In a panel discussion, titled “The Black experience: Creating community and diversity in the scripted industry,” hosted by MIA market in Rome on Saturday, TV executives discussed the opportunities for Black talent in television and the challenges they face.
Panellists Mo Abudu, CEO of Nigeria’s EbonyLife Media, and French-African artist Nicholle Kobi began by pointing to examples of Black shows that had inspired them, such as Issa Rae’s “Insecure” and Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You.” Abudu said that the COVID-19 lockdown also provided her with an opportunity to look back at older shows, like Craig Wright’s family drama “Greenleaf,” and appreciate the storytelling, but also to think about “how we would do it now.”
Abudu commented that it was important for Black producers and talent to work in a wide range of genre. She mentioned shows such as the Jordan Peele produced horror drama “Lovecraft Country” and Beyoncé’s musical film “Black Is King” as showing the “incredible range” of content that is being produced by Black executives and talent.
Abudu explained that to break through often required “tenacity,” and that meetings with international executives may not produce instant results, but it was necessary to “go on that journey.” She said that in the past some international TV executives had “not seen it as necessary” to look for content from Africa. “Yes it is going to be difficult,” she said, but added that if Black executives invested time in identifying the gaps in the market, and developing projects that would fill those gaps then opportunities did exist, and developing relationships with international partners would help in that.
“It is getting easier, but it did take a while. I think it is just about focus, about packaging, about development, having the right story to tell, knowing how to pitch, and being very tenacious and not taking no for an answer,” Abudu said.
She cited the example of the deal between EbonyLife and Sony Pictures Television on an action drama inspired by the Dahomey Warriors as showing what can be achieved. She also referred to EbonyLife’s multi-title deal with Netflix, who she described as “trailblazers” in terms of backing African shows such as “Queen Sono.”
Kobi is working with Erik Barmack, a former Netflix executive, on two animation series, one about African queens, and another titled “La Femme Noire.” Kobi said that part of her motivation in developing the projects was to project a positive image of Black people rather than showing them as living “miserable” lives. “We can make Africa great again,” she said, adapting Trump’s rallying cry.
Barmack, who also participated in the MIA panel, said that for TV producers now “the range and mission should be global.” He admitted it was not easy to get diverse project greenlit. “I think that only changes as there’s success. Success begets more success,” he said.
As shows such as Abudu and Kobi’s reach a large, global audience “people will want to replicate that, but you also need executives who are going to be willing to take chances on new talent, or unproven genres or unproven parts of the world where content traditionally hasn’t come from to global platforms,” he said.
TV producers would need to take a proactive approach to seeking out diverse content, Barmack said. “All of that means that you need a group of people – executives and producers – who are going to be aggressive, who are not just going to say let’s let the submissions come through the system, but are going to be actively looking for new and interested projects and new talent,” he said.
Barmack said of the 10 projects he has in development, “almost all of them have elements of diversity in some form or another.”
The next generation of viewers will have different expectations, Barmack said, and when diverse shows get on global platforms they do well almost everywhere. “There is a power of underlying assumptions that people make that just simply need to be disproven when things hit global scale, and that’s what is happening and I don’t think that is going to reverse. People want to hear stories from around the world,” he said. “I think people want their TV to look different than it has been.”
Bunmi Akintonwa, of Diversify TV and Little Black Book Co. in the U.K., moderated the panel.