Diversity Initiatives

The Sundance Film Festival hosted a record number of attendees this year. Up double from last year, 40,000 people came to watch or show films, participate in panel discussions, and network. Apart from the invariable increase in ticket sales and overall profit and general notability, the upsurge in festival-goers this year also yielded an increase in the people of color who attended, and twenty-five percent of the films in the festival were directed by filmmakers of color, another remarkable boost from last year.

Among the panels at this year’s festival, several addressed issues surrounding diversity within American film. One in particular, “The New ‘New’ Black Film,” focused specifically on the state of black filmmaking in America today. A virtual Who’s Who of black cinema appeared on the panel, including Mario Van Peebles, Kasi Lemmons, and Effie Brown, many who spoke of different paths that filmmakers are taking—can or should take—in order to find success. A recurring theme on the panel was the concept and development of diversity initiatives launched by various profit and nonprofit organizations within the film industry.

While several such initiatives exist for the sole purpose of showcasing the work of filmmakers and artists of color, there still seems to be something of a disconnect between that work and what sustains the public conscience. For this piece, we looked at four of the diversity initiatives in the independent film and public television arena—three established, and one newly launched—to see what it is they do, how successful they have been, and whether or not they are truly making an impact on the actual number of projects by people of color that end up seeing the light of day.

Filmmaker Shola Lynch

(Chisholm 72) at the Sundance 2004 New "New" Black Film panel.

The National Black Programming Consortium

In 1979, eight independent black producers created The National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC) in response to the lack of black programming on PBS. Nine years later, NBPC is one of the biggest funding supporters of media by and about African Americans, giving six million dollars to media projects in the last thirteen years. NBPC funds eighty percent documentaries and twenty percent narrative films. Among NBPC-funded projects are the recent critically acclaimed documentaries The Murder of Emmett Till and Two Towns of Jasper.

NBPC is financed by The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and falls under an umbrella organization called the Minority Consortia—a group comprised of five additional grant-giving organizations for artists of various races, and which includes The Native American Public Telecommunications, Latino Public Broadcasting, and Pacific Islanders in Communications. The mission of NBPC, according to its founding president Mabel Haddock, is “to become a major provider of black programming worldwide,” and to work with PBS and independent producers to achieve that mission.

This year, NPBC funded films that screened at Sundance included Chisholm 72, a one-hour documentary about Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and her campaign for the Democratic party presidential nomination in 1972, and Brother to Brother, a feature-length drama that follows the journey of an eighteen-year-old gay black artist as he discovers the hidden legacies of the Harlem Renaissance. ITVS, viewed by many in the field as the model diversity initiative program, further funded the projects of Lynch and Evans after the filmmakers received their initial funding from NBPC. The NBPC application process is so selective that receiving additional project funding from PBS after being granted funds from NBPC is not uncommon.

Funding from CPB stipulates that all NBPC films find a life on PBS. And because PBS has such a limited venue for narrative works, finding a matching home for these projects can prove difficult. Still, Haddock maintains that, “PBS is one of the major venues that is open to change.” Independent Lens, a PBS program in its second season, features narrative and documentary films, both short and long, and serves as a forum for work by independent filmmakers taking creative risks. Brother to Brother, which was honored with the Sundance Special Jury Prize, will be featured on the program next season.

NBPC also feels a strong allegiance to documentary films, something that many grant-giving programs cannot claim. And with the rapidly growing interest in documentary films, the program sustains a certain level of focus on getting more and more documentaries on the air.

When asked about the criticisms she fields about the program, Haddock mentions that some people believe funds are awarded primarily to experienced producers. Although Chisholm’s Shola Lynch was a first-time filmmaker, Lynch had the cache of having worked for several years with Ken Burns. Still, Haddock insists that NBPC does and is very much willing to take chances on emerging filmmakers.

“Experience is just one of the criteria we look at out. We also look for a good distribution plan, what other money is in place, the approach to the work.”

See www.nbpc.tv/ for more information.

Cast and crew of Everyday People at the premiere.

The Sundance Institute’s

Native American Initiative

The Sundance Institute, launched twenty-one years ago by Robert Redford, is a hallmark of the independent filmmaking community. And since the program’s inception, the Institute has forged a strong and lasting commitment to supporting Native American film. The Institute’s Native American Initiative is a multi-tiered program that invites four to six Native fellows each year to attend the Sundance Independent Producers Conference, which features panel discussions and small group sessions, and the opportunity to network with independent film industry leaders. The program also provides funding for two to four projects annually, and hosts the Native Forum program during the Sundance Film Festival.

The Native American Initiative was introduced to help counter inaccurate portrayals of Native Americans in contemporary film, and to encourage creative control for Native and Indigenous filmmakers. “Through the molding and teachings of craft to indigenous filmmakers,” says Kamira Kipp, a staff associate at the Native American Program, “[We hope to] get a message out to indigenous filmmakers to think outside the box as far as content, [and] to move more into a modern and contemporary way of telling stories.”

Among the most successful projects to emerge from the program is Smoke Signals, written by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre. Developed through both the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and the Director’s Lab, Smoke Signals took home the 1998 Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award, Filmmaker’s Trophy, and the Grand Jury Award. “All [program] included filmmakers have had their films shown at the festival for many years and keep returning with new works,” says Kipp. The initiative was recently honored at The Producer’s Guild of America’s 2nd Annual Celebration of Diversity for their commitment to cultivating Native producers in the film industry.

N. Bird Runningwater, director of the Native Initiative, who was unavailable for comment, travels all over the world to spread the word about the program and to seek out works by Native filmmakers. Still, says Kipp, it is difficult to find a caliber of work that meets the standard of other Sundance projects. “The hope for the future of the program is to bridge the gap that exists in the quality of craft in the works that are being submitted to the program,” Kipp says. “Native and indigenous film still stands at one of the lowest rates of craft and quality. Through nurturing and helping prepare writers, directors, and producers to apply to our various selection of filmmaking labs here at the Institute. That is where the first step begins.”

Kipp believes that a lack of resources prevents many Native and indigenous artists from learning the craft of filmmaking. To that end, this year the Native Institute sponsored a private screenwriters lab at the festival, with three Native writing fellows and one producer fellow, during which industry professionals gave feedback on scripts and projects written and presented by the fellows.

See http://institute.sundance.org for more information.

The Tribeca All Access Program

In December 2003, the Tribeca Film Institute announced a new program called Tribeca All Access. Set to debut at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival, the objective of All Access is to create networking opportunities and visibility to filmmakers of color, and to act as a bridge between US based filmmakers of color and the film industry at large, with the goal of acquiring representation and/or financial backing that will assist their projects from development to production. Nancy Schaffer and David Kwok, programmers for last year’s 2nd Annual Tribeca Film Festival, launched the program after noticing a shortage of films submitted to the festival by American filmmakers of color.

The program will select twenty projects—ten documentaries and ten narratives—culled from an open call to filmmakers of color. Each selected project and its filmmaking team (which can consist of writers/producers/directors) will be given meetings with representatives and development executives from production companies such as Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics, and Think Films; US and international sales agents, literary agents, and equity financiers. At the end of the program, one narrative and one documentary project will be selected to win an award for an undisclosed amount.

Beth Jason, manager and co-director of the program, says, countering the oft-made criticism that these sorts of programs are launched to appease white liberal guilt, that the initiative is “not from the big white man who wants to be benevolent to people of color.” Indeed, one of the founders, David Kwok, is Asian American, and the submissions evaluation committee is made up largely of people of color from the industry—Warrington Hudlin, founder and president of the Black Filmmaker Foundation; David Henry Hwang, writer and playwright; and Carlos Sandoval, producer of recent Sundance award-winner, Farmingville.

By spreading the word through various listservs, community based media programs, colleges and universities, All Access hopes to reach filmmakers of color who might otherwise not read about festival competitions or pick up the latest issue of Variety. All Access also offers a reduced submission fee for applicants who are members of various media organizations such as AIVF, Cinevision, and DVRepublic, among others.

In creating the program, Hanson said, and from looking at other diversity initiatives, it became clear that many diversity programs try to do too much. By focusing on filmmakers who are in pre-production, All Access hopes to give filmmakers the help they need to make their projects come to fruition.

See www.tribecafilminstitute.com for more information.

IFP/New York presents the No Borders Market, an international

collaborative venture that brings together mid-career and documentary filmmakers with potential financing partners. See www.ifp.org.

IFP/Los Angeles Project Involve

Created in 1993, the IFP/Los Angeles Project Involve is a mentorship, training, screening, and job placement program designed to promote cultural diversity in the film industry. Through one-on-one mentorships and filmmaking workshops, aspiring filmmakers gain practical experience, the opportunity to hone their craft, and the chance to make valuable contacts. Candidates can apply to either the spring or fall cycle—each run four months long, and accept twenty participants of color—and in several categories that range from directing and writing to costume design and film programming.

The main goal for the program, says Pamela Tom, Project Involve Director, is for the participants to “create a community amongst themselves,” in an effort to encourage a cross-discipline, cross-cultural buddy system. The program, Tom emphasizes, is as good as its mentorships. And although “it is hard to guarantee twenty great relationships,” she says, Project Involve continues to attract great talent and directors to serve as mentors, including John Singleton and Alexander Payne, and actor/director Forest Whitaker. Last year, 2003 mentee Beanie Barnes was paired with thirteen director Catherine Hardwicke. They hit it off so well that Hardwicke hired Barnes to be her assistant on her next film. Tom maintains that stories like this are not uncommon and are, in fact, what the program is all about.

After leaving the program, mentees are provided with career training workshops, individual career counseling, and access to quality job listings and referrals. While it may always be difficult to find work in the field, Project Involve has its fair share of success stories. Effie Brown, a producer of Real Women Have Curves and Jim McKay’s latest feature, Everyday People, and an alumnus of Project Involve, praised the program and other similar diversity initiatives during this year’s Sundance panel on “New Black Film.”

“IFP, Sundance, all these organizations are supportive. Many people of every color fail because they want to be artists without trying to learn the building blocks to get the job done,” Brown said.

The IFP/New York also runs a Project Involve program. See www.ifp.org for details.

While all four of these initiatives stand out in their efforts to help filmmakers of color, it will be a long time before we will be able to see their impact and that of others like them. Though it is important to note that because each program was started by organizations well respected in the film industry, participants will benefit merely by association.

There are many elements to consider when assessing the advantages of individual diversity programs. A large part of getting anywhere in the film industry is knowing the right people who can help you to get your projects made, and so while the names of IFP and Tribeca might be more helpful knocking down doors and accessing certain must-know people, NBPC provides one crucial thing that all filmmakers need to get their projects done: cash. And Sundance, both its Native Program and its overall mission, provides a little bit of everything but with special attention to aiding the improvement of filmmakers’ art.

Finally, these programs and the funding they provide cannot guarantee audiences for the work of filmmakers of color, nor can they convince executives to take chances or spend money. But they are steps in the right direction, and combined with the personal perseverance, drive, and flat out luck required of any filmmaker, no matter what race, nationality, or ethnic background, diversity initiatives may change the face of American filmmaking in ways as yet unimagined.

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