Codie Elaine and Tommy Oliver are the creators of Black Love. In this feature, Codie Elaine goes over how the duo maintained ownership and what you can learn from them if you’d also like to own your IP.
In August 2017, my husband Tommy Oliver and I premiered our docuseries, Black Love, on OWN: the Oprah Winfrey Network. It drew 1.2 million viewers, breaking the record for the most-watched unscripted premiere on the network. The series highlights love stories from Black married couples and examines the reality of what it takes to make love last for the long haul. Featured couples in the four-episode season included Viola Davis and husband Julius Tennon, actress Meagan Good and husband DeVon Franklin, Tia Mowry and her actor husband Cory Hardrict, actor Flex Alexander and his wife and musical artist Shanice, and Grammy-award winning musicians Erica and Warryn Campbell, to name a few.
With minimal outdoor advertising (which we paid for), a premiere at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (which we applied and sent ourselves to), advertising on OWN, and one tweet from Oprah, we made a splash. Now four seasons in, and with the fifth premiering in 2021, we have built a media company with several components inclusive of BlackLove.com, a robust social media presence on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube, and hold live events featuring our couples and exclusive — often unaired — clips from the series.
We are able to do all of this because we own all of our own IP and license it to OWN.
First, let me back up and tell you a little about us.
In September 2013, a woman doing PR for Canon Cinema Cameras and a man who just made his directorial debut at the Toronto Film Festival met in the Canon/Hollywood Reporter Lounge, and one of them hit on the other. Hint: It was me who hit on him. The attraction was there, but we have spent years explaining to people that he was too focused on his movie (and a recent ex) to realize I was flirting with him. It wasn’t until I mentioned my background at USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program that I saw stars in his eyes, and then love grew quickly. We discussed the idea for Black Love just weeks into dating, and by January, we had convinced Canon to give us an equipment loan for the project. One year after we met, we were engaged and shooting Black Love with couples all over the country.
It’s important to note that Tommy and I set out to film a documentary, so we treated the project that way. We were going to go the festival route once the work was complete, and so we didn’t spend any amount of time working on pitch materials for a TV show. We did, how- ever, pursue a few grants and doc labs, and often found ourselves explaining our project to people who just didn’t see it. We were turned down by the best of them. Simply put, Black Love features couples talking about their relationship highs and lows on their couches at home. There’s no footage of them having breakfast in their kitchen. No individual interviews. No anecdotes from friends and family. It’s just their experiences, perspectives and growth moments. We were told time and time again that there should be more to it, but we just didn’t think it was necessary.
We shot over 50 couples from fall 2014 to summer 2016 with our own money, one grant from a little-known California arts nonprofit, and donations from family friends. Probably one of the most important factors to our project is that we did everything ourselves. We both produced. Tommy was also the cinematographer and gaffer. I direct, mic the couples, and ask questions. Oh, and Tommy also gets stills “on set.” Doing it ourselves allowed for more intimate conversations with couples, but also kept our production costs down.
As we started to cut an assembly of the doc in early 2016, it became clear that we couldn’t do justice to the stories or a potential audience by limiting the project to 90 minutes. That’s when Black Love the docuseries was born. I mention all of this because it’s one of the biggest reasons we were able to license this show — by the time we “pitched,” it was a completed series. Tommy was repped at CAA after his directorial debut in 2013, so with their help, we went out to networks with a completed first episode and a treatment and sizzle for the full season. Distributors knew exactly what they were getting and we weren’t interested in changing our vision.
OWN was my first choice from the moment I had the idea for Black Love, long before I met my husband. The authenticity and humanity in Oprah’s body of work and her mission were completely in line with how I viewed this series, and OWN jumped on the project right away. We were unaware of how they viewed ownership, but that worked in our favor as well.
As soon as we decided to create an ongoing series, Tommy knew right away that he wanted us to own the IP. He was partly motivated by his experience with split rights deals dating back to his first film in 2011, but beyond that, he knew that there was real short- and long-term value in what we were doing. We always planned to launch our website, BlackLove.com, to expand the conversations around love past romance, but the ownership would most directly allow us to exploit the rights in perpetuity.
Continue for more of Black Love creators Codie Elaine and Tommy Oliver on how to own your IP