There were two recurring themes during the daylong Black Media Story Summit on the 11th floor of the Google building in New York City on Friday, April 6. The first was the search for new models to achieve success in the world of visual storytelling. The second was the importance of getting in on the ground floor of new storytelling methods and technologies. Hosted by the organization Black Public Media, the Black Media Story Summit was attended by luminaries such as This is Us writer and co-producer Shukree Tilghman, Senior Vice President of Programming at TV One Robyn Greene-Arrington, former head of Time Warner Dick Parsons, journalist Roland Martin, filmmaker Yance Ford, activists Iyatunde Oshunade Foloyan and Majora Carter, former White House speechwriter Jesse Moore and many others. It was a day full of sharing information on the current state of the movie business for black filmmakers and what needs to be done to move forward.
The day was split into a number of panels: Diversifying Blackness: Getting Untold Stories Told, Paving New Pathways in Emerging Media, An Intentional Narrative Space, Telling Immersive Stories: A Virtual Reality Showcase, Money Matters: Fueling The Pipeline.
In the inimitable words of CEO of KweliTV DeShuna Spencer, “We do more than shoot people and shoot dice.” The question is how to get other stories told and distributed to a wide audience. Panelists for Diversifying Blackness were Maori Holmes, Spencer, Shukree Tilghman, and documentary filmmaker Angela Tucker. Lana Garland was the moderator. Of course, the challenge confronted here is the continuing struggle to broaden the selection of stories about black people that film producers are willing to underwrite. Shukree Tilghman commented, “The way we get a range of black stories out there is by funding a range of people so different types of stories will get out.” Spencer shared the funny but not funny story of an investor asking her, “Don’t you guys have BET?” when she made her proposal for funding and her marathon of pitch competitions and grant proposals that she has had to for her growing company. “It is super hard out there to get your stories told,” she cautioned. Spencer finished by imploring the audience to “keep pushing.”
Of course, the movie Black Panther was referenced during a number of the discussions. There was the question of whether Black Panther had finally laid the myths to rest that “there’s no black audience for that,” or “black films don’t sell overseas,” which are often used to deny funding for black films. Tucker felt optimistic about what the films mean for black filmmakers. However, her optimism was tempered by the reality of the overall context of Black Panther as a Marvel/Disney superhero film where “It’s still black people having to exist in an alternate universe in order for other people to want to come and hang out with us.”
Paving Pathways to Emerging Media and Telling Immersive Stories both dealt with the growing fields of virtual reality and augmented reality as platforms for storytelling. Moderated by Amanda Shelby, VR producer at Produced by Shelby. Panelists for Paving Pathways were Guy Primus, CEO of The Virtual Reality Company, and Jake Sally, director of immersive development at RYOT. Much of the focus of this panel was the particular ways in which the business model for AR and VR projects must differ from the business models for traditional storytelling and how filmmakers should build strategies for funding around those realities. Many of these projects can find corporate funding because VR allows for an ”undiluted viewing experience” in a way that nothing else does. The storyteller keeping this in mind can find ways to craft their project so it synergizes with an entity willing to fund the creation and exhibition of it or analyze the story they already have to generate potential funding sources. Salley cautions storytellers seeking funding not to use the redundant words “immersive and empathetic” in pitches for their projects. Shelby mapped out the process she normally uses when coming up with projects. “First I think about who I’m trying to attract and then I study what they’re into and then I back into the story.”
Three VR filmmakers were panelists for Telling Immersive Stories: Ashley Baccus-Clark, director of research at Hyphen-Labs, Yasmin Elayat, co-founder and creative director at Scatter and Angel Manuel Soto, film and VR director at RYOT. Their films, all of which screened at Sundance or the Tribeca Film Festival, were made available in Google’s VR screening room for attendees to view throughout the day.
Baccus-Clark, who is close to a real-life embodiment of Black Panther’s Shuri, is a neuroscientist turned VR filmmaker. Her Neurospeculative Afrofeminism, which puts any user in the body of a black woman, screened at Sundance, Tribeca and South by Southwest. She and the rest of her three-woman team are using VR in part, she says, to find out “if it can be a mode for decreasing prejudice and bias.” Her big tip for aspiring filmmakers was to “have a great pitch deck and have a lot of energy behind your idea.”
Both panels emphasized the need for blacks to get in on the ground floor of the technologies responsible for these new modes of telling stories. Shelby commented, “This industry will happen with you or without you. We have to get in on the ground floor and position ourselves as gatekeepers so that in five years we’re not asking other people to allow us to tell our stories.” Shelby also implored the audience to be mindful of learning the foundational technology behind VR. “Some of the basis of VR is artificial intelligence (AI). Artificial intelligence is based on algorithms being built by whoever is playing with the software. If we are not involved with AI right now, this industry will happen and it will have racist bots.”
An Intentional Narrative Space was moderated by Andrew Coles, founder and CEO of Mission Entertainment. Panelists were Monifa Bandele, senior vice president at MomsRising.org, filmmaker Yance Ford (Strong Island), Marie Nelson, vice president of news and public affairs at PBS and Michèle Stephenson, co-founder of Rada Film Group. This group took on the subject of what needs to be done in order to make the work of filmmakers more impactful. Stephenson struck a defiant tone asserting, “As a storyteller, I’m not going to leave it up to white supremacist structure to tell me how my film is going to go out. But it means I have to work a lot more. I have to work with impact producers, work with the community; modes of collaboration so there is a feeling of ownership even before the product comes out. Look at spaces where we know the story is understood and supported.”
Not surprisingly, the most controversial of the panels was Money Matters. The moderator for that panel was Opeyemi Olukemi of POV Digital Production & Innovation. Panelists were Sylvia Bugg, vice president of diversity and television content at CPB, Clifton Dawson, founder and CEO of Greenlight Insights, Lauren Pabst, senior program officer at the MacArthur Foundation and Richard Parsons, partner at Imagination Capital and former head of Time Warner. Questions from the moderator and then filmmakers during the Q&A reflected frustration with the slow, uphill, uncertain and often unsuccessful process of getting films funded. There was repeated demand for new business models for funding. Yance Ford suggested using measures other than previous box office returns. Documentaries are notorious for not yielding high box office returns. Panelist responses reflected the belief in entrenched realities of limited funds and bottom line expectations that determine financial backing for films. Parsons, calling himself “the skunk in the room,” expressed his opinion that film producers are now more open to backing diverse projects due to recent indicators of their box office potential. “At the end of the day you have to be able to show somebody how you’ll generate a return,” he commented. Pabst was perhaps most in agreement with the majority of the people in the room saying, “I think we’re at a point where we need to be looking at new models and reimagining what this space can look like in a way that is truly equitable.”
Activists, whose work often generates the awareness that pushes filmmakers to create a lot of their projects, also got a chance to take the stage. Particularly memorable was Majora Carter, an environmental activist turned real estate developer, who exhorted attendees to remember that it is an untruth that, “poverty is endemic to the black community.” She also explained that she went into real estate because she “realized that what we need in our communities is to use real estate development, which is often used against us, as a social, environmental and economic transformational tool.” Iyatunde Oshunade Foloyan gave a touching speech mentioning the names of four lesbians who were killed within the space of one week earlier this year. “If you’re saying the name Stephon Clarke,” she commented, “you need to say these names as well.” She also expressed her wish that filmmakers create stories that highlight the LGBTQ community in the context of “black, queer, trans families. How we make families, how we show up for family as caregivers even when the homophobia is real. We support Mama and Pookie. Even when they don’t want our partner to come to the table. We need to see more of those stories.”
Many conversations during the conference, as well as offline conversations over lunch and the evening cocktail reception, emphasized the importance of working through fear. Many attendees implored storytellers to just jump in and start doing whatever it is they desire and not allow fear to hold them back. Tilghman, who at one point unofficially held court with a number of attendees, emphasized the importance of him pushing past his own fears and getting the work done as a strong component of his success. During her panel, Marie Nelson told the audience that it was necessary that they be “unafraid to claim spaces that people are not prepared to give to you.” Angel Soto shared his feelings of being intimidated when first trying to use VR to make his films. “Just do it. You’re gonna make a lot of mistakes, but I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t f*cked up so much. Go for it.”