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Panels Pump, Hip Hop Bumps, Execs Jump at 2nd Urbanworld

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire August 12, 1998 at 2:0AM

Panels Pump, Hip Hop Bumps, Execs Jump at 2nd Urbanworld
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Panels Pump, Hip Hop Bumps, Execs Jump at 2nd Urbanworld

by Anaye Milligan



With seventy films and eight panel discussions happening in just three
days, it was tough to attend all of the events at the 2nd Annual
Urbanworld Film Festival
, which finished it's 5-day run on Sunday,
August 9th. Attendants were often forced to choose between watching
films and sitting through some lively and informative panel
discussions. Often, participants who had attended hours of panels
simply found themselves too tired to go watch movies.


"I just went home and slept," says Estelita Ward, an aspiring television
writer. "I haven't been able to see any of the films because I've been
at the panels. And that's the only thing I missed out on." But, as
Ward's comments suggest, regrets about not seeing more movies were
off-set by a strong appreciation for the panels, which often proved more
informative than the usual industry advice dished out at most festivals.
"I'm a little surprised, but I've enjoyed all the panels a lot," Ward
continues. "Although you hear a lot of [the same advice] at different
festivals, the panelists here still offered new information. And I
think that's because there was a variety of panelists to answer your
question or give advice from different angles."


Panelists included executives from New Line, October and HBO, agents
from William Morris, filmmakers like John Singleton ("Boyz 'n the Hood")
and Christopher Cherot ("Hav Plenty"), screenwriters, script analysts, a
Writer's Guild rep, entertainment lawyers and several others. Many
panelists seemed open, even eager, to make themselves available to
festival attendants.


"I'm impressed with the fact that there's just a lot of synergy between
the executives, the filmmakers and people attending the festival,"
remarked Winston Greene, acquisitions rep from October Films. "At a lot
of other festivals there is a cold shoulder thing. The distributors are
one place and they're sort of avoiding the filmmakers and the attendees
because usually the executives are bombarded. But here it's a little
different. There's a warmer feel to it." That synergy and warmth was
deeply appreciated by filmmakers with movies screening at Urbanworld.
Even if the films did not always play to packed houses, most filmmakers
were excited by the presence of industry executives.


Ernest Goodly, writer and director of the feature film entry "Love
Bizarre," about a African American girl who brings home her Vietnamese
fiancee, was pleased with the number of executives he met and corralled
into his screenings.


"Our main goal has been to get the right people to come and see our
movie," Goodly explained. "It's good to have a festival in New York,
and one that is being attended by a lot of studio people. It's a pretty
well connected festival. For it's second year, it's fantastic. As a
matter of fact, for the tenth year it would be fantastic."


Another characteristic that distinguished Urbanworld from other
festivals was the strong influence of hip hop. Urbanworld was held in
conjunction with the "Vibe Music Seminar," a prominent symposium on hip
hop and R&B music and fashion. And mixing among the crowds of aspiring
filmmakers were equally energetic music and fashion neophytes, similarly
jockeying for the attention of their own industry executives and
celebrated talents.


And just as Vibe's steady thump of base bled through the walls and into
the panel discussions, so too did issues concerning the influence of hip
hop on the direction of black films.


Sparks flew during the very first panel discussion on alternative means
of distribution when Michelle Byrd (Executive Director of the IFP) found
herself at odds with Damond Dash (CEO of Rock-A-Fella Records). While
Byrd urged respect for more established methods of producing and
distributing independent films, Dash advocated a more entrepreneur-like
approach -- such as the one rapper-turned-filmmaker Master P recently
took by making his own low budget film "I'm ‘Bout It" and then selling
over a quarter of a million video units through his own distribution
network.


While Dash, who is the process of completing his own such film, argued
that technology and sheer force of will make such ventures possible,
Byrd pointed out that both Dash and Master P owed much of their success
to their status as record label CEO's with established audiences and
distribution channels. Obviously, most indie filmmakers don't fit that
mold.


But questions about the influence of hip hop persisted, and several
panelists were confronted by frustrated black actors who have found
themselves routinely beaten out of roles when black music celebrities
expand into film and television. Performers like Whitney Houston, Sean
"Puffy" Combs, Ice-T and a host of others were offered as examples of
musicians whose celebrity has landed them roles over the talents of
professional actors. And with a limited number of black films being
green-lit by skittish studio executives, some black actors and
filmmakers saw this as a disturbing trend limiting the types of films
being made for black audiences.


"Without a doubt that has happened and is happening and will happen,"
warns Saul Williams, star of the upcoming Trimark release, "Slam." "But
there's a large movement appreciating good art. Things that are totally
commercialized and written only for the surface won't last much longer.
I think that in the next six months we're going to see drastic change."


Patrick Polk, creative executive at Edmonds Entertainment ("Soul Food"
and "Hav Plenty") also saw this as a less serious threat, even though he
could relate to the frustrations many black actors expressed. "I felt
that way as a filmmaker," Polk confides, "as someone who went to film
school and got all this training, then watched music video directors got
directing job. But you reach a point where you realize that everybody's
path is different and that you have to keep plugging away at your career."


Another addition to Urbanworld this year was a seminar on Latin film,
featuring a panel discussion by various Latin film success stories,
including director Gregory Nava ("Selena," "Mi Familia") and actress
Rosario Dawes ("He Got Game" and "Kids"). The primary theme to emerge
from this panel discussion was the frustration with Hollywood's
inexplicable slowness to respond to the huge market for Latin projects.
El Norte' was a hit! ‘Like Water for Chocolate' was a hit! ‘Mi
Familia' was a hit! ‘Selena' was a hit! For the last 15 years you
can't go back and find one Latino film that was a flop! I don't know
what they are talking about," exclaimed Nava of studio execs trepidation
about financing more Latino movies.


But the Latin Film panel discussion was unique because there was far
more frustration from established professionals on the panel than from
the aspiring filmmakers in attendance. Most attendees seemed inspired
rather than depressed by the sparse landscape of Latin film described by
the panelists. "I understand that historically we're at the beginning,"
said writer/director Juan Guillen, presently producing his first feature
film. "We're the pioneers. 20 years from now we'll be very far ahead.
You have to pave the way and it'll be slow, but I'm seeing progress."


UrbanWorld Festival winners were featured in Tuesday's edition of
indieWIRE.


[Anaye Milligan is a screenwriter and producer based in Brooklyn.]