desk. Always looking for good stories framed around hip-hop culture, he told a few colleagues at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival that the story was amazing.
They cautioned an optimistic Straus that making a biopic about a hip-hop group was a waste of time. Several attempts had been made before to make the film. Straus ignored their feedback. “The opinion out there was an N.W.A. movie was great, but it was impossible,” says Straus via phone interview a week prior to Straight Outta Compton’s nationwide release. “There were places that passed on [Compton]. I knew that we were gonna sell it, but I was surprised that some places weren’t interested. We thought it was such a hot property.”
Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1980s, Straus was one of the few white kids in the area to witness hip-hop culture up close. He enrolled into USC Film School, becoming classmates with then unknown director, John Singleton. Straus became a production assistant on Singleton’s Oscar-nominated directorial debut, Boyz N The Hood, also the acting debut of N.W.A. member Ice Cube.
Even then, Straus knew Boyz N The Hood was something special whenever Singleton explained his vision. “It was an incredible thing to witness,” recalls Straus. “[John] has been a great friend throughout the years.”
Straight Outta Compton’s script underwent several rewrites over two years. Working out producer deals, getting all of the members and their estates on-board and music clearances took more time. The story evolved from focusing specifically on late member Eazy E. to becoming an inclusive reflection of all five group members. Once Straight Outta Compton started to come together around 2009, New Line, originally set to release Straight Outta Compton, was acquired by Warner Bros.
Warner Bros. thought the hip-hop period piece was too costly to make, causing a brief halt during production. Due to the success of former N.W.A. member Ice Cube’s film, Ride Along, Universal Pictures agreed to carry Straight Outta Compton.
These instances are why Straus takes pride in being a film sales agent. His company, BGP Film, scouts young filmmakers at film festivals and sells their independent works to American distributors. Having sold his first screenplay at 23 to Sony and working his way up the ladder at New Line, Straus thinks major Hollywood studios not seeing the commercial potential of films featuring themes relating to people of color is a problem.
“On the studio side, there’s this prevalent wisdom out there that ‘urban’ films don’t sell foreign,” says Straus, “but there’s a definite audience for it.” Calling sales agents “pivotal players,” Straus adds that independent film distributors are more likely to consider films with African-American themes. Anytime Straus, a mainstay on the film festival circuit, takes on projects like Straight Outta Compton, he likes to give it his undivided attention.
He believes successful film agents know the value of quality over quantity and nurturing relationships. “Some great scripts are not great films,” he says. “A lot of sales agents go by volume. I try to be straight up with buyers and get clients as much attention as I can. It’s rare that I’m gonna take something out there that’s sloppy.”
Since Straight Outta Compton opened in over 3,000 theaters to massive critical and commercial acclaim, the film’s release reminds Straus why he remained involved with the project against all odds. Hoping to keep the momentum going, Straus, now living and running his business back in Brooklyn, is concentrating on continuing to spot incredible young filmmakers with vision.
He’s changing his company name from BGP Film to Bridge Independent. He is also currently working on a film project with the legendary b-boy dance collective Rock Steady Crew. The key to Straus’ success in the film industry, he says, is going on instincts. “It has really been an incredible process,” says Straus. “I’m very proud to have been there from the humble beginning. Film is a hard industry to break into. I’m ready to ride off into the sunset and get these great indie films made,” he adds. “I wanna see where some of these guys are in 10 years. That will be really gratifying, too.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.