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Distribution or Production? Where Does Black Cinema Need The Most Help?

Distribution or Production? Where Does Black Cinema Need The Most Help?

Every year, it seems like we get 2 or 3 indie “black films” that we all get giggly over, and another maybe 4 or 5 from the studios, and, as we’ve seen with each, we so unfairly scrutinize them, expecting every film and filmmaker to carry the burden of “blackness” on their backs.

Over the years, I’ve heard a myriad of reasons for the dearth of “quality” films about black people, and more often than not, the lack of distribution is the reason given by people I’ve talked to, articles I’ve read, panels I’ve attended, interviews I’ve watched, etc… There seems to be this belief that there are lots of worthwhile “black films” out there just waiting for the right company to acquire them, but, for one reason or another, are being ignored.

Of course, words like “quality” and “worthwhile” are subjective. However, I think, generally-speaking, we all can reach some consensus on how to define each term with regards to cinema.

I’d say that the problem lies in production, not distribution. Before we worry about the lack of distribution, shouldn’t we first ensure that the films are actually being produced? If there are no films to distribute, then emphasizing distribution by pumping dollars into release strategies in this climate, would be like putting the cart before the horse, wouldn’t it? Isn’t it more sensible to put most of our capital into financing “quality black films?”

No disrespect to the black film festivals (we’ve already been down that road previously), but, to be frank, they just aren’t attracting industry buyers – certainly not like the majors are. And, to be very real about it, I think every black filmmaker worth their salt, recognizes that fact, and will, therefore, not blink at bypassing black film festivals altogether, and aiming directly for the likes of Sundance and SXSW. 

I should be clear and say that I’m talking about theatrical distribution, which I think is the end goal for most filmmakers – an acquisition leading to a theatrical release before home video and the web, or some combination of those.

Black film festivals have become a kind of circuit for most black films, which is a good thing for those filmmakers and films, because they are being seen by black audiences. However, a lot of these films don’t have lives outside of the black film festival circuit. They live and die there, or, if they’re lucky, are able to attract a DVD deal. And even then, without a veritable marketing machine behind each film, most of us won’t know about them.

Although some of these filmmakers are realizing that there are other options available to them to self-distribute their films, like AMC Independent for example.

So, if these films aren’t getting into any of the so-called major festivals, does that mean they aren’t “quality” or “worthwhile?” Or are they good enough, but, for whatever reason, are intentionally (or unconsciously) being shut out by the festival organizers? Is it racism, as some have suggested?

I’d say most of us will go with the first reason, pointing to the recent small successes we’ve seen at Sundance this year for example, as proof that it’s neither of the last 2 possibilities (that “black films” are being shut out, or that racism is at the root). As I’m sure we’re all aware, to be blunt, there’s a common belief, whether we like it or not, that a lot of the “black films” that play at predominantly black film festivals aren’t what we’d describe as the “highest quality” or the most “worthwhile” black films on the market, and thus, aren’t getting into the major fests for that reason.

I’m not so sure if the answer is a simple one. I’d say it’s an amalgam of reasons.

We could further deconstruct “quality” and “worthwhile,” as well as who wields the power to decide what each really means when it comes to cinema; we could also discuss expectations, the possibility of identifying a “black aesthetic” in those ignored films, Frantz Fanon’s “white is right” ideology, and how we’ve been socialized into accepting one standard as THE standard, etc… After all, FESPACO in Burkina Faso is the largest black film festival in the world, and has screened a wealth of films by premiere filmmakers of African descent whose films have traveled well, like Souleymane Cissé, Haile Guerima, Euzhan Palcy, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Jean-Pierre Bekolo and others; yet, the festival, which is one of the oldest film festivals in the world, isn’t considered one of the majors, and is rarely, if ever, spoken of in the same breadth as the Sundances, Torontos and Cannes film festivals of the world.

Why is that?

But, for the sake of simplicity, and recognizing that there’s little we can do to turn the tide, and reverse trends, can we accept the status quo, and agree that, more than likely, if an independent film (regardless of the race of the people in it, or those who made it) fails to get into one of the 10 or so “accepted’ major film festivals that happen year-round, then we have reasons to question its overall distribution value?

So if your film gets passed over by Sundance, Berlin, Rotterdam, SXSW, Cannes, LA, Venice, Toronto, New York, AFI, etc, etc, etc, and is forced to eventually premiere at a lower-tiered film festival, don’t be surprised if distributors and audiences alike question its “worthiness.”

This is how it works, right? We want others to sift through the pile and tell us what’s good; it makes life easier, I suppose, otherwise, we’d all have to watch every film in the pile, and who has the time to do that, if you’re not a festival programmer.

And if that is indeed the case – that each year, there are only 5 or 6 “quality black films” worthy of the Sundance stamp, or any of the other major festivals – then what does that in turn mean? It’s certainly not that black people aren’t as talented or capable of producing good work, so please, get that out of your heads if you’re thinking it!

To bring this all back to my original assertion, I’d say that it’s not that there are lots of “quality” black films going wanting, ignored by these festivals, but rather that there isn’t enough funding being put into producing the kinds of solid indie “black films” that will catch Sundance’s eye. Thus, that’s where our focus needs to be centered – flooding the marketplace with “quality” work. If you build it, they are obviously more likely to come than if you don’t.

And for those who’d rush to argue that the emphasis should be on distribution, I would remind you that there are a number of black indies distributed each year, but how many of you actually go out of your way to see them, especially if you know about them and they are playing in your city? And if you aren’t seeing them, why not? What difference would it make if there was more distribution when the films that are being distributed aren’t exactly setting the box office on fire, when there’s supposedly this huge thirst amongst black audiences, for black films?

It seems obvious, but I had some very recent conversations with industry acquaintances of mine who kept singing the “lack of distribution” tune, which inspired this article.

I welcome all thoughts on this matter, so if you feel any differently about any of what I said, feel free to share as well.

This Article is related to: Features



Quality independent films do exist that are relevant to Black lifestyles, but its like finding a needle in a haystack. is an on-demand distribution channel for filmmakers and authors that strives to change that.

Walter Harris Gavin

In the big scheme of things most of what comes out of the Hollywood dream factory is "average." Because the control of the industry is in the hands of folks without real vision and are constantly looking at what worked before rather than blazing any new trails, most "black" films of what ever quality are going to fall into the "new trails" bin and that's a risky move for risk adverse Hollywood. Black artists, communicators just have to focus on "building a better mousetrap" and/or "doing more with less." There is enough "black" money around that production and distribution shouldn't be an issue. But "black" money is just as risk averse as "white" money. Except the color os money is green and "black" culture has and always will sell. It just gets appropriated by others. Look at the history of popular music as a prime example.


In response to "why" FESPACO in Burkina Faso isn't seen as one of the world's major film fests, might I offer the following three structural observations: 1) It's a biennial event (held every other year). By comparison, all the other major fests you referenced are annual. While not impossible, it's very difficult to keep and capture attention in the film world when your fest happens less frequently than all your peers. 2) Berlin, Toronto and Cannes are international festivals which showcase the best new work (according to their own standards) from around the world. On the other hand, FESPACO's mandate is to showcase the best new African cinema. By definition, a festival that restricts its entire programming focus to a particular continent or geographic area — be it Asia, South America, Europe or Africa — is considered to be "regional" and generally attracts less attention. And, 3) The 2013 installment of the Fest is happening in three weeks. And yet, when I went to their website throughout the morning today to check their lineup, it appeared to be down. Not exactly a good sign.


I have never heard of George Lucas or Steven Spielberg movies being branded as a "white film" or a "Jew Film". As soon as you allow yourself to be classified as a black film you automatically limit yourself and your audience. I will never do it. IT'S A FILM!!! PERIOD!!!


What does HMM stand for? How about we ask the names in HW to support FESPACO in Burkina Faso? Lets reach out to Djimon Hounsou, Idris Elba, David Oyelowo, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Van Jones, Kerry Washington, Sam L Jackson, Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx, Sidney Poiter, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, Halle Berry, Tyler Perry and of course The Mighty O. Ask for help in makings internationally know. Im sure Burkina Faso would love the attention and tourist dollars.

Dont forget George Lucas Mellody Hobson since they did produce Red Tails.

john emmanuel

pls i wantto register tomorrow


Good points in the post and all the comments. My 2 cents. It's definitely distribution/marketing and overcoming the inherent bias that goes into deciding which films will get "pushed". You could have a pile of award-winning independently made quality films with casts of color, made by filmmakers of color and they won't get the advertising budgets that will make audiences aware that they even exist. In the words of KRS-1, we have to ask ourselves "why is that?" and go from there to tackle the problem. Sundance is not the beginning and end of it all. There's still a bias among the reps and acquisitions execs. I'd go stir crazy if I had to watch nothing but Sundance films with no variety. I love the accomplishments of all my brethren, and hope to screen my own work there someday, but a) we can't keep looking to the system for acceptance and b) we have to attack this problem on all fronts. Yes, quality production is essential, but audiences need to be marketed to. I've seen too many great indie flicks die on the vine while Rob Schneider still eats. Why is that? Something is wrong with the equation.


Mr. Malcolm Woodard, from my perspective your commentary/posts are always a welcomed relief from the ambiguous arguments and blame that – at times – some commentors use to ushers in a ball of confusion and contempt for those with an opposing view.

You Mr. Woodard, without apology and with the courage of a secure man, you addressed the issues head on, rendering an opinion that may ruffle the feathers of a some black film enthusiast and filmmakers. Lets go there… you said, "I'd say that it's not that there are lots of "quality" black films going wanting, ignored by these festivals" […] "If you build it, they are obviously more likely to come than if you don't". Now that statement does not set well with some black folks b/c it takes blame and racism off the table, and to some, it implies that we're participating on an even playing field. However, personally, I believe it's not only a fair statement, it's also true–>"What difference would it make if there was more distribution when films that are being distributed aren't exactly setting box office fire, when there's supposedly this huge thirst amongst black audiences, for black films?". Stop it Malcolm, you're hurting some folks. And, you kept your foot to the pedal when you brought Frantz Fanon's "white is right" idealogy back to the floor.

Yes sir, "QUALITY"… what's MY name… whose your daddy… what rings yo bell? Now, if I hark back to your previous comment "that's where our focus needs to be centered – flooding the marketplace with "quality" work. If you build "IT", 'THEY' will come" the begging questions are what is "it" and who are "they"? Well, Mr. Fanon, a very wise man, asked the question "Is white right?". And you said, words like "quality" and "worthwhile" are subjective."

Now we have arrived. If we allows others to define the intent and purpose of films and what each individual (the filmmaker and the audience) should receive from them, we will continue to have these conversation that could be called "The never ending story".

Consequently, I've come to believe in the words of the Isley Brothers… It's your thang, do what you wanna do y'all, I can't tell you who to sock it to. If you want me to love you [and all you do], maybe I will. Everybody need love, but it ain't no big deal. Concentrating on me and how I feel.


I have to agree with one of the previous posters who said we already have all those things, like high production quality and distribution, unless the efforts of Our Stories Films, Rainforest Films, Tyler Perry, Codeblack and AFFRM have been a figment of my imagination as of late. So, yeah, we have all that. We're just missing the bigger picture. I've been working in film for a while, like when it wasn't cool to shoot on anything less than film. I was ushered into the industry as a kid, interning at Director Hype Williams' company Big Dog Films (started there as they were in pre-production for Belly). So, suddenly I was around superstars of the day like Nas, DMX, Method Man and everyone else like daily. I was at some of the biggest events in New York City, and around some serious power players. It was the second time I met John Singleton, who stopped by the office to kick it with Hype while he was in New York developing Shaft — a great introduction I recall as I was introduced to him as a talented up and comer by Singelton's then film publicist and friend of mine til this day. I was on the phone with some crew people's reps, crew people like cinematographer Russell Carpenter who was just nominated that morning for Titanic. It was a glorious time. The industry was open to almost anything at the time, especially black films, and money seemed to grow on trees. Just look back that that era. I had unknown black filmmakers all around me getting all sorts of major budgets to do "black films" without any name actors. Producer Will Packer and director Robert Hardy used this era to their advantage as they had their heads screwed on tighter than mines at the time. The whole thing was crazy and exciting, and sometimes it was too big to understand completely for a 23-year-old fresh off the streets of Brooklyn, NY. Then I saw, first hand, how we in the black cinema game at the time messed it all up (still shaking my damn head). I say all this to show I worked on all levels in the film business and from my observation, film simply exposes people's ability or inability to set aside their egos and work professionally with each other. That's all film does. It's a community in the end of the day. And if the community is already rendered by unproductive characteristics (ungratefulness, selfish attitudes, crabs-in-the-barrel mentality, cliques and other things), the business of making movies will expose it all and suddenly it's working against all involved. It's like they say, the attitudes on a film set, whether good or bad, will be reflected on the screen. So, I see the point about attitude. And look at those few who are winning, like the team behind Fruitvale. They're just a great group of people who make it their business to support independent cinema and the people who make them. They have been very supportive of me as someone who worked with them for the past year, even promoting my next film (going into production Feb. 11th) with no real invested interest in it but to see me do well with it as one of their own. They meant it when they told me last summer they fully support me and that is a great attitude to have towards the people you work with. I think if we start looking at the bigger picture as the community behind black cinema we will be in a better position to exploit the high production quality and distribution opportunities available today. All theoretical of course, but can be easily fixed by a simple turn of the switch. @ClayBroomes


When a hollywood executive greenlights a movie (most of them are not great films and lose money) but when he greenlights them he already knows where it's going, how the promotion and advertising will go, how many theaters it will be in, even to a degree how much money it will make. Our problem is We have no industry and we are certainly not part of theirs. (two more things)" "producing the kinds of solid indie "black films" that will catch Sundance's eye", are you saying that film artists shouldn't shoot with their hearts but what they think Sundance buyers will like? and "recognizing that there's little we can do to turn the tide, and reverse trends" are you saying we should wait for white Hollywood to save us?

Justin W

I personally think that it's distribution by far…


Production hands down….the better we get the more opportunities will come. Just look at sundance with fruitvile, Blue Caprice, Ma George, just to name a few. Once we step our game up and continue to hold each other to that standard then we will be much better off.


"Where Does Black Cinema Need The Most Help?" you ask. We need the most help on our attitudes, towards each other, towards our counterparts, and towards the craft of making movies. Start from the inside out. We have the distribution, we have the production quality now. We just have the worst attitude.

willie dynamite

Black films need the most help with production. The script has to be structured properly with a plot that is unique as well and not a rehash of a film we have all seen before. A lot of our films sound like first or second drafts. Writing is rewriting, get the script tight…But it doesn't stop there. The film must be cast well, because the acting carries the heavy weight, my god the acting. When black folks realize that acting angry for an entire film is one note and search for more nuances to a performance this will help immensely. But it does not stop there. The Cinematography must be on point. It takes skill to light black skin properly so hire a dp that has that capability and then you must focus on camera movement, composition, and blocking of the actors. Two actors standing next to each other having a conversation looks flat and amateurish. Study movies with the sound off, it makes you pay more attention to the visual component. But it doesn't stop there, besides the story, acting, and cinematography, make sure the edit is on point, meaning, color correction, and sound mix. They truly elevate a film, but it doesn't stop there, once the film is completed is when the real work begins. Obtaining distribution is the hardest part of a film's life. That is why you have to carve out a bit of your budget to use for film festival submissions, and more importantly building your social media presence. Buzz attracts film festivals and producers reps. A producer rep is someone who's only job is to get the film distribution. They have relationships with distributors and can get the film in places most filmmakers can not… But it doesn't stop there, you have to go back to your social media branding to alert the audience, because the second hardest thing to accomplish is getting black folks to support an indie film that does not have anyone they have seen on TV or a big film. To answer the question. Black films need the most help as it pertains to Production, Distribution, AND Exhibition you can't really slack on any part.


I'm no expert on film or film makers although I do see a lot of movies. I agree with those who say we need to support our own films via the black film festivals which, by the way, I would not be able to name one. Where are these films being shown? How is the word getting out so we, the audience, can show up? Believe me, if a film is well-made and proves to have enough of an audience, "they" will be breaking down the door and climbing over each other to get it. It's all about the Benjamins.


As far as supporting indie Black films, I'm lucky enough to live in Chicago. So many of the smaller films eventually reach the downtown area. Others may not have that luxury.


How many films get submitted to these major festivals? Probably hundreds, I mean every film at Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, SXSW are not going to be "Black Films" . How many Asian films are there? Latin? Do you guys think they're trying to meet a status quo to show the diversity of the festival? X amount of Black films, Y amount of Asian films and Z amount of Latin films.

Andy Emcee

this is an archaic view, which although ideal in some scenarios. Is based on a traditional system set up by a predominant ruling hierarchy which exists in this industry (the extreme minority are non white), which all serve a particular food chain. Run, governed and managed by those who control what they think the world wants to see. We are in an age where it is continuously being proved that the way in which content is received and viewed is changing on a daily basis and the rule book is being thrown out of the window. You mention FESPACO not gaining recognition, but you fail to point out the vibrancy of the emerging African film market on the continent which does not rely on the infrastructure of the 'west' but is extremely self sufficient in all aspects of the film business, irrespective of quality. I dont even want to mention Tyler Perry, sho wth the hand of God, writes his own script outside of the system.

If this viewpoint is to be taken seriously, this should not be a question about black films but independent cinema as a whole. We further reduce ourselves to a meaningless minority who have to prove our presence. The truth is as Hip-Hop and black music proves, the audience that actually accelerates performance and return is not a black paying audience.

Lets face it, hundreds of thousands of films are produced globally each year in regions everywhere, does that mean that the few hundred that are often circulated and galvanised by the big festivals are the only ones that are worthy? some don't even see the return.

I think the term "black cinema/film" itself should be re-produced and re-distributed. You are black by default not by integrity and endeavour.




I think we need more help in the area of distribution/ advertising. I submitted my "no – budget" feature film "The Next Day" ( ) to some of the larger well known festivals and it did not get into one. The film did get accepted and was screened at 7 of the 8 black film festivals we applied to. During virtually every post screening Q & A I was asked where people can see films like those programmed at black film festivals. I'm convinced that there is an untapped market for these films but delivery is a problem. After one screening I asked the audience if they've ever watched a movie via VOD? A couple of hands went up. Do you have wireless internet? Again, a couple of hands went up. Part of the issue is the way "we" acquire content. Almost any filmmaker can make their film available via VOD. So I guess the larger problem is if it's there how do we get people to watch content that's available?? Advertising which means money.


I thought that The Middle of Nowhere was the best film that I saw in 2012, but when I tried to get friends to see it, I heard crickets. Dare I say that there is a limited audience for good black film and the majority are always going to gravitate to Tyler Perry and whatever Hollywood makes easiest to access?


Black film needs the most help on the production side. There is a lot of black films out there but they just are not that good, when I say good a lot of these black indie films I watch to try and give a chance turns into lazy filmmaking, writing, and acting that rehashes old stereotypes of what black films should be. I get the feeling that black filmmakers and writers are scared to step outside the box to challenge those stereotypes because they are scared it's not going to be accepted by the audience when it comes to stories about black people. I'm a filmmaker myself and the problem I see in the black indie world is we don't try and build a network to help each other out, example the French New Wave. Until enough black directors, actors, and writers band together to tell our stories because we love our craft we will continue making subpar films that don't go anywhere because too many of us are concerned about getting paid instead of telling the story we want to tell or just for the love of moviemaking. This goes for Black Hollywood too, when was the last time a Black A List Actor did a small indie film with a name or no name black director, but you see their white counterparts do these small films all the time along with their blockbusters because they do one for the money and one for the love.

Keith Purvis

Appreciate the question, but it's just not that simple.

People who program film festivals will always gravitate toward what they're familiar with. We're seeing more black and women directed films because the programmers for the major festivals are becoming much more diverse than years ago. There used to be one black film at one or two of the major festivals that would make it in. That didn't mean that there was only one quality black film that year. It was just the one that happened to catch the programmer's eye.

Also, I'd be leery of judging quality by whether they get screened at xyz festival. Many major festival films never connect with an audience at all but are lauded by festival programmers. Some films (white, black or otherwise) that have played smaller festivals have become hugely successful and critically acclaimed.

And lastly, black film festivals get a bad rap for not having distributors there but they can't make those distributors come. Picking up the phone and telling Harvey Weinstein to show up is kind of a fantasy. The industry just doesn't work that way. Most of the filmmakers in these major festivals had their first shorts and/or features premier in black film festivals which helped them gain valuable exposure to make the next, big festival hit.


Interesting perspective but I think the problem starts with the terminology of 'black cinema' itself as it is too ambigious.

Neither Steven Mcqueen nor Tyler Perry or even Noel Clarke has any of the problems outlined. Noel Clarke notably has never had a film screen at a major festival. They are all black film-makers.

There is also the issue of film-makers being way too fixated on getting into Sundance or Berlin etc black or white. There are a few white film-makers with maximum support from public funds in the UK who have not made a film beyond their critically acclaimed first quite simply because whilst the critics raved, the audience passed. But they screened at Venice, Rotterdam, Berlinale, Toronto, Sundance et al. and were on every promising filmmaker list. Google Duane Hopkins :)

Filmmakers who are black and whose work reflects the 'black' experience so to speak would fare better if they target film festivals that actually target their audience.

Festivals that specialise in 'black' films need to position themselves more as audience not industry oriented. It is the core group that identifies most with your work that creates the actual buzz for the mainstream to capitalise on.

And that is the formula that has worked for Noel Clarke and Tyler Perry.

And if on the back on HBFF, PANAF, FESPACO, Durban, Cordoba, day and date releases bring in the cash, the industry will come because when money is visible the only colour folks see is green.

Remember the days when Hip Hop was not fit for mainstream radio play?

Emmett Period

Stop selling your Souls….

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