Every year, it seems like we get 2 or 3 indie "black films" that we all get giggly over, and another maybe 4 or 5 from the studios, and, as we’ve seen with each, we so unfairly scrutinize them, expecting every film and filmmaker to carry the burden of "blackness" on their backs.
Over the years, I’ve heard a myriad of reasons for the dearth of "quality" films about black people, and more often than not, the lack of distribution is the reason given by people I’ve talked to, articles I’ve read, panels I’ve attended, interviews I’ve watched, etc. There seems to be this belief that there are lots of "worthwhile" black films out there just waiting for the right company to acquire them, but, for one reason or another, are being ignored.
I had a debate with an acquaintance today who shared with me his excitement over the announcement of a new online distribution platform that will focus specifically on black films, which prompted this post. I asked him where all the films will come from that will be distributed by all the existing channels and he just said, "well there’s lots of films out there that don’t get picked up." And I said, "even if that were correct, volume is one thing. Quality and variety are another thing and I think more important."
Of course, words like "quality" and "worthwhile" are subjective. However, I think, generally-speaking, we all can reach some consensus on how to define each term with regards to cinema.
I’d say that the problem lies in production – specifically financing – not distribution. Before we worry about the lack of distribution, shouldn’t we first ensure that the films are actually being produced? If there are no films to distribute, then emphasizing distribution by pumping even more dollars into release strategies and platforms in this climate (when there are already several, offline and online, who focus on black/African diaspora film), would be like putting the cart before the horse, wouldn’t it? Isn’t it more sensible to put most of our capital into financing "quality black films?"
No disrespect to the black film festivals (we’ve already been down that road previously), but, to be frank, they just aren’t attracting industry buyers – not like the major festivals are. And, to be very real about it, I think every black filmmaker worth their salt, recognizes that fact, and will, therefore, not blink at bypassing black film festivals altogether, and aiming directly for the likes of Sundance and SXSW.
I should be clear and say that I’m talking about theatrical distribution, which I think is the end goal for most filmmakers – an acquisition leading to a theatrical release before home video and the web, or some combination of those. Let me also say that not every film festival exists for the purpose of attracting buyers, and there are black film festivals that are well-curated with a critical eye, going for the strongest work, and not necessarily the most commercial (substance over dollars). I realize that I’m speaking in generalities.
Black film festivals have become a kind of distribution circuit for most black films, which is a good thing for those filmmakers and films, because they are being seen by black audiences (AFFRM took things a step further and actually created a true distribution system that relies entirely on the participation of certain black film festivals nationwide, and it continues to work). However, a lot of these films don’t have lives outside of the black film festival circuit. They live and die there, or, if they’re lucky, are able to attract a DVD/VOD deal (which, in 2015, may not necessarily be the worst thing). And even then, without a veritable marketing machine behind each film, most of us won’t know about them.
Although some of these filmmakers are realizing that there are other options available to them to self-distribute their films, like AMC Independent for example, or taking advantage of online platforms like Vimeo’s on demand service and others.
So, if these films aren’t getting into any of the so-called "major" festivals, does that mean they aren’t "quality" or "worthwhile"? Or are they good enough, but, for whatever reason, are intentionally (or unconsciously) being shut out by the "major" festival organizers? Is it racism, as some have suggested?
I’d say most of us will go with the first reason, pointing to the recent small successes we’ve seen at festivals like Sundance for example, as proof that it’s neither of the last 2 possibilities (that "black films" are being shut out, or that racism is at the root). As I’m sure we’re all aware, to be blunt, there’s a common belief, whether we like it or not, that a lot of the "black films" that play at predominantly black film festivals aren’t what we’d describe as the "highest quality" or the most "worthwhile" black films on the market, and thus, aren’t getting into the "major" festivals for that reason.
I’m not so sure if the answer is a simple one. I’d say it’s an amalgam of reasons.
We could further deconstruct "quality" and "worthwhile," as well as who wields the power to decide what each term really means when it comes to cinema; we could also discuss expectations, the possibility of identifying a "black aesthetic" in those ignored films, Frantz Fanon’s "white is right" challenge, and how we’ve been socialized into accepting one standard as THE standard, etc… After all, FESPACO in Burkina Faso is the largest black film festival in the world, and has screened a wealth of films by premiere filmmakers of African descent whose films have traveled well, like Souleymane Cissé, Haile Gerima, Euzhan Palcy, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Jean-Pierre Bekolo and others; yet, the festival, which is one of the oldest film festivals in the world, isn’t considered one of the majors, and is rarely, if ever, spoken of in the same breadth as the Sundances, Torontos and Cannes film festivals of the world.
Why is that?
But, for the sake of simplicity, and recognizing that there’s little we can do to turn the tide, and reverse trends, can we accept the status quo, and agree that, more than likely, if an independent film (regardless of the race of the people in it, or those who made it) fails to get into one of the 10 to 15 or so "accepted’ major film festivals that happen year-round, then we have reasons to question its overall "quality" and distribution value?
So if your film (whether you’re black, white, or whatever) gets passed over by Sundance, Berlin, Rotterdam, SXSW, Cannes, LA, Venice, Toronto, New York, AFI, London, Durban, etc, etc, etc, and is forced to eventually premiere at a lower-tiered film festival, don’t be surprised if distributors and audiences alike question its "worthiness."
This is how it works, right? We want others to sift through the pile and tell us what’s good; it makes life easier, I suppose, otherwise we’d all have to watch every film in the pile, and who has the time to do that, if you’re not a festival programmer?
And if that is indeed the case – that each year, there are only 5 or 6 "quality black films" – then what does that in turn mean? It’s certainly not that black people aren’t as talented or capable of producing good work, so please, get that out of your heads if you’re thinking it!
To bring this all back to my original assertion, I’d say that it’s not that there are lots of "quality" black films going wanting, ignored by these festivals, but rather that there isn’t enough funding being put into producing the kinds of strong indie "black films" that deserve a shot at prominence. So that’s where our focus needs to be centered – flooding the marketplace with "quality" work. If you build it, they are obviously more likely to come than if you don’t.
And for those who’d rush to argue that the emphasis should be on distribution, I would remind you that there are a number of black indies distributed each year, but how many of you actually go out of your way to see them, especially if you know about them and they are playing in your city? And if you aren’t seeing them, why not?
What difference would it make if there was more distribution when the films that are being distributed aren’t exactly setting the box office on fire, when there’s supposedly this huge thirst among black audiences for black films?
I welcome all thoughts on this matter, so if you feel any differently about any of what I said, feel free to share as well.
Malcolm Woodard is a freelance writer as well as a filmmaker living in Los Angeles. Chat with him on Twitter at @malwoodie.