The discussion, over tequila at a Las Vegas casino, started with a simple question: How could AT&T — a company primarily known for its phone services — make a real difference with diverse filmmakers struggling to get their stories told? AT&T’s Chief Brand Officer Fiona Carter posed the question to Jane Rosenthal, co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, as the company was looking to get further involved in the push for more inclusive big screen stories, but was not simply looking to fund another lab or grant program.
“It was a million dollar question that came with a million dollar answer,” said Carter. The result of the conversation was the two organizations, AT&T and Tribeca Film Festival, teaming up on Untold Stories, a “Shark Tank”-like competition in which the winning filmmaker wins a $1 million. The caveat: the winner had to premiere the film 12 months later at the Tribeca Film Festival.
This week, the first test result of this bold experiment, “Nigerian Prince,” premiered at the 2018 festival. Director Faraday Okoro, a 31-year old Nigerian-American – who studied under Spike Lee at NYU’s graduate film school – won the inaugural competition with his semi-autobiographical story about a Nigerian-American teenager sent by his mother to Nigeria, where he teams up with his cousin to scam foreigners in an effort to raise money for a return ticket back to the States.
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It’s a film Okoro told IndieWire he was prepared to make himself last summer for $200,000, even before entering the “Untold Stories” competition.
Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival/AT&T
“We had almost all of our department heads already attached, my producer, actors, so I wanted to shoot this project by the end of the summer by any means necessary,” said Okoro. “I think what the jury saw was that it was really production-ready.”
Carter confirmed to IndieWire that being “shovel-ready” was definitely a factor in the decision-making process, considering the demand that the film go from pre-production to picture lock in a year. While the sped-up timeline comes with drawbacks, Carter said that it helped him focus on the filmmaking process, rather than the financing and the stop-and-start moving target of executing an indie production. Okoro concured.
“We had a very expedited timeline, we had to hit our marks every step of the way, which comes with it’s advantages and disadvantages,” said Okoro. “Knowing that we weren’t trying to piecemeal the budget as went along, we could plan accordingly, which is a luxury a lot of indie films don’t have. Sometimes first-time filmmakers go into production with only their production funds and wait to later to figure out post-funding.”
Over the last year, Carter has seen ways the program can better support their filmmakers. Seeing all the facets that are involved in making a movie, Carter quickly saw a connection to the business world, where no one person can be expected to be a master of everything. The key wasn’t simply more mentorship, but targeting the areas where each individual filmmaker and project needs assistance.
“We learned how important support and mentoring is beyond financing and the distribution,” said Carter. “The support seasoned filmmakers can bring to a completely new filmmaker and that dynamic of experience and originality is what’s going to produce the magic.”
Carter also felt like the five teams pitching could use help with learning how to pitch, as well as how to approach casting. The result wasn’t simply better and more compelling pitches, according to Carter, but that these skills allowed filmmakers to share their visions with all funders. “It allows us to see the truth in their stories,” said Carter. “It then becomes easier [to decide] how to fund and support.”
Tribeca Film Festival
The filmmakers who were hoping to follow in Okoro’s footsteps at this year’s live pitches session in many ways were more polished and prepared than the “Shark Tank” participants. After surviving a rigorous submissions process – this year, over 400 scripts were submitted – the Tribeca Film Institute, under Amy Hobby’s leadership, whittled down five finalists who pitched their project to a “Green Light Committee,” which included actress Alfre Woodard and “Broad City” creator/star Ilana Glazer. Ninety minutes later, at a star-studded lunch event, Carter handed writer-director Sasie Sealy and co-writer Angela Chang a $1 million check to make their film “Lucky Grandma.”
Seeing the two stunned women stand next to Robert De Niro with the large show check, it was clear they were in utter shock. “Ilana [Glazer] said something nice to us earlier so we thought that was a consolation prize, so we kind of feel like we got punked,” said Sealy.
Okoro could sympathize: “Learning you are going to spend a year getting to do nothing but make your dream project can be overwhelming,” he said.
You can watch Chang and Sealy’s winning pitch below, at the 36-minute mark: