Black indies struggle with financing

Some say race factor has led to "vicious cycle"

On paper, Dee Rees felt her directorial debut “Pariah,” which tells the story of an African-American teenager coming to terms with her homosexuality, was a can’t-miss investment. She and producer Nekisa Cooper had a 50-page business plan and a detailed budget; Rees worked on her script at Sundance’s Directing and Screenwriting labs, they had a promotional book and a short film.

“We had really done our homework,” Rees says.

Yet the pic needed a complicated web of funding to see the light of day: a grant from NYU’s Richard Vague Fund finally got the greenlit and it was made with production grants from organizations like Cinereach, Chicken & Egg, Film Independent, Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and Re:New Media. “I was surprised at how difficult it was to raise financing,” says Rees, who credits Cooper in constantly finding creative funding solutions.

Certainly, finding funding for any indie film can be difficult, but finding financing, distribution and an audience is particularly tough for African-American filmmakers who tell outside-the-box stories of ordinary black Americans.

The key reason why securing coin for such projects is so problematic isn’t only race, agree the filmmakers — but it’s certainly a factor. Many say studios make business decisions based on the idea that white people don’t want to see movies about black people.

But there are shades of gray in that kind of thinking, says Tambay Obenson, editor and founder of black cinema site ShadowandAct.com. “The black man’s story might not be one (that white film executives) understand, even if it has universal themes, because it’s not from his background,” he says.

Andrew Weaver, assistant professor at Indiana U., whose specialty is media psychology, points to a study that maintains that, all else being equal, audiences are less interested in seeing a film that has a cast which is less than 70% of their own race, whether the viewer is white or black. A second study, which focused more on the reasons for such a swing, determined that a key factor was whether an audience feels a film includes them among its intended audience. “For the most part,” Weaver says, “these movies are not marketed at white audiences, so it becomes a shorthand that if a film has a black cast, ‘It’s not made for me.’ ”

This leads to a paradox: If financiers steer clear of such films, there are no examples to prove the theory wrong.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” says Ava DuVernay, who self-financed her first film, “I Will Follow,” about a successful artist who breaks from her work to care for a sick aunt. “If we can’t make these films, you can’t prove there’s an audience for them.”

Studios are aware of the lack of variety in the stories they’re releasing; Weaver says he’s been contacted by several studios about his findings. “They’d like to be more multicultural about these things, but they feel an economic incentive to segment the audience,” he says.

Clint Culpepper, who heads Sony Pictures’ Screen Gems, has seen excellent results with films that feature black casts, like “Think Like a Man,” which recouped $96 million worldwide on a reported budget of $12 million. But Culpepper adds that Screen Gems is less drawn to black indie cinema. “(They’re) making films that are generally not commercial,” says Culpepper. “They’re arthouse films. I don’t know how to market that to the mass audience.”

At the studio level, though, Culpepper says the onus falls on Hollywood to improve things. “(The) studios do try,” he says, but it’s our responsibility to make movie stars. Shame on us for not creating these movie stars, or giving them roles.”

One step in the right direction is Tribeca Film Institute’s newly created Heineken Affinity Award, targeted to African-American filmmakers. Industry leaders will be asked to shortlist 10 names for the public to vote on, with the winner getting a $20,000 prize and year-round support from TFI. “But all 10 filmmakers will benefit from the exposure,” says Tamir Muhammad, director of feature programming for the institute.

Meanwhile, self-distribution channels, the Internet and the occasional friendly studio have opened up options for indie filmmakers of all races, and grassroots funders such as Kickstarter and Indie-a-go-go have been helpful.

“You don’t necessarily need a ‘yes’ any more from a studio in order to make your film in a way that’s presentable to an audience,” says “Gun Hill Road” (2011) director Rashaad Ernesto Green. “With social media, we have all of these ways to get to thousands of people for free, and let them know about independent films.”

But those outlets raise coin in such small amounts that the time spent can be energy-sapping. “It took a lot more time and energy than I expected; raising funds on the grassroots level is so difficult,” says director Nefertite Nguvu, who used Kickstarter to help fund her film “In the Morning,” which examines the relationships of three women in the midst of hard-won self-transformation.

DuVernay’s self-financed system is one many filmmakers aspire to. “The first film I financed on my own; the second was financed by friends of my producer. We kept it entirely inhouse,” she says.

While DuVernay feels fortunate to not have to pitch and strain for months to cobble together financing, she nevertheless wonder where the money to expand her vision will come from. “How long can you make films at a certain price point before you need to mature as a filmmaker?” she asks.

Obenson, too, remains skeptical of any reported changes in a very old system. “The conversations we’re having today are the same ones we were having 10, 20 years ago,” he says. “Until I see a consistent improvement over a long period of time instead of this start and stop, I feel like I’ll be talking to you again in 10 years (about the same thing).”

Victoria Mahoney, director of the 2011 feature “Yelling to the Sky,” which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and told the story of the growing pains of a teenage girl from a mixed-race marriage, says that while funding remains a crapshoot and obstacles continue to present themselves, a collective resolve is growing, too.

“Everything that might have stopped filmmakers of color 10, 20 years ago, that just made us think, ‘Okay, put up another wall,’ ” says Mahoney. “I’ll always find a back window, and I will get in because it has to be. That doesn’t make me special. It just makes me determined.”