It is literally impossible to not have seen the work of Art Sims – the founder
of 1124 Design – in the last 25 years if
you just even occasionally go to the movies. 

The Southern California-based advertising and marketing agency has been responsible
for cutting edge ad campaigns for many of the most important black and urban
themed films and TV productions, such as Red Tails, HBO’s When The Levees Broke,
Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, Mo Better Blues, Love and Basketball, Clockers, and
The Color Purple

Sims and his firm also provided creative presentations for many black and
mainstream films, such as Unstoppable, Inside
, I Am Legend, The Best Man Holiday, Black Nativity and Mike Tyson:
Undisputed Truth
for HBO, just to name just few.

is one of very few black persons involved in the marketing of motion
pictures, which is just as important an aspect in filmmaking as production and distribution. But who is he and how did he get to
where he is?

answer those questions, and a few others, last week, Sims to talked me about his career, his work and the challenges that he increasingly faces in
this highly competitive field.

Why don’t we start off by telling our readers some of your past work on films, to
give them some idea of your past and present work.

SIMS: Well
to start off, I did the Red Tails
campaign for George Lucas, and just finished
Mike Tyson for HBO. I’m currently working on Blackbird, Gina Prince- Bythewood’s
new film; and in the past I’ve worked on Do
The Right
Thing, Mo’ Better Blues,
Malcolm X
, Get On the Bus, New Jack City, Menace II Society and Jungle
to name a few.

SERGIO: The first question is the obvious one. How did you get into film marketing
and design?

SIMS: Well
I come from Detroit and I studied
design and creative work at Cass High School in Detroit, and after I
graduated, I got a scholarship to Michigan
State University
and while I was there, I got a another scholarship for Fine
Arts, but I moved it over to graphic design with a minor in marketing as well.
And then after that I got an opportunity to work at an entertainment firm in New York City. I was here for a year
and then I had one more year in school, so I went back to Michigan State. I had
an opportunity to stay in New York and finish out getting my degree at a school
there like Pratt, but I went back to
Michigan State and finished getting my degree there.

So around the time I was ready to graduate I decided to
go to Los Angeles. So I went there
and ended up getting a position as an art director over at EMI Music and worked there for a few years. After that, I went over
to CBS Television, working as an art
director there. But it was around that time that I started to do more and more freelance
work, which led me to form my own firm – 1124 Design – after I left CBS television
and that’s how I got into the industry.

By the way, I’ve always wanted to know what the symbolism behind the 1124

is a Bible verse. I’m a Christian and I’m very Christian conscious, so when I created
my company and wanted to find a name for it, I took the Book of Mark from the
New Testament, Chapter 11 Verse 24:Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for
in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
” I
wanted something positive when I named the company. I wanted something that had
a more meaningful subject matter. And I didn’t want to call it an advertising
agency because the way I envisioned the company, I see it as a creative place where
we would come up with creative to things a little different. I want to
approach them from an artistic standpoint but with a commercial base to it.

Like, give me an example…

SIMS: Like
for Spike Lee’s School Daze, I was
competing for this campaign job against Tom
and Burrell Advertising.
We gave our presentation and we won the campaign; and Tom… well he wasn’t very
happy at all. Now don’t misunderstand. I love Tom. I think he’s a genius, but I
told him that I was trying to make something different, and in particular, when
we talk about African American or multi-cultural films, I was trying to make
something that was interesting or appealing to us, but also had an artistic flavor
to it that we would appreciate. I really put myself into the demographic of who
we are trying to appeal to, and come up with some creative ideas that they would
like. If I like it, then they would like it.

Now you’re getting to what I wanted to ask you. Is there a definite distinctive
way to appeal to a black audience compared to a broader, more mainstream
audience? How do you create a campaign that says “we want all black people to
see this” compared to “we want everyone to see this”?

SIMS: Here’s
the thing, I pledged to a fraternity when I was in college, the lifestyles we
have in college and afterward and the things that we do just hanging out among
one another – there’s an experience, and a psychology as it were, to what we
like. And I think if I put together a list of things that, as African-Americans,
we like, even though there are things we don’t all like – especially younger generations that are moving towards a different direction – I still think that there are certain
things that we gravitate to. We go to clubs, we drink, we go to parties, things
we do with our families especially on holidays; There are certain things that
we do as a people that I have experienced, that other African Americans have
experienced, that are part of our cultural breed, part of what we are. I always want to make black people and people of color look exquisite, beautiful.

So to answer your question, I try to match those
experiences and images when I’m working on a project for a film. I try to capture
a moment. I read the script and the things I that see and read in the script
and the words by the writer. Then I start doing sketches and then I look at
images in books and things that I have and try to parallel those images. 

Like, for example, if I had done that Jackie Robinson
film, 42, I would have never have used that image of him sliding down a wall. I
mean I understand what he was doing, sliding to home plate, just just turn it
vertically so it looked “cool”. But I’m not out to make something look “cool”.  I mean, it has to has some meaning to it. I
would have had an image of Jackie actually stealing home base because that was
one of the most classic images of his life and what he did in his life and what
he faced in terms of prejudice in baseball. So I try to find that image that we
would like, that makes that flash go off in your head: “Oh yeah I remember that.” So that’s what I try to do too, to find that
image that we all like and appreciate. It’s hard to do, but it can be done

You’ve been in your field for over 25 years now. The film business has
certainly changed during those years for sure, so how has your business changed
as well? It can’t be getting easier.

SIMS: What’s
happened is, for some reason, African-American films were looked at as films
that didn’t match up financially with Caucasian or mainstream films. But what I’ve seen is that, now our stories
and stories of people of color are now becoming more popular and I think what
is happening, speaking for myself, is that all kinds of people, Caucasian, and whatever, are beginning to embrace our culture even to
the point that they are now increasingly directing these films, like, for
example, that James Brown film Get On Up. It’s like the film industry took an
attitude that African-Americans are telling stories about themselves that are
too damn true, and now they’re trying to put a message out that they’re changing
their life. That’s what filmmaking is about – telling true stories.  So what’s happening now is that, white studios
are taking our stories and making them themselves. They’re cutting out African-American
producers and directors, and control the marketing aspect of these films; and from my standpoint, yes it is becoming increasingly difficult.

I’ve talked to studio executives and they confess to me
that it is extremely difficult for me to get work, and that’s because, to be
quite honest, there’s a lot of favoritism with marketing executives, and the
companies they use to help market films. I mean some of them are well thought
out and they’re brilliant, but most of them are buddies and friends of theirs
who are working on urban marketing and films that might be very important to us, but not so much to them. It’s not because we don’t get the work, we get some of
the work. But I mean you put so much time and effort and money into the making
a film that the marketing has to be as brilliant as the making of the film. And
these studios are using people – and this is my opinion – that are simply not qualified
to present a full-fledged image of our culture in the films that we make.

Urban film and multicultural films are not a cookie
cutter effort. They take time and effort to make. But yes it’s hard. We suffer absolutely.
Nowadays it’s more difficult to get projects to work on and it’s not just print; we do all media as well outdoors, social media, you name it.  Yes, it has changed a lot, but when I see
films such as 12 Years A Slave and Ava DuVernay’s Selma – which is now being made – and these are important films, and now maybe I hope that
they are going to put a little more time and effort into the marketing
strategies for films like these. Look at The
Best Man Holiday
, of course, I know some white people saw it, but it made
most of its money from the urban market. Same thing with Ride Along – and those were films that were targeted to us. 

So I
think you cannot negate the fact that it is important to reach out to the urban
market and to maximize the visibility of the market though social media,
digital print and some of that has been done. But as more effort has been put into it our movies, they have become a lot more successful financially.
So hopefully that will make the studios change their thought patterns and see
that they need to market more aggressively to people of color and be more
sensitive and get more butts in the seats.