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A Distribution Success Story: I Will Follow – Written and Directed by Ava DuVernay

A Distribution Success Story: I Will Follow - Written and Directed by Ava DuVernay

I started seeing information about I Will Follow a little over a week ago on twitter. People were sending me tweets about the opening and then they forwarded a very positive review from Roger Ebert. I was curious. Here was a movie written and directed by an African American woman, Ava DuVernay and about an African American woman. Now it’s not always surprising to me that a film by and about women doesn’t get the attention it deserves, in fact it’s pretty common. So I thought here is a another little gem that will go unrecognized especially because it wasn’t on any upcoming release lists and wasn’t screening.

But this film is different. It was buzzing big time on twitter and then I saw the piece that had been written about the film and Ava in the NY Times in January and I got it – these people have created a new distribution model.

Here’s what I love about this. Ava DuVernay had a story to tell and as she said in an interview last night she was tired of waiting for permission for someone else to tell her her story was worthy. So she “green lit” herself and made the film. But the most important piece she imparted is that women need to know what is going on with the business in order for their films to be successful:

The traditional models are collapsing so if you want to be a filmmaker you are no longer just able to make your film you have to shepard your film into the world and you have to take care of your film and you have to know where it’s going and be smart about the business. It’s not enough to know how to handle the camera and get through post. Now part of the definition of filmmaker in 2011 especially for women when our stories are being dismantled and dehumanized more and more is to tell our stories and know how to share our stories. Sharing your story is not just putting it on film it is actually getting it in front of eyeballs. You gotta know what’s going on now.

What Ava and her colleagues have done is so smart — and yes, subversive — yet it makes perfect sense. She decided to set up a new entity, a new distribution network made up of the African American film festivals across the country to distribute African American films. It’s called the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) Ava’s film is the first one to get a release.

What they proved last weekend on five screens and in five cities is that they are able to put butts in seats. Think about it. These film festivals have lists of people who are interested in films by and about African Americans and probably in the past only heard from their local festival around festival time. This new distribution entity allows the festivals to activate their audiences who trust them for other films besides the once a year festival. Brilliant.

Here’s Ava’s reasoning for starting the network:

Why would I set up this whole network and then walk away from it? Why not formalize it and get some infrastructure going and make this a mission and a mandate to foster black films beyond just my own. So mine is the first. It is basically a collaboration of all the best black film festivals in the country that are getting together to simultaneously release a movie. We opened on March 11 and had a big first weekend and now we expanding.

I Will Follow expands to 22 screens in 15 cities tomorrow. It is a film about love and loss. It’s small and quiet and quite beautiful with a terrific performance from Salli Ricahrdson-Whitfield is her first starring role.

The thing is you have to have a good film in order to make this work because the stakes are high. People are watching warily and it will take time for this model to be taken seriously in the film business. But the good news is that the film made over $11,000 per screen last weekend and that is a serious number and I’m sure the industry is now taking note.

The reaction to the film has been very positive. As Ava said:

It is infused with people of color because so often we don’t see ourselves as regular people and that might sound strange hearing but for folks who love films and only see themselves as caricatures or in very broad comedies, it’s nice to see and make a film that was not about heightened situations. This is about an everyday situation and this is why folks of all colors and backgrounds have appreciated it but especially the African-American community where we hear again and again the common refrain is thank you for showing us as we are.

There are many lessons to be learned from the success of I Will Follow. First, you can do it. Just be smart. Second, work together. Why couldn’t women’s film festival around the country create the same approach? Could we all possibly work together in this way? Ava is setting an example and is very up front about wanting to help other communities learn from her hard work. People should take her up on this. In a world where everyone says the sky is falling, this model is clearly a huge positive step forward.

I Will Follow – Trailer from AFFRM on Vimeo.

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