How This Small Film Festival Is Benefiting From the 'Oscars So White' Controversy



 

It’s easy to dismiss the Oscars as just a glamorous awards ceremony, but one top film executive is adamant about how much market potential it actually holds. 

“The Academy Awards determines who works,” said Jeff Friday, the CEO of Film Life Inc. and founder of the American Black Film Festival. “It’s a marker for what your value is.” 

This makes it all the more compelling that, as the nominations announced last week suggest, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has failed to recognize the achievements of black artists for the second year in a row.

All 20 of the acting nominees are white, and Straight Outta Compton–a film that has been widely celebrated for its depiction of the black experience–didn’t receive a much-anticipated nod in the Best Picture category. Directed by F. Gary Gray, it received one nomination for Best Screenplay (which was written by two white writers).

The news prompted a reemergence of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag across social media last week. Many high-profile actors, including Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith and Tyrese Gibson, announced their plans to boycott the ceremony.

A Different Business Model

The American Black Film Festival (ABFF) does things a little differently. Friday created the company 20 years ago, in 1997, when he went to Sundance for the first time and realized that the award recipients “were all white.” 

Unlike the Oscars, the ABFF is dedicated to honoring and promoting up-and-coming minority artists, including those of African descent, as well as Hispanics and Asians. It  is the nation’s largest gathering of African American film and TV enthusiasts. 

The event takes place in June each year, and is credited with launching the careers of film producer Will Packer and director Ryan Coogler.

Coogler’s recent film, Creed, scooped up $42 million in box office sales during its premiere weekend in December 2015. It also generated some pre-Oscar buzz, but did not get a nomination for Best Picture. Sylvester Stallone, however, who played Rocky Balboa in the film, received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

This year, the ABFF will host its first-ever “ABFF Honors” ceremony, which Friday explains is strategically counter-programmed against the Oscars and the Golden Globes.

The event will take place on February 21st (a week before the Academy Awards) at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif. A committee of 100 artists, actors and executives– more than 50 of whom are black–will vote on awards for films such as Dope, Creed and Straight Outta Compton. Friday says that Spike Lee, who announced just this week that he would not be attending the Oscars, plans to attend the ABFF Honors event. 

“I talk to him [Lee] all the time, and he feels the way I do,” Friday tells me. “He’s personally disappointed and disinterested. He clearly understands the economic impact of not being inclusive.”

The Root Cause

Friday says the oversight has much to do with the lack of diversity in the governing body of the Academy itself.

“It’s disappointing, but my disappointment is professional,” he said. “I’m not on the Academy. The Academy is 94 percent white, and 76 percent male. If you take a homogenous group of people and ask ‘give me your top 5,’ you are going to find those people who are alike demographically.”

The numbers Friday cites come from a 2014 Los Angeles Times survey of the 6,028 Academy voters of that same year. In October 2015, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced the addition of 322 new minority members. 

In the grand scheme of things, however, Friday says it makes little difference. Earlier this week, following Pinkett Smith’s call to action, Isaacs further added that she would soon implement “dramatic” changes in a push for better representation. 

On Friday, the Academy announced that it plans to double its women and minority members by 2020. Of note, the voting status of both new and current members will be re-evaluated every 10 years, and those who’ve been inactive in the industry for the same amount of time may have their voting rights revoked. 

“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” Isaacs said in a statement. “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.” 

Benefiting From the Brouhaha

To be sure, the ABFF’s annual draw is meager compared to the viewership of the Oscars.

In 2013, it counted 19,000 attendees, with the number dropping to 13,000 in 2015. The Oscars, by contrast, counted 43 million viewers last year, though it’s worth noting that ratings were down 16 percent–the program’s lowest in six years. The ABFF honors is slated to have 400 attendees next month.

Still, Friday says that his company has felt an increasingly positive impact in the last two years, and more specifically, within the last few days.

“The news has driven more attention and awareness to the ABFF in a much more relevant role than we’ve had in the last 19 years,” he says, speaking of the nominations. “We’ve been an amazing beneficiary of the #OscarsSoWhite thing.” There’s been an increase in sales for the June festival, and a significant uptick in hits to the website, he tells me. “We’ll probably have twice as many attendees this year,” he adds. 

Last year, the ABFF also drew more dollars from its top advertisers, including Cadillac, HBO, NBC Universal, McDonald’s, Prudential, and American Airlines. In addition to the honors ceremony, the company is hoping to expand its impact with a new body called ABFF Studios. It will actually produce and distribute content, starting with a web series called “For the Love,” to be streamed via Comcast XFinity.

“It could easily be a talk show,” Friday hints of his future plans for expanding the ABFF’s reach. 

Unsurprisingly, he says he won’t be tuning into the Oscars this year. But, like Lee, he hedges to use the term “boycott,” because he thinks it gives too much power back to the Academy.

“I’m not interested in the boycott. I’m just not watching,” said Friday. “The Oscars doesn’t resonate with me anymore, because the Oscars doesn’t speak to the American cinema that I would like to see in the theater.” 



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