Black Women Filmmakers Speak is a series curated by Shadow and Act that spotlights women visionaries in film and their inspiring body of work. For the full introduction to this series and an overview of the filmmakers featured, head here.
Hollywood’s story has long been a white, heterosexual male-dominated narrative, and a key goal for #BlackWomenFilmmakersSpeak is to celebrate up-and-coming black women filmmakers who are taking the simple, seemingly radical step of telling their stories. Working across all genres, these filmmakers all share a love of cinema and an appreciation for the power it wields, engaging what the status quo might see as a kind of new cinema language to not only entertain but also enlighten.
For the series, 33 black women filmmakers from around the world completed a survey Shadow And Act issued in response to a call made earlier this year aiming to highlight black women filmmakers at some stage of development on their first feature films. We then packaged each reply into individual features highlighting these filmmakers and their feature film projects, their fears and hopes as first-time feature directors and their thoughts on a variety of topical matters. That includes what some are calling a new renaissance in black cinema today, the disruption of content production and distribution by streaming behemoths like Netflix and Amazon and more. Their survey profiles will be published daily (one per day) on Shadow and Act over the next month.
Ultimately, we hope these stories bring new awareness and admiration around these relatively unknown visionaries.
If you’re just joining us, you can catch up on these previous profiles:
The series continues today with New York-based Torri R. Oats. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project.
My name is Torri R. Oats, and I am a writer and producer.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time watching television. I was fascinated by the “miniaturized people” who lived inside the box and curious about who told them what to say. In addition to my love of television, I was an avid reader. I began putting two and two together and figured just as there were authors who wrote books, there had to be writers who wrote words for the characters I loved so much.
Television and film represented what was possible. I could get lost in those worlds, but there was always something missing: me. There were so few examples of projects that authentically spoke to and about the African American experience, and I wanted to change that.
My journey has been very, very slow. While I hold down a day job, I’ve worked hard to hone my skills as a writer. I have written, directed and produced two off-off Broadway plays. More recently, I wrote and produced the short film Tomorrow Is Too Late. I have contributed to Madame Noire, The Fem Lit, The Atlanta Post and others. Currently, I am working on my first feature film, No Lies Told Then.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-?)
Pre-production: packaging and financing.
When did this specific journey begin?
How many roles are you having to play beyond directing? Are you also the writer? Producer? Editor? DP? Production Designer? Maybe even the star? And if wearing multiple hats, how are you achieving balance?
I am the writer and producer.
At this stage, I have almost fully transitioned from writer to producer. Once we have some additional bodies on board, whether it’s cast or funders, I will don the writer’s hat again. I value feedback and different perspectives, so the script is never finished.
As you work on your first feature, what would be of most help to you right now? What do you need at this moment to get over a hurdle, or to move you forward onto whatever your next step is? And how are you working to get what you need?
For the first time, I really sat down and looked at my personal expenses for this project. I realized, belatedly, that all of the money I’ve spent trying to expand our audience could have been spent making a really low-budget version of the film. Inspired by efforts like Dear White People, I chose a different route, and we’ve hit a wall.
We’re in a moment of transition. Focusing on social media has been successful to a point, but we have to step back and evaluate where we are versus where we want to be. What we need most at this time is a partner with experience working in branding and marketing, from a strategic standpoint, so we can meticulously plan the next 12 months with the goal of raising money.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
My main concern is working with the wrong person/people and wasting more time and money. I’ve made so many bad hiring decisions from a casting director who collected money to a PR firm that had a lot of ideas but no follow-through. Everyone has to be pulling in the same direction, and that hasn’t always been the case.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
Severing ties with our social media consultant. She was incredible, but we hit a wall and it was time for a change.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
Being patient. Over the years, we’ve generated momentum in short spurts, followed by months of nothing happening. I’ve had to learn that things don’t happen on my time table, and it’s an uncomfortable thing for a control freak to accept.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said that everything’s been done before, and we’ve seen it all. Agree/disagree? How does your film primarily differentiate or distinguish itself from other work?
I don’t believe we’ve seen it all. There are so many stories, especially for and about the African American experience, yet to be told. There’s a richness of culture and history that needs to be mined. Even if a story is familiar, how it’s told can be different. I’d love, for example, to see romantic comedies like those in the ’90s, starring African Americans. The skeleton of the stories may remain the same, but that doesn’t mean the characters have to be.
My film differentiates itself from other works in several ways. There are meaty roles for African American actresses over 30. It’s set in Harlem, and the community and gentrification play a vital role. There is a strong mother/daughter relationship that we don’t always get to see when it comes to black families. The structure of the story is a little different as it explores the protagonist’s life during three critical periods, starting when she’s 13. I always say it’s a universal story told through the eyes of one; there is a specificity that I think speaks to African Americans, but the themes are universal.
Hopes for what kind of life you want the film to have after it’s made? And realities (as you see it) of what kind of life the film will have after it’s made?
The theatrical release was the dream when I wrote those early drafts, and it still is, but it’s not a must. In an ideal scenario, we would sign a distribution deal which goes beyond handing off the film. Years ago, I read about a film with a similar audience, and the filmmakers said their regret was not insisting on playing a role in marketing. I don’t want to make that same mistake.
In reality, I see it finding a home at a streaming service. If I’m being realistic, it will likely be dumped without much fanfare unless we cast a recognizable star. However, having a film under my belt should open doors to other writing opportunities.
Ever been discouraged (whether on this specific project, or at any other time)? How do you keep your head up when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges?
I get discouraged all the time, but I don’t wallow in it. I often think people who fail give up too early. I refuse to be one of those people, so I keep pushing and pushing, and eventually, it’ll happen.
Do you have a support system? Family, friends, fellow filmmakers…? What does that system look like, and how much of a role does it play in your life as you strive for greatness (whatever “greatness” is to you)?
Wine on the weekend definitely helps. I have a couple of creative friends who are always ready and willing to lend an ear or offer advice. My Mom is always supportive. Most of the time, I just keep quiet and hold things inside. I need to lean on my support system more, that’s for sure.
How active are you with your use of social media as a tool for any part of the process? Do you think it’s necessary? Do you embrace it?
I am not a fan of social media, but I recognize the necessity of being active. It’s not only using it; it’s how you use it. I don’t think we’ve used it well over the past year or so. We’ve paused our social media channels while we work on creating and implementing a long-term strategy.
Are you inspired by what many are calling a “black film renaissance” (in the USA specifically)? Do you buy it? Are you encouraged by the success of films like Black Panther, or the success of specifically black women filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, etc.?
I’m cautiously optimistic. There have been other times in history when it looked like we were in a “black renaissance,” but those periods haven’t been sustained. In terms of the success black filmmakers are experiencing now, that’s great, and I hope it opens the doors for others who are out here still struggling. Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees, along with many others, really inspire me. They’ve made the kinds of films they want to make and on their terms. That’s incredible, and it gives me hope!
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion? Are you encouraged by what might be a changing landscape that may be more welcoming of you and your voice?
I am hopeful, but I’m prepared for the worst. There have been programs for years, like the WGA’s diversity initiative, and they haven’t had the kind of impact they were designed to have. I would love a program like the one in the UK, or even the diversity tax credit that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed. Until white men accept there is a financial incentive to promoting inclusivity, I don’t see sustained change.
Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, Facebook, Apple and others like them, are all now competing with the big studios and TV networks. Thoughts on the emergence of these “new media” platforms, and how (if at all) this new reality factors into the business, creative, career choices you make, or plans you have for yourself? Are you targeting any specifically?
I love the new platforms! I think it has freed me. I no longer worry about whether a plot decision is marketable. It has really sparked something in me creatively. I’m not necessarily targeting any of the services with my current project, but I’ve been thinking about a limited series that would be right at home on a streaming platform.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
It’s not going to happen today or tomorrow–you have to be committed to a long-term investment of time and energy. Mistakes are OK. Learn from them and move on. Don’t beat yourself up when something doesn’t work out the way you want.
The one thing I wish I’d known from the beginning is to listen to my instincts. If someone doesn’t seem like they’re a good match for your project, don’t try to force it.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
A great film is one in which I can lose myself. I’m not distracted by continuity issues, bad acting, directing or writing choices. I want to see myself reflected in those stories. It doesn’t mean everyone has to look like me, but I have to connect with it in some way. I want to be touched by the visuals, story and performances.
What films or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Moonlight and Barry Jenkins. I love the film, but I also love Mr. Jenkins’ story. He didn’t accept just any project after making his first feature. He developed a story he connected with and created a beautiful film.
Ava DuVernay because she didn’t go to film school and pursued her passion at an age when many are stuck in a field that pays the bills. With each project, she improves her craft.
The Florida Project and Sean Baker. Mr. Baker tells interesting, human stories. His films may not make millions, but they’re honest and raw.
Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that, as a black woman filmmaker, being a creative person requires that you “give back,” or tell a particular story, or not do something specific? Why or why not?
I think I have a responsibility to the culture, and others do, as well. I have always appreciated how Ms. DuVernay has opened the door and held it open for others to follow. That’s how change happens. It’s not about the individual; it’s about the collective and how we can uplift each other.
Too many people have a limited idea of what blackness is or how it looks. As creatives, we have the power to change perception, inform and enlighten through our work.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have. What does success look like for you?
I’ve never wanted to be one and done or solely a writer. Yes, I want to bring No Lies Told Then from script to screen. That is my passion project and my focus. I have other projects that I’d like to bring to life, as well.
But my vision is bigger. I want my production company to be a resource for other filmmakers, especially at the beginning of their careers. I want to help them with financing and navigating this tricky terrain that I’ve been navigating for years.
Beyond that, I want to create a community of creatives of color who are our own network. I want us to be able to finance, distribute and market our films. I want that community to be available to other filmmakers, regardless of where they are in their career.
If the white men in charge aren’t going to move toward an industry that reflects America, we should build our own.
How can we see your past work, and how can you be contacted?
Below, you can check out an animatic introducing some of the characters in the feature as well as themes. We want to use this as a fundraising tool. We also have a short, Tomorrow Is Too Late, which premiered at the San Francisco Black Film Festival but isn’t publicly available.
Anything else you’d like to say that I didn’t ask? You have the floor, so feel free to dig in here.
Thanks so much for the opportunity.
This is a marathon. As great as we think our script is, no one is going to swoop into our lives and pay for our dream to come true. Even the seemingly overnight success stories take years to develop. It’s a long, bumpy road that requires focus and tenacity.
The journey will be littered with failures. You’ll make terrible decisions, but it will teach you and prepare you for your next step.
Here are just a few mistakes I’ve made and what I learned:
— Hiring the wrong casting director because she’d cast the actor the director and I wanted to play the lead. I thought it was great she lowered her fee to work with us because she said it was a really good script. I ignored the warning sign when I sat in her office, and she took a call from another client, saying things I knew were meant to placate them. I’ll never know whether she made a single call on the film’s behalf or just took my money. I learned that experience doesn’t always mean the person is the right fit for the project.
— Running a crowdfunding campaign, regardless of how small, takes a lot of work. I thought it would be a great idea to try to raise money for marketing, so I wouldn’t have to spend so much of my money. It was a monumental failure. I had no idea what I was doing or the amount of work involved. Make sure you have a team in place to help and a plan in place; don’t try to wing it.
— Social media is a necessity, but you have to have a strategy. You may be able to build your project’s following by using your network, but it can’t begin or end there. You can’t just tweet and post and think people are going to follow your project. We did a great job of building our initial audience, but that only carried us so far. A lack of strategy has hindered our efforts. I’ve had to make a tough personnel decision to help us regain momentum.
— I’ve had to make a significant investment of personal funds over the years. Our focus has been on audience building. We’ve run ads on social media, had giveaways to build our mailing list, website hosting, the creation of assets (i.e. animatic, graphic design, ebook, public relations, etc.), and I paid a social media manager; those expenses add up. If you don’t have a network of people who will work for free or a reduced fee, you can expect to shoulder some, if not all, of the cost. There are things I would not have done like run Google ads or hired a Google ads pro, but those are lessons learned over time.
Just don’t give up. It’s hard. It will take years to happen “overnight.” That’s OK. In the end, it will be worth it.
Below is an animatic introducing some of the characters in the feature as well as themes.