The 16th Annual Urbanworld Film Festival (www.urbanworld.org) presented by BET Networks will open this Thursday, September 20, with the BET Premiere Cinema film Being Mary Jane – an original made for television movie and pilot from the couple behind Sparkle and The Game.
Created and written by Mara Brock Akil and directed by Salim Akil, the film stars Gabrielle Union, Lisa Vidal, Margaret Avery, Richard Brooks, B.J. Britt, Raven Goodwin, Aaron D. Spears, Richard Roundtree, Omari Hardwick, Robinne Lee, Latarsha Rose, Tika Sumpter and Stephen Bishop.
Several of the almost 50 films in this year’s lineup, you should already be familiar with (especially if you’re a regular reader of this site), like the Closing Night film, Middle Of Nowhere; the films in the Spotlights section, with the surprise there being the Viola Davis/Maggie Gyllenhaal drama Won’t Back Down; in the Narrative Features section, you’ll recognize a lot of those titles, but it’s good to see theNicole Beharie drama Small Of Her Back finally make its debut; in the Documentary Features section, nice to see the ESPN 30 For 30 feature Benji, which I missed earlier this year atTribeca; and finally the Narrative Shorts section, which will see lots of premieres, from names you’ll recognize like Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Hill Harper, as well as new short films by filmmakers whose past work we’ve highlighted, like Tina Mabry and Tahir Jetter, and some shorts we’ve previewed but haven’t officially premiered yet, like The Bluest Note, and The Last / First Kiss.
Also, Urbanworld Founding Sponsor HBO returns to host the 3rd Annual Urbanworld Digital, a one-day digital track on September 19 at the HBO Theater (1100 6th Ave @ 42nd St, 15th floor) featuring seasoned industry players who will discuss topics including crowdfunding content and new opportunities for distributing content. The sessions will be followed by a reception.
For the full festival lineup, as well as ticket purchase information, visit the Urbanworld Film Festival website HERE.
Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Gabrielle Glore, Executive Producer & Head Of Programming for the festival, continuing our profiles of film festival heads and the festivals they run. The conversation follows below, and I strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety, and hopefully come away far more informed about the festival, as I asked questions that you folks often bring up when the subject of film festivals are in focus on this site.
It should also prove to be of use to filmmakers who are considering submitting their films to Urbanworld in the future.
I thank Gabrielle for taking the time to answer all my questions, and doing so thoroughly!
URBANWORLD SHADOW & ACT INTERVIEW – GABRIELLE GLORE, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER & HEAD OF PROGRAMMING
Q: There’s some confusion among audiences as to whether this is strictly a black film festival, a multi-cultural or “people of color” film festival, and I think clarification is needed, so that expectations are adjusted.
A: Urbanworld is a festival that showcases content creators who share culturally relevant stories that represent a range of experiences, characters, and themes. Their commonality is their authenticity. So, while Urbanworld has showcased a disproportionate amount of content by Black filmmakers and about Black people, the mix of films has evolved over the years. Our mission is to provide a platform for films by and/or about people of color to be exposed to our community and the larger community. This takes shape in many ways – it could be a doc directed by a white filmmaker on a subject matter with Black themes/characters, (e.g. Men At Work: Voices From Detroit’s Underground Economy) OR, a narrative directed by a person of color that features a story/cast that represents America today and reflects a diversity that is invisible because it is organic (e.g. Tunnel Vision, Candid). The mainstream has been socialized to believe that “urban” means Black. So, our focus is on redefining the perception of urban, so that we transcend this limitation, and move on to expose content that speaks to cross-cultural relevance, tone, and sensibility, rather than ethnicity.
Q: And if it’s not strictly a black film festival, is there any awareness among (or outreach to) non-black people (or non-people of African descent specifically), that their films are also welcome, since the Urbanworld lineup is usually dominated by what we know as black cinema, leading to the perception among some that it is indeed a black film festival?
A: I think the awareness develops more each year. We have certainly seen more non-Black filmmakers submit through our open process, which is very much encouraged. At the same time, as we track the industry and what’s out there, we’re actively looking for films that further expand our slate and the filmmaker base it represents. You’ll see that evolution manifested this year…and it will continue going forward.
Q: Your process in programming the festival – how do you go about selecting films? Do you actively go after titles you want? Is it via an established submissions process? A combination of the two, and more?
A: We have an open submissions process that takes place from early March to early June, giving filmmakers 3 months to submit their films. Additionally, we definitely solicit titles that we’re interested in programming, based on what I’ve seen on the festival circuit. This year, I attended Sundance, SxSW, Tribeca, Los Angeles Film Festival, and ABFF, which helped inform films that I was interested in for our slate. Some of those films also came to Urbanworld through or formal submissions process, while others I proactively reached out to. And quite honestly, your blog is an excellent source of films in development and just being completed. There were a few films I closely tracked where I connected with filmmakers to discuss screening, but their projects wouldn’t be locked in time for the festival…perhaps we’ll see some of those next year. We often receive outreach from alumni and non-alumni familiar with the festival, who share their current projects and their desire to screen at Urbanworld. As for the studio films, Urbanworld, as all the other major festivals do, tracks the talent driven studio releases to see if there might be films scheduled around the festival that would make for great premieres, but often times that requires that all the stars be aligned. We reach out to studios and they also reach out to Urbanworld proactively, given this festival over the years has been known for premiering big films like The Secret Life of Bees, Collateral, Rush Hour 2, Barbershop, The Best Man, Drumline, Law Abiding Citizen, and many others. We hear from top film sales companies, every now then as well, who have a film they’re repping that they want considered for inclusion in Urbanworld. It’s definitely a combination of tactics.
Q: How important are premieres to your festival (whether world premieres, NYC premieres, USA premieres, North America premieres, etc.)?
A: Premieres are definitely important, in my opinion, but not the exclusive driver for Urbanworld’s programming strategy, in the way that it might be for some other festivals, especially as it relates to world premieres. We obviously want as much of our content to be fresh and new to the New York community as possible, but we realize that a film that plays at Tribeca, right here in NYC, is not necessarily seen by the Urbanworld audience. Tickets to some of those larger festivals – like Sundance and Tribeca – can be much more difficult to get access to, or these festivals may be perceived as not including content of interest to the non-cinefile moveigoer. Urbanworld provides another opportunity to see what otherwise may be missed. Covering other festivals earlier in the year definitely allowed for selecting some strong titles to complement content received through the submissions process. At the end of the day, we want to present our audience with high quality films that they haven’t seen, so we continuously strive to deliver on that, but without premiere status being the sole lens by which we program. That said, I would like to focus on more international content for the slate, which would be great to include in the form of U.S. / North American premieres.
Q: Is this a market film festival? Is attracting buyers/distributors a goal? Or is it strictly about showcase? If a market doesn’t currently exist, is this something that’s ever been considered for the festival, or might be introduced in the future?
A: Urbanworld is not a market film festival in the same way that Sundance, Toronto, and Tribeca have grown to be over the years, but achieving acknowledged “film market” status certainly is a goal. There have been films acquired following their showcase at Urbanworld, but acquisitions were not attributed to the festival…no late night bidding wars that resulted in early morning news in the trades. We have smaller independent distribution companies that attend regularly, as well as a few major distribution companies that send programming and acquisitions executives, including our presenting sponsor, BET Networks, and founding sponsor, HBO. But it’s something I intend to really give focus to, as our goal as a festival is to expose work not only to those attending a screening during the festival, but ultimately to a broader audience through the facilitation of distribution opportunities. In the meantime, my goal is to ensure we round out our award category juries with senior programming and acquisitions executives, so that this emerging talent is on their radar screen. Urbanworld is presenting who’s next…some of the talented filmmakers we’re seeing now will represent who’s behind the lens of future films produced and distributed by these larger distributors.
Q: Your assessment of the overall marketplace of films – especially those that fit Urbanworld’s criteria? Given how long you’ve been at this, how has your outlook changed, as a programmer of a prominent festival in a prominent city, changed, if at all? Is it challenging finding and/or attracting the kinds of films you want?
A: I am extremely excited about the films being made today that fit the Urbanworld profile, and even more optimistic for what the future holds. While I have been involved with the programming of our festival in the past, this is my first year as Head of Programming. The past 5 years, we were lucky to have the amazing Brittany Ballard lead our festival programming. She really helped Urbanworld elevate its programming stature and approach the programming process with an strong sense of how we build the best possible slate, while maintaining a high bar of excellence. This year, it was I, along with Assistant Programmer, Aidah Muhammad, who screened and selected our final slate. A new opportunity for me, which was exciting and fun. Challenging? The biggest challenge is securing your Opening and Closing films, and I’ve always been involved in that process…but you’re always at the mercy of what’s releasing when and who sees the value in leveraging the festival environment as a tool to build buzz on a forthcoming film release. In terms of the indie films on our slate, this is less challenging, because the content is out there. Attending many of the major festivals throughout the year really provided a sense of the quality level that exists. So then, it’s about how do you ensure those films submit to Urbanworld and/or how do you actively solicit them with an invitation to screen. And truth be told, I love that over the years, we’ve not always had big studio films grace our Opening/Closing Night presentations, but rather talent drive indie films like Night Catches Us with Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie, Half Nelson with Ryan Gosling, and Blackout with Jeffrey Wright and Zoe Saldana. Urbanworld fans want to see great films, with actors they know, whether a studio distributes the film or not…and they want to be introduced to who’s up next on the big screen…talented actors like Emayatzy Corinealdi in Middle of Nowhere, who is seconds aways from blowing up! She’s one of our next “go to” female leads, following the likes of Sanaa, Regina, and Nia. And the other trend I’ll quickly mention is the emergence of more actors behind the camera. This year, we have two shorts by Urbanworld alumni who have previously been on screen at our festival. Salli Richardson-Whitfield directs a short film called Grace and Hill Harper directs a short film called The Truth. This always excites me when you see the evolution of these multi-hyphenate talents making their marks in varied ways.
Q: Also, with the proliferation of film festivals over the years, I assume the environment has gotten much more competitive? If so, how is Urbanworld adjusting to that?
A: Competition makes us all better and stronger. It just means the Urbanworld team works harder to be on point and to further differentiate ourselves amongst the clutter. How do we adjust? We continue to seek out the best quality and most diverse representation of story, character, and style. Our team also works very hard to ensure that we have a very high touch relationship with Urbanworld filmmakers selected each year for the festival, so as to really build a community of alumni filmmakers who have a positive experience and want to come back with their next film or screenplay. It’s about creating an environment where filmmakers strive to premiere/screen their new content at our festival. That’s how we compete.
Q: What’s been the general makeup your audience over the years, and does that influence your selection process?
A: We are indeed diverse, but have historically skewed more Black in audience makeup. Our attendee base is very much driven by the films programmed and those individuals with whom our content resonates. As our content presented continues to evolve, so does our audience. The content in the marketplace and the ability to find the highest quality of the most diverse stories available, rather than being influenced by our audience, drives our selection process. We seek to curate conversations through the films we select and showcase. It is incumbent upon us to aggressively promote our brand, our mission and our slate to the broadest audiences possible, particularly as people wake up to how America’s shifting demographics will further impact and shape what is deemed cool and relevant, while remaining universal in theme.
Q: The festival in its 15th year, correct? Something of a milestone; anything special planned for this year, in celebration of that achievement?
A: This is actually our 16th year, so while there are no milestone anniversary plans, we look forward to another year of celebrating an amazing roster of filmmakers whose artistic work we’ll showcase. The achievement I see is not only in the fact that Urbanworld has survived and thrived for so many years, but that we’re evolving and improving each year. And to observe the progress of content creators as they leverage all the tools afforded them by digital filmmaking resources available, that’s extremely rewarding and something we celebrate with our slate of films. The achievement as we enter our 16th year is the collective growth.
Q: How big is the core Urbanworld team? Is it a volunteer effort, or a mix of staff and volunteers? How do you manage it all? Is it a year-long / year-round process? I don’t think most realize the work and dedication it takes to run a film festival – especially one of this size – so I think pulling the curtain back a bit helps with awareness.
A: We are lean and mean! I exist as the year-round staff on the festival and work with Urbanworld Founder, Stacy Spikes, and the rest of our recently assembled Board of Directors to develop the next chapter of Urbanworld. As we open call for submissions, we bring on an Assistant Programmer in March to support that process. This year, we were fortunate to have Aidah Muhammad who came to us as a festival volunteer 3 years ago, and has been involved with the festival ever since, this year as both Assistant Programmer and Coordinating Producer. We have three other fantastic Coordinating Producers – Tony Murphy, Cat Miles, and Marquida Webster – who come on board 3-4 months out to help plan and execute various aspects of the festival. As we approach the festival, we bring on staff to fill key onsite roles including Theater Managers and Volunteer Supervisor. And then, we have a legion of volunteers who make our festival a reality. Without their support, year in and year out, this festival simply would not exist. Urbanworld is indeed a labor of love for all involved. It’s tons of work, powered by an unwavering passion for film and the desire to see diverse works exposed to the masses. But the reward unquestionably outweighs the tireless effort put forth each year to present a festival we are proud of.
Q: Highlights of the year’s festival (films or events) that audiences need to know and should be excited about? Expected attendees of note?
A: I’m really excited about Urbanworld Digital, which kicks off the festival the afternoon of September 19. This is the festival’s digital track, in its 3rd year, which will again be hosted and presented by HBO. We have a panel that focuses on the concept of crowdfunding and features 4 filmmakers who have been successful using vehicles like Kickstarter to fund various aspects of their film projects. The second session focuses on the expanding distribution opportunities available to filmmakers for showcasing both short and long form content, featuring executives from HBO Go, Grab Media, Snag Films, and some of the YouTube channels being launched. This event requires advance RSVP, which can be done through www.urbanworld.org. In terms of films, I’m super excited about the overall slate, but if I had to call out a few not-to-be-missed films, I’d suggest spotlight film The Girl Is In Trouble directed by Julius Onah; The Triptych directed by Terence Nance (who also will have his envelope pushing film An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty screen at Urbanworld) which we’ll co-present with Afropunk; the feature documentary Getting Up: The Tempt One Story directed by Caskey Ebeling; Small of Her Back, starring Nicole Beharie in a role unlike we’ve seen her play to date, directed by Russell Leigh Sharman; Doin’ It In The Park, which is a fun feature doc that captures the spirit of New York’s pick up basketball scene, co-directed by Bobbito Garcia & Kevin Couliau; studio film Won’t Back Down, starring Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rosie & Perez, which we’re providing an advance preview of prior to its wide release later this month; and many other great films. This is our strongest crop of short films to date; all three shorts programs have a fantastic collection of films featured, with a real mix of subject matter addressed. Check out the website for the full slate and to purchase tickets in advance for all films.
Q: Getting “Being Mary Jane” as the opening night film was a nice surprise; it’s a project that we’ve been following closely and that many are definitely curious about, so I assume the opening night screening will be very well attended. And obviously Ava’s film closing the festival is also good, especially since I’ve seen it, and can vouch for it. I assume there’s excitement over these two films and what they bring to the festival? As well as some other strong works like Ya’Ke Smith’s “Wolf,” “Four,” “Soul Food Junkies” and others.
A: Yes, we are very excited to be showcasing the world premiere of Being Mary Jane in partnership with our presenting sponsor BET Networks. This was a no brainer, as each year we always inquire with BET and HBO on whether they have content that makes sense to include in the festival. But this is certainly special with Opening Night this year, as there has been so much anticipated buzz around this new project from powerhouse creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil. They really deliver with the film, and it’s great to be part of its unveiling, as well as collaborating with BET as they continue to redefine and elevate the original programming they are developing with content creators and delivering to their consumer base.
Our Closing Night Film is particularly special for me, as it represents the truest sense of Urbanworld alumni and the spirit of collaboration. Ava DuVernay was the festival publicist my very first year working on Urbanworld, 9 years back. Since then, I’ve observed her transition from savvy film publicist and marketer to award winning filmmaker. She has screened all of her films at Urbanworld, world premiering them in most cases, starting with her first short, Saturday Night Life in 2006. Fast forward to 2012 – we are honored to present Middle of Nowhere as a New York Premiere on Closing Night. I saw its world premiere at Sundance and then its Gala Spotlight presentation at the LA Film Festival. The universal audience response, coupled with its critical acclaim, has been amazing and so I’m excited for the Urbanworld audience to have the opportunity to not only see this beautiful film, but to, in turn, leave the festival talking about it and spreading the word about its October 12th theatrical release through AaFFRM (the distribution company Ava founded, which you’ve covered extensively on Shadow & Act) and Participant Media. The other cool thing we’re doing with the Middle of Nowhere screening is allocating 100 tickets for “women in waiting” who have loved ones who are incarcerated, so that they can see a film that speaks authentically to their truth and reality. This type of social action ticket give-away is something we haven’t done in the past, but it’s the perfect way to illustrate how Urbanworld is “the people’s festival”…we really want to connect with and engage all segments of our community on a grassroots level.
And yes, you mentioned some other strong titles in the festival. Ya’Ke’s Wolf I saw at South by Southwest and was truly impressed by how adeptly he handled this sensitive subject matter, as well as the really talented cast he put in place to capture this story. The feature narrative Four, directed by Joshua Sanchez, won best ensemble cast at the LA Film Festival. Wendell Pierce is always at the top of his game on screen, but we see him play a character quite the opposite of roles like Bunk on The Wire; and newcomer E.J. Bonilla also stars in this film…this talented young actor is definitely on my “ones to watch” list. And Soul Food Junkies is another one of our films that has received so much positive response during its appearances at festivals and special screenings. This topic driven film is an important addition to our slate, as not only is it culturally relevant, it has the power to start conversation around health related issues in our community. So, yes, some strong films talked about here, but many others on the slate that are also not to be missed.
Q: Is Urbanworld a “theme” festival? Is there an annual theme or pattern, in terms of your selections? And if so, what’s this year’s theme? Or is it just about getting the best work you can find each year?
A: There is no pre-determined theme each year. It simply is about showcasing the best work we can attract to the festival. There are inevitably themes that prevail as the slate is assembled each year, and it’s actually quite interesting to see the types of films being created and the themes that dominate. We always have something sports related and music focused, but it’s not because we look for that thematic proactively, but rather it’s the work that finds its way to us, through submissions, other festival coverage, etc. We definitely aim to be diverse in the subjects we address. One thing I noticed this year was many of our selected films focused on parental relationships – father & son/daughter bonds (and in some cases schisms) in films like our feature doc From Fatherless to Fatherhood, as well as narrative feature Elza and narrative shorts Barbasol, El Cocodrillo (The Crocodile), Impounded and Junior.
Q: What about any impact the popularity of web video viewing may be having on the festival. I’ve noticed that more festivals are starting to make some of their line-up (films and panels) available on the web, for a fee of course, during the run of the festival; so anyone, anywhere in the world, with broadband Internet access, can watch and participate online. Is this an idea that’s in Urbanworld’s immediate (or distant) future?
A: I would love to pursue this model for having the festival transcend the onsite festival attendees to anyone, anywhere who wants to virtually participate. I’m putting this on my list for 2013, so we’ll see if we can make this happen in the near future. This also helps position Urbanworld for more international content, as more content creators abroad become familiar with our festival and content sensibility.
Q: And the future of the festival itself? How do you see it evolving over the next 5 to 10 years or so? Plans? Hopes? Concerns? Maybe not only specifically Urbanworld, but also the film festival circuit in general.
A: I see Urbanworld continuing to evolve with the content we showcase under our festival banner. We’ll continue to make our mark as a festival that presents quality content that delivers untold, unexpected stories. I want us to zig, when others zag – I want us to be unique and to be bold in our choices. I want filmmakers to see us as “home” and sponsors (both existing and new) to see us as true partners. I see Urbanworld continuing to be a purveyor of authentically and culturally relevant content, but in bigger ways. We’ll work to expand the Urbanworld Digital track of the festival and look for ways to integrate more music programming. I’d like to not only see more international content represented, but to create reciprocal partnerships that enable the showcase of Urbanworld side bar programs at international festivals, while showcasing their content at our festival. All of this requires funding, so our big ideas and plans mean we have to augment the existing funding base with new partners in order to make it all happen. I’m a big believer in creating quality on a small level and making that machine hum, and then determining the next strategic opportunity to grow.
Q: Anything you’d like to say about extensions of Urbanworld that go beyond the festival – like film distribution? Or any non-festival programs/initiatives that audiences may not be aware of, but should be? Like workshops, labs, competitions, etc.
A: Definitely. I referenced AaFFRM earlier, which is the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement, an independent film distribution company founded by Ava DuVernay, which is dedicated to diverse cinematic images. I know you know it well. This is a natural extension to Urbanworld, whereby we partner with AaFFRM’s national team, as well as with local partner ImageNation, to distribute films to the New York marketplace. Urbanworld leverages any relationships it can bring to bear to support the grassroots local effort, as well as the national release effort. Every AaFFRM film has had its screening moment at the Urbanworld Film Festival, with Middle of Nowhere being the next film we’ll showcase before its October 12 release. With the last AaFFRM release, Restless City, Urbanworld was able to access free advertising on bus shelters, subway cards, and in taxi cabs all over the city to promote this film through the NYC Film Office’s “Made In NY” program supporting modest budget indie films shot in New York. This was incredible exposure for a film in a top market whose media comes at a high price. The power of collaboration is definitely at work here. You also mention workshops and labs – I’d definitely like to spend some time nurturing the lab concept for execution outside the festival. I’m in early conversations with one of our partners, so we’ll see if we can pilot something in 2013. So, year-round extensions are definitely in the mix, with more to come.