You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

The Black Film Festival vs Black Filmmaker Conversation…

The Black Film Festival vs Black Filmmaker Conversation...

Let me first say that, I don’t have any answers to this folks; I routinely find myself in the middle of conversations (especially around this time of the year, when the Sundance Film Festival unveils its lineup) that center on why there isn’t a black film festival in the USA that matches Sundance’s significance/relevance on the national film stage.

On one side of the argument, you have film festival directors who wonder why black filmmakers (specifically those who overlook black film festivals in favor of festivals like Sundance) don’t hold black film festivals in a similar high regard; and on the other side of the argument, you have black filmmakers who say that, essentially, they don’t feel that they’ll get what they hope/want/need from black film festivals – whether it’s the notoriety that comes from being an *Official Selection* of a Sundance for example, or attention from distributors, and more. And in response to that, festival directors say, we can’t become what you want us to become, if black filmmakers overlook us and send their films to non-black-specific film festivals (especially those filmmakers with what we’d call *quality* work; no offense to any filmmakers; I don’t make the rules or define what is generally considered *quality*). And in response to that, filmmakers say, I want to make sure my film is given the best possible chance to succeed, and getting into a festival like Sundance, makes that journey a bit easier, for a number of reasons – reasons that I think generate even more questions.

And in response to that, festival directors say…

And so on, and so forth, round and round we go.

I’m simplifying what I think is a much more complex debate (for example, there’s the importance of premieres to some film festivals which influences how filmmakers map out their paths; but then it brings us back to the question of why certain film festivals are held in higher regard than others).

But this essentially sums it all up.

By the way, let me also add that this is not a conversation that EVERY black film festival or EVERY black filmmaker is having. Obviously black film festivals exist, which means there are black filmmakers who are targetting black film festivals with their films. Not every black film festival wants to be Sundance, and not every black filmmaker has Sundance dreams.

I just want to be clear that there are those, on either side, who are content with the status quo, have found their niche, are making it work for them, and aren’t distressed with the state of things.

However, there are clearly those on both sides who do find the status quo problematic, and, each year, as I noted earlier, in my travels, I find myself in conversations that suggest just that.

And as I also said, I really don’t have any easy answers, except to provide a space where those who are interested (on both sides) can have a conversation, which is what I’m doing right now.

And I hope that can happen constructively. 

This Article is related to: Features


Crosby T

@Willie, totally agree with you man. Also, while all your points are valid (first time commentor/filmmaker-long-time reader) in terms of what distributors and everyone else is looking for in terms of Urban Films (i.e. the big name, production values, Sundance, etc.) and the dollars and cents behind it, I think we also need to point out that there are those out there (such as myself) who just finished their first feature film, just last week, and are seeking a Black Film Festival to showcase our talents & abilities to the people we feel can give us love from an initial standpoint.

We're all in this business to make films, and make money behind it. We support films with our hard earned money, our mouths, our twitters & facebooks, and everything else in between. Personally, I think we can bring Black Film Festivals up to a Sundance Level, if we support our "own" films with "our" dollars, build up a collective buzz among our people and shout it out like the loudest person on the block, and lets just get money on our ideas, concepts and overall talent. Lets do it #together.


I have been involved with a major Black film festival for many years and have had the privilege of of programming many wonderful Black films many of which received distribution of some kind. But reality check: if you are talking theatrical distribution for a Black film by a Black filmmaker, you need more than a Sundance, Tibeca, or Toronto credit to get theatrical distribution.

Theatrical distribution of Black film in the US and elsewhere is problematic. We live is a racist and capitalist society. As long as Black film is not viewed as profitable by distributors, whether you get into Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW, Toronto, etc., it doesn't matter. You are still unlikely to find theatrical distribution.

As far as distribution through alternative platforms, you have a better chance if you get into several well-known and respected film festivals regardless of whether they are Black or White. But you have to do your homework. You have to chart your film festival placement and budget in a way that satisfies a variety of needs, such as, prestigious name, buzz with target audiences, cash prices, presence of distributors and future investors, etc.

The fact is, we need Black film festivals because we have Black filmmakers. On average and at best, the non-Black festivals will program 4 or 6 black feature films per year. With all the major white international festivals you can count on a combination of a number of the same films being "cherry picked" throughout a year. That is very limited exposure for all the Black films being made around the world. Thus,there is a need for Black institutions that will showcase, encourage and provide a platform for our Black film talent regardless of whether or not they are this season's cherries.

One last thought, there is nothing preventing a Black filmmaker from submitting to both the major white film festivals and the major black film festivals. The small cost of the submission fees are far out weighed by the additional income generated by "An Official Selection" laurel placed under your title, especially with respect to alternative distribution. The number of films available is dizzying. If you don't have a large marketing budget (and who does?), at least you can show that someone thought your film worthy of screening.

Hopefully, one day audiences both Black and White will wake up and appreciate some of the fine cinematic imagery and storytelling done within a Black film genre and distributors will see the value in signing a "Black film". That's what I'm working for! In the meantime, let's not continue the crabs in a barrel mentality and stone casting between Black filmmakers and Black film festivals. We all just need to make sure that we do the best that we can do with the resources we have and do right by one another.


I submit my films to Sundance out of desperation. I don’t always submit to Black Film Festivals because I don’t sense a love for cinema in their mission. We need a film festival that puts good work above all else. A festival run by folks who care about film, and know a little something about it. A festival that does not survive on corporate sponsorships alone. No founder headshots, CEOs, no hierarchies or made up titles for crying out loud. A festival that need not co-opt a film’s message to boost their reputation. “Look Son, we’re progressive!” A check your ego at the door so we can see the film, Film Festival. Tambay? It’s on you Bro. A Filmmaker Artistic Director we can trust because he screens his own work like the rest. All in. We self-distro. No numbers to hit, we screen what’s good, talk film, exchange ideas, do it again the next year Sisters and Brothers Film Festival. Peace.


Lets first discuss the nature of film festivals…yes it is to get folks work out there however ultimately it benefits the folks who are running it more than the film makers who support it. Now given that how does black film festivals help the black film maker more than a sundance or cannes. Its does not point blank. Are you chances the same of obtaining distribution, notoriety, or even representation increased after doing the black film festivals. The answer is no. Its a business at the end of the day and politics are at play. Yeah its cool to get an award however will it create more opportunities for you like sundance or cannes. No it won't . Until black film festivals are able to create the same opportunities for black film makers like cannes or sundance or just to come close then it will never be taken seriously. Black film makers have to be smart on how they work the festival circuit. Again its a business with politics folks just keeping it 100.

willie dynamite

Festivals are a strategic component to the life of a film. Sundance is "Sundance" because films get acquired there, just like Cannes, and Toronto. Until Black film Festivals have a situation where distributors are present they will remain audience driven. Winning awards and receiving accolades are great but once the festival ends you still have to recoup the money spent on the film, which is why distribution is the real prize. ANY film festival that can lead to distribution will have value, which is why most of these festivals have become so political. Every one aims for Sundance because they know about the cinderella stories like Tadpole. Unfortunately most black festivals don't have that ability. But its not just black film festivals, if you go to withoutabox you will see how many festivals that are out there in the states alone and most will not lead to distribution or any kind of "buzz" that will lead to distribution.

Some festivals are based on the pure love of film and that is great, but once you have spent money on a film, especially someone else's, your focus shifts to the business aspect.

Besides distribution, these marquee festivals can also advance a filmmakers career. You can go to a Sundance or Cannes and return with an agent, or manager, or maybe even your next film.

Adam Scott Thompson

Produce a film that's truly excellent (like "Beasts of the Southern Wild") and they'll come looking for you.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *