For any filmmaker who has met with the frustration of being told “there’s no market for black films outside their local audience”, yesterday’s event hosted by the Blackhouse Foundation at the Toronto International Film Festival would have provided some healthy perspective.
For the second consecutive year running, the Blackhouse Foundation has a presence at TIFF and on Saturday, September 7, a capacity audience turned out to the TIFF Bell Lightbox for a festival brunch and panel discussion entitled “Black Films in the Global Marketplace – Selling Success”.
On the panel were Black House Founding Member and Chairman, Brickson Diamond; Mary Hill, Acquisitions and Marketing Associate, Imagination Worldwide; Elizabeth Powell, Vice President, Business and Legal Affairs, IM Global; Amal Elwardi, Senior Vice President, Acquisitions, IM Global; Vice President of Specialty & Alternative Content for the AMC Theatre chain, Nikkole Denson-Randolph and Black Canadian filmmaker, Sudz Sutherland, whose feature film, Home Again, is screening at TIFF 2012.
As pointed out by Brickson Diamond in the introduction to the morning’s session, black culture in the form of music and sports has no problem playing in the international marketplace, so other forms of entertainment should be able to find a way to transcend geographical boundaries. How that gets accomplished is the perennial question on everyone’s lips.
In an informative one hour discussion followed by a Q&A, attendees got an inside look at the workings of the world of international sales and distribution and an understanding of what works and what doesn’t when trying to get films sold overseas.
All the panelists agreed that selling in the global marketplace wasn’t just a challenge for black films but for a majority of smaller independent films, especially character-driven dramas or stories that are very specific to their cultures. Comedies also have a hard time making the leap overseas as humor doesn’t always translate unless the premise is simple and the gags are more physical than verbal.
Mary Hill of Imagination Worldwide pointed out that her company distributes a catalogue that focuses heavily on horror, zombie and thriller films budgeted at $500,000 and or less because these films do sell well internationally. Thrill and fear need no translation and films at that budget level can be profitable.
What many filmmakers often hear, even in the domestic market, is that what doesn’t sell is drama. So if it’s a drama you’re developing then focus on stories of triumph over adversity and survival of the spirit. These storylines are more relatable. However, be prepared that a distributor may put a slightly different slant on it in during promotion, packaging it as a thriller as a way to entice people to watch it. If these are not the kinds of compromises you’re willing to make, then seek out deals and financing that support your original vision.
If you’re trying to attract a sales agent or distributor interest in your work, one key, according to Elizabeth Powell, is to have known cast. It could be a cameo, a walk-on, or they could deliver a single line. As long as they’re in your film, a name actor will give you leverage in the marketplace. It was quickly acknowledged that for a small independent filmmaker, getting access to the most bankable names is far from an easy feat but up and comers are always on the lookout for interesting scripts.
Sudz Sutherland, whose film features a cast of well known actors including Tatiana Ali, veteran CCH Pounder as well as Canadian singer Fefe Dobson, related how he went about securing the kind of names that attracted further support to the project. He encouraged his fellow filmmakers to become “bi-lingual” – know your art but understand all the workings of the business end. Be equipped to understand what’s being offered and whether it works for your vision.
Nikkole Denson-Randolph of AMC Independent talked in-depth about how indie filmmakers can use her company’s program to pursue a theatrical release for their films. Though their major successes have been with domestic African-American films like Mooz-lum, there is an opportunity for filmmakers from the wider black Diaspora to access their services for a North American release. She stressed that production quality has to be high, filmmakers have to come with a strong sense of their film’s audience, a solid marketing plan and the resources to get people mobilized, whether that resource is a healthy advertising budget or the kind of partnerships and social media presence that will get more outreach for less dollars.
Amal Elwardi of IM Global rounded out her contribution by reminding attendees that there is no one way into the marketplace. There are literally hundreds of distributors focused on specific markets. Minority filmmakers do have access to options and resources to help their films reach a wider global audience.
Whether selling locally or internationally, the overall message was clear. Don’t be discouraged. Know your product, know the markets you are trying to access, plan early and be prepared. It’s not easy, but it is doable.
Lisa Harewood is an independent producer from Barbados, whose first feature, A Hand Full of Dirt, was nominated for Best First Feature Narrative Director at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles and won the Reelworld Audience Award in Toronto. She's back in Toronto this year as one of Reelworld Film Festival's Emerging 20 filmmakers. Follow Lisa on Twitter @islandcinephile.