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EXCLUSIVE: Seed&Spark’s Emily Best on #OscarsSoWhite and Empowering Audiences: “It’s time to start listening”

EXCLUSIVE: Seed&Spark's Emily Best on #OscarsSoWhite and Empowering Audiences: "It's time to start listening"

Seed&Spark CEO and founder and Indiewire influencer Emily
Best delivered the closing keynote address at Art House Convergence on January 21, during which she announced the company’s expansion into distribution with L.A. Film Festival favorite
I Am Thalente.” Read highlights from Best’s speech below.

READ MORE: “EXCLUSIVE: Film Crowdfunding Platform Seed&Spark Launches Distribution Arm”

I believe my work at Seed&Spark dovetails nicely with
the future of the arthouse cinema
. My team and I are dedicated to two core
values that I believe, increasingly, must influence theater programming if we
want to show great films to big crowds: sustainability for artists, and
diversity of content for audiences. 

I got into filmmaking because I was tired of the way women
were represented on screen. But in making my first film — “Like the Water” — I faced what
distributors still consider an inflexible fact: There’s no audience for a film
about strong female friendships that doesn’t have sex and, according to one
sales agent, “at least a little lesbian erotica.” Because these gatekeepers knew there was no
audience for our film, we were essentially blocked from making any real money
off it. And yet, when we took our film to nearly 20 festivals on the
international circuit, we were told at Q&A’s by women of all ages: “Thank
you! I’ve been waiting to see a film like this my whole life.” And it wasn’t
because “Like the Water” was in any way the best new film. It was
because it was filling a void by telling an under-represented story. We
wouldn’t have known that, though, if festivals around the US hadn’t facilitated
a conversation between us and our audience. Exhibitor becomes curator becomes
facilitator. See where I’m going?

As the filmmakers behind “Like the Water,” we were attempting to
speak to an under-served audience of women interested in complex stories about
women, whose very existence conventional wisdom questioned. Which is why what I
want to do today is challenge some conventional wisdom, and maybe ask
us all to face some hard facts — starting with our faces.

I think it’s essential to bring up homogeneity, not
because it’s the topic du jour, but because I believe
we have to be willing to admit that if we all look a lot alike, and we’re all
working in the same business, we may all be subject to a certain “conventional
wisdom” that could be killing our bottom lines.

And that’s the other thing I really want to talk about
today: the bottom line.

I founded Seed&Spark, a crowdfunding and distribution
platform for independent content creators. (And I say “content
creators” because we’re not limited to film; we also help fund series, VR
experiences, film festivals, and even helped the Texas Theatre get a 4k
projector!) We also publish BRIGHT IDEAS, possibly the world’s most
self-important film magazine, but also a publication that expresses our vision
of the hyper-innovative, diverse future of cinema. And just today we announced
a new theatrical distribution experiment called BRIGHT IDEAS Pictures — which is
helping bring crowdfunded films, with pre-constructed audiences, to theaters
around the country.

We’re dedicated to two core values at
Seed&Spark: sustainability for filmmakers and diversity of content for
audiences. These two values are the rails on which we guide all our
decision-making. In order to serve these values, we have to get the buy-in of a
lot of other kinds of businesses serving independent content creators. We
believe that in order to truly deliver sustainability for artists and diversity
of content for audiences, we have to fundamentally shift the way filmmakers
come to work.

The idea of the filmmaker-as-entrepreneur has been exhausted
at festivals and conferences over the last 5 years, but I don’t actually think
the implications have entirely sunk in. Film schools are still educating
filmmakers to try to make the best—or most commercial—film they can, and then
wait to be picked. And if we look at the last batch of Oscar films, we see who
tends to get picked time and time again. Waiting to be picked has ensured
#OscarsSoWhite for the last, you know, 87 years. Waiting to be picked means
subjecting yourself to a curatorial voice that is 96% white, 76% male, and
largely over the age of 60. It’s okay to acknowledge you might be part of that
problem. That also means you’re in a position of privilege to be a part of the
change.

That wait-to-get-picked attitude simply isn’t good
business — not with the explosion of technologies allowing creators to take
control of their careers. Filmmakers can fund their films, make their
films, connect directly to their fans, and over time, foster a sustainable,
direct relationship to their audiences. But this isn’t a one-way street. If
filmmakers are suddenly empowered to connect with their audiences, inversely,
audiences are empowered to choose what they want to see.


And when you empower audiences with that kind of choice,
when you give them the opportunity to vote for what gets made at the funding
stage, what they’re funding by and large is not the upper middle class white
angst movies the Academy voters love so much
. They’re not funding everyone
trying to make the next “Little Miss Sunshine” (and God, are people still trying to make
the next “Little Miss Sunshine.” THAT WAS TEN YEARS AGO). NO. They’re funding “Dear White People” and “A Girl Walks Home Alone
at Night” and “Money&Violence” and “I Am Thalente.” They’re funding the
weird and the wonderful, the socially important and the under-represented: In
other words, the stuff they can’t get anywhere else. They’re funding what they’re
hungry for. But that, of course, is only the inlet of the pipeline. Want to
guess who the outlet is?

That’s right. It’s you. It’s your theaters. And if you
haven’t already, it’s time to start listening.

You can’t control how rapidly technology is evolving, or how
demographics are shifting, or how young people consume content. But you can
control how you develop and expand your audience. It may require you to fundamentally expand what “your
audience” means to you. But if you begin to think of the diversity of your
community as your greatest asset, the future starts to look really bright.

If you’re chasing hits that come with their own
buzz and multi-million-dollar P&A campaigns — like “Brooklyn” or “The Revenant” — you’re limited to what others choose for you
to show. You have no power to expand your audience. 

In 2016, exhibition is no longer enough. Traditional notions
of curation narrow the lens when what we really need to be doing is widening
it. Facilitation is about inviting the community to co-curate and take
ownership of your space along with you. I know there are days when being white — or owning a theater or running a festival — doesn’t feel like a privilege. But I challenge
you to recognize the incredibly powerful tool for sharing stories, organizing,
commiserating, activating and celebrating — and share ownership of that power
more widely. That’s what an ally does in 2016 who says he cares about
diversity. It’s also what a business owner does who cares about the bottom
line.

Does your current team represent a range of diverse
experiences that allows you a broader reach into your community? Or are you
already just speaking the same language to the same folks?

Are you really looking at who actually lives in
your city
,
reaching out to the leaders of those groups and influencers in those
communities—whether they’re pastors, museum curators, community organizers, or
cool kids — and starting a conversation about the stories they feel aren’t
getting told? That’s where you find the films, conversations, experiences that
fill that void.

It’s a collaborative process as creative as making the
films themselves.

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