Two years ago, Noel Braham and Courtney Branch found it challenging to find a space in Los Angeles where fellow actors and producers could showcase their work at an affordable rate. After hosting several small-scale events, including watch parties and screenings, the Georgia State University grads decided they wanted to increase their level of community impact. With this desire, they created The Micheaux Film Festival.
Named after Oscar Micheaux, the illustrious filmmaker of the early 20th century and the first Black person to own a film studio, the festival provides a space for independent filmmakers of all backgrounds and cultures to showcase their work in state-of-the-art facilities.
Though it initially proved difficult to pool resources, Branch and Braham knew they were creating something special as the number of submissions, supporters and sponsors increased as they continued to execute their plan to make the festival a must-attend event. After only months of planning, the two co-chairs provided several filmmakers and actors with the opportunity to share, shine and celebrate their wins at their first large festival in December of 2018. Attendees not only left with exposure, new contacts and inspiration, but one YouTuber, Tony Towns, also left with a distributor.
Shadow And Act spoke with Braham and Branch about the path to creating a space of their own.
Shadow And Act: How did the Micheaux Film Festival come about?
Noel Braham: Well, Oscar Micheaux was a Black writer, director, producer and distributor who wrote, directed, produced and distributed 44 feature films under his company's banner from the 1920s until about the 1940s. Considering the amount of insurmountable and challenging odds that he was up against as a Black male at that time, what he did was pretty incredible; operating outside of the traditional, conventional Hollywood system of commercial financing. He was really paving and creating his own lane not only for himself but those that were also a part of his productions. So Courtney and I, knowing about Micheaux and understanding his history, we thought it was really important [to name the festival after him].
We wanted to do this festival first of all because we saw filmmakers, directors, producers, writers and actors who were operating in a very unconventional format similar to Micheaux. Because they lack opportunity and infrastructure, we saw that there was a huge need in the L.A. market--and then huge opportunity--for us to create this platform so that independent artists who are operating outside the Hollywood banner, similar to Micheaux, would get the opportunity to screen their work in a state-of-the-art facility.
Second, we also provide a community and a sense of culture here in Downtown, Los Angeles and throughout L.A. that gives independent artists the opportunity to connect with one another.
S&A: How long did it take you to execute the event and bring it from conception to fully functioning?
Courtney Branch: Honestly, a few months. We had the idea and from there we really just jumped straight on it. From reaching out to Regal [Cinemas], to getting the venue locked in, to reaching out to people in our network, to figuring out some really good and quality content to screen at the festival; it was a couple of months of a lot of hard work. Luckily, Noel had done some premieres himself so we had a good foundation and outlines to work from to make it happen.
S&A: What separates you from other film festivals?
Braham: We’re staying in our lane. We don't look at what other film festivals are doing as competitors. Our big thing is we are creating a multicultural platform where we're embracing people from all ethnicities, backgrounds, and experiences and giving those of all different descents the ability to come together under this banner. Micheaux was known for being able to bridge a lot of polarizing worlds. His films connected Blacks and whites, rural and urban, rich and poor. Similar to what he was doing with his content, we look at this festival as a bridge between different cultures, backgrounds, socioeconomic brackets and walks of life. We pride ourselves on embracing and celebrating all and embodying what diversity looks like on different scales.
Branch: I think we also put a big emphasis on independence and on the filmmakers themselves. A lot of the content we screen is independently produced and distributed. There isn’t a platform that allows that content to be seen. You have these filmmakers that are literally putting their last [dollars] into a project and then you have these people that are charging them another arm and a leg just to get their work seen. We focus on letting the filmmaker know that their work is valuable and we understand how much blood, sweat and tears, time and money goes into putting these projects together and getting them to where you want people to see them. Getting it done is just the first half of the battle; the 2nd half of the battle is really actually getting it in front of people. That’s the outlet that we want to provide for people that are independently financing their work themselves, that don't have that major network or celebrity backing.
S&A: What are you most proud of from the inaugural festival?
Braham: Three of the pillars that we really pride ourselves on with the festival are: 1) Developing and fostering a sense of community, 2) People being able to create relationships amongst that community, and 3) Continuing to ensure that we have innovative projects that people can come together to speak about and use to push the culture forward. One of the actresses that came to the event, new to Los Angeles at the time, was recently at a table reading with Terri Abney and Rashonda Joplin, whom she only met at the festival. She was able to perform in front of studio executives and producers for her first time in her new city. We are really proud that a relationship was formed between two artists, and now greater things are being accomplished as a result of that connection.
S&A: What has been one of your greatest challenges in putting on the festival?
Branch: The hardest part of getting it done was just doing it. I mean last year we were a two-man team, but we got it done. I think once people saw the quality and the amount of excellence that went into the event it put the festival on some people's radar. In our first year, we struggled to get submissions but now we are to the point where we are getting submissions daily and people who are like "I want to be a judge" or "I want to be on a panel." We have people who are ready to volunteer their time to help move the festival forward.
Guests at the Micheaux Film Festival
S&A: What drives you to keep this festival going?
Braham: There’s no bigger market in entertainment than Hollywood, but there aren’t many spaces where independent artists can showcase their work here. That is a large component of the motivation for both of us. We want to ensure that we continue to provide the market with a platform because, how many starving and creative artists are out there that just don't have an outlet and distribution platform for their work to be seen?
I can attest to the power of these types of events. I had my project seen at a festival and as a result, an attorney from Endeavor Content (of William Morris Endeavor Agency, one of the biggest agencies) approached me about it. But guess what, if that festival or opportunity wasn’t there, then that relationship and opportunity would have never matriculated or manifested itself. Very similarly, if there isn’t a Micheaux Film Festival, then there’s also a huge window for many independent and incredibly gifted artists to miss being able to showcase their work.
There are so many voices that aren’t being heard and so many stories that aren’t being seen. We are trying to provide them with a channel to be seen and heard. There’s a quote that says "You don’t need to worry about your 'how' if you have your 'why'" and so for us, we understand our "why" so our "how" is being accomplished because we are so adamant about the "why."
S&A: Is there anything that you want future festival participants, attendees, or supporters to know?
Branch: I guess the superficial side of it all is like, everyone wants a chance to be able to get dressed up and invite all your people out to see your masterpiece and your creation on the big screen, but not everyone gets the chance to do that. So, this is that opportunity. It's more than just, "Come see my short film, come see my digital talk show that’s on YouTube." No, come see it on the big screen the way it was meant to be seen with the DOLBY Digital Sound. Come get dressed up, come on the red carpet and take pictures on the step and repeat because this is an event and we want our filmmakers to feel like this is as big of an event as Cannes because it's the ‘Cannes of L.A.,’ basically. That’s what we see it as.
Braham: Micheaux said, "One of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach the colored man that she or he can be anything." It’s a powerful quote that we want people to understand because a lot of the other film festivals that are out there--especially some of the most perennial and powerhouse ones--are catering to more commercial projects, but they’re saying that they're not doing that and that's not the case.
They're wanting to take on big-time actors and big-time celebrities because they're using those particular mechanisms, they get seen. But other work out there is being rejected and not being seen because they may not have that big name or they may not have that budget. We are really priding ourselves on staying true to the independent voice and helping them to be seen. We want to be a home for dreamers and those that have been rejected in some capacity from the commercial and traditional system.
The Micheaux Film Festival will take place from February 21-23, 2020. Submissions are now open on Film Freeway through December 6th. Follow @micheauxfilmfest on Instagram and Facebook and @micheauxfest on Twitter.
Photo: Micheaux Film Festival
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