THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY ANNUAL
American Black Film Festival (ABFF), held in Miami Beach June 14th through the 18th this year, is both a festival and a filmmaker event, jam-packed with happenings and seminars dedicated to developing and nurturing new and emerging talent. Indeed, the majority of festival functions are dedicated to this goal.
Founded by social entrepreneur, visionary and occasional Hollywood producer, Jeff Friday, the Festival attracts filmmakers who attend year after year to network and spot upcoming talent as well as celebrities.
I ran into Friday at the the festival’s virtual reality event. When I told him, “I was here many, many years ago.” “Who was here?” he asked. “Russell Simmons,” I answered. Without a moment’s hesitation, Friday said: “2003!”
Aside from my being extremely impressed with Friday’s ability to recall dates, our brief conversation was really about how we shared a passion for supporting filmmakers in developing their careers.
“Well, that’s what this festival is all about,” Friday concluded and I couldn’t agree more.
I had always wondered how this great event had fared over the subsequent 14 years since I first attended. Back in 2003, the Festival was contained entirely in one Miami Beach hotel.
There had been movie screenings, industry trainings, talks, and celebrity sightings as well as filmmakers hawking their films. A new distributor, Maverick Entertainment, which had an interest in urban entertainment, was a present in force.
I met filmmakers and television creators, and, of course, there were the celebrities. Hearing Russell SImmons talking about building businesses had been a special treat.
Now in it’s 20th year, ABFF has grown considerably. Its activities are spread far beyond one hotel to several other venues around Miami Beach. There are many screenings of shorts, web series, HBO Short Film Award-winning shorts, and features by newcomers, as well as those by well-known stars, and—as with many other film festivals these days—many television shows as well.
But the real gem of this festival is the networking and industry trainings. There are exclusive trainings that cost a few hundred dollars, several that cost about $30 each, and a few that are free—something for everyone! I’m not sure how many people attended the festival in total, but I do know that almost every event was sold out.
In addition to celebrity guests, the sponsors are also important: HBO has been a sponsor since the very first year and is still showing strong support 20 years later. Black Enterprise, Turner Entertainment, CNN, TVOne and others are out in force and often represented by the diversity hiring departments.
I went to ABFF this year for just one reason, to answer my question: Is this Festival such a significant industry event for black filmmakers, that it is a MUST attend? And my answer is an unequivocal YES!
There is no question that this event is easily as significant on a black filmmakers’ networking calendar as Sundance or any other industry event, if not more so. I met filmmakers from all over the country at ABFF, but the majority seemed to be from the East Coast, or at least the more Eastern half of the States.
Although Los Angeles was pretty well represented, there were very, very few attendees from the Bay Area. If Bay Area black filmmakers want to really make their mark, they need to get involved with all the amazing opportunities ABFF has to offer.
(Additionally, Florida was represented at a Student Showcase of films, but the Miami/Miami Beach/Florida presence was surprisingly limited, and it seemed to me that there was a lack of interaction between the Festival and the local filmmaking community that needs to be addressed.)
One real difficulty with ABFF was information. There is a website with limited info. For months I would try to sign up for the email newsletter, which never actually worked. I couldn’t call anyone as there seem to be no staff, and even contacting people on LinkedIn, who were apparently connected to the festival, turned up nothing.
It wasn’t until I signed up for press credentials that I started to receive information, but that was a little late for real planning. So that was all a barrier.
As a result, I really didn’t sign up for anything before I went. I won’t make that mistake again! Every class was of outstanding quality and everything was FULL! And even if I had received prior information, it would still have been difficult on arriving to figure out what’s important to attend.
There are so many venues and so many overlapping events that it’s tricky to create a schedule, even on a daily basis. This is not so much a criticism as stating a simple fact; when a festival is so large, it’s important to have overlapping events so that as many people as possible can be accommodated with some kind of programming.
My first morning at the Festival, I wandered into a hotel ballroom where short films were being shown. All the films were excellent. (Two of these short films will be part of the North Bay Art and Film Festival competition screenings on Oct 7th & 8th, so you can see them there: "Caliginosity" by Katrelle Kindred, and "Imam & The Light Warriors" by Jarrett and Jay Woo).
As it turned out, none of these excellent films had made it into the HBO Short Film Awards—which I didn’t get to see—and I can’t imagine how good those films must have been! A film called “Amelia’s Closet” won the $10,000 HBO Short Film Award.
I went to talks by Terence Howard and another by John Singleton, whose amazing new TV Show, “Snowfall”, had been screened the night before. It was great to hear these two incredible talents discuss their careers, and it was interesting that they shared a “no-compromise” kind of attitude which could be both abrasive and inspirational. Clearly it got them the success they have today.
On the closing day of the Festival, ABFF avoids the normal nighttime awards upscale event, opting instead for a come-as-you-are, raucous gathering of everyone still left enjoying Miami Beach. And what an Awards ceremony it was!
Due to the large investment by sponsors, there were many sizable awards: The Comedy Wings Competition provides comics with an all-expense trip to Miami and meetings with HBO Executives; TVOne provides a $5000 screenplay writing prize AND a production deal, won this year by “Down For Whatever,” by Tim Folsome. There’s $2500 for the best web series: “Brooklyn.Blue.Sky” created by Rhavynn Drummer and Dui Jarrod.
There were other TV writing prizes given by Turner Entertainment: $5000 for this year’s 2017 Grand Jury Award Best Narrative Feature, a Shakespeare adaptation called: Ambition’s Debt.
And the largest prize $25,000, was the Grand Jury Award Best Director presented by Cadillac to Eden Marryshow, for his dating comedy “Bruce”. Marryshow ended the celebrations on a high note as he gave an incredibly impassioned speech about how many times he had tried to get a film into this specific festival and had failed twice, and then, over the years had almost given up.
A great story of a filmmaker and his diehard loyal friends, making a film out of nothing and against all the odds, was a great inspiration for us all.
Only the largest Film Festivals can offer prize money at this level, but one award stands out above all the rest. While the TVOne screenwriting prize of $5000 seems modest in comparison to some other prizes at the Festival, the fact that it comes with a production deal means that it is worth about $1 Million.
As was mentioned from the stage, this is probably the largest filmmaker prize in the world. (If anyone knows of anything even comparable, I’d love to hear about it!) Last year’s winning script: “Downsized” by Michelle McKissik, starring Nicole Ari Parker and Boris Kodjoe, received a premier at this year’s Festival with a Q & A afterwards.
I hope that I will see many more Bay Area writers and filmmakers - and maybe some comics too! - at next year’s Festival in Miami Beach.
Joanne Butcher is a coach/consultant working with independent filmmakers to create critically successful films that make money! She can be reached at her email or Website.Posted on Sep 09, 2017 - 07:53 AM