When the American Black Film Festival began 11 years ago, the idea was for the event to be a kind of retreat. “The reason we went to Acapulco for the first five years,” founder Jeff Friday explains, “was that we wanted a place where cell phones didn’t work.”
They work in L.A., and Friday and Co. are hoping the ABFF will, too.
The festival, which spent the last five years in Miami following a five-year stint at its Mexican birthplace, has changed not only its location but its objectives: “When we had our post-festival debriefing this year, everyone said the same thing: It was time to connect the studios to the process,” Friday says. “We needed to engage with them, and that’s our prime motivation for moving.”
The festival opens and closes with films from Sony this year. Centered in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, the event features work by “filmmakers of African descent” as well as workshops, panel discussions and the HBO Short Film Competition.
“They’re our anchor,” Friday says of founding and title partner HBO. “They’ve been here from the beginning. If there’s one thing we can say that separates our festival from others, we’ve got great partners.”
The shorts competition received 300 submissions this year. From those, five finalists will be selected, flown to the festival and “given the VIP treatment,” as Friday put it. The winner receives a development deal, $20,000 and a broadcast of his or her film.
Although the ABFF is entering a crowded L.A. festival scene, it brings a record of solid results that may set it apart. Its alumni includes producer Will Packer, who got involved with the festival as a college intern for Black Filmmaker Foundation prexy Warrington Hudlin. Packer swore he’d be back with his own film, and he was: “Trois,” which was followed by two sequels, was made for about $200,000.
“It wasn’t in competition because we hadn’t finished (the) film,” Packer says. “But at the ABFF we got investments from African-American businessmen to finish the film and raised the money that allowed us to take it out independently. We had 19 prints going around the country and a per-screen average of $10,000. Eventually it made $1.2 million.”
And it was at ABFF that Packer saw a short by a filmmaker named Sylvain White, whom he and producing partner Rob Hardy eventually recruited to direct “Trois 3” and “Stomp the Yard.” This year, Packer and Hardy return with one of two closing-night films (“Three Can Play That Game”) and the opening-night feature “This Christmas.”
“It’s the highest-testing film in the history of the company,” says Marc Weinstock, president of marketing for Screen Gems. “It opens Nov. 21. We’ve never screened one of our films as early as a month before release. One of the reasons we’re so excited is because the festival has moved from Miami to L.A., which is more talent friendly.” Meaning more of the cast and crew will be able to attend, and networking potential is higher.
“The first year, we got 19 submissions. And to be honest with you, we accepted 19,” Friday admits. This year, the ABFF received approximately 120 feature submissions, 100 docs and 300 shorts. “The great thing about a festival like this is that it encourages first-timers to make their movies, knowing they have a viable outlet,” he says.