Interview with AFFRM’s Ava Duvernay

March 8, 2013
posted by sheric

While conventional media has shown us that women make up only a tiny percentage of the leadership in the film community, I am heartened to find that we are tiny, but mighty! As a tribute to International Women’s Day, I want to highlight a woman who is of particular inspiration to me and who was kind enough to take time out of her busy day way back in December to share her wisdom, her courage and her savvy with me. [ed. note: Ava, I'm sorry this has taken so long to be published, but girl you haven't stopped and every time I go to publish this piece, you up and do something else incredible and I have to add to it!]

ava duvernay, filmmaker









Director Ava Duvernay has many things to be proud of in the last few years. Having successfully produced, directed and self distributed 3 films of her own (This Is The Life, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere) and distributed 2 films made by others (Kinyarwanda and Restless City) using her own money, she knows the challenges that come with being an independent, especially for black cinema. She recently won the John Cassavetes Award from Film Independent for Middle of Nowhere, previously she was the first black female director to win Best Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival 2012 for Middle of Nowhere, she collaborated with fashion house Miu Miu to direct a short film called The Door (released online), and she is now in production on a documentary  for ESPN Films’ Nine for IX titled Venus VS, described as an in-depth documentary that explores tennis star Venus Williams’ fight for fair pay for female tennis players at Wimbledon.

Ava started out in the film business as a publicist, working on high profile campaigns for films by Steven Spielberg, Bill Condon, Clint Eastwood and Michael Mann. She has taken that knowledge and those media connections with her into her new career as a film director and into a company she launched in 2011 called the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) dedicated to releasing black cinema theatrically. I asked her what led to the creation of AFFRM.

“In 2003, I started a division of my PR agency, called Urban Beauty Collective . It was a network of urban beauty salons and barber shops providing in- salon entertainment and programming. I was always interested in reaching the African American community outside of all the nuts and bolts stuff my competitors did, you  know, call Jet and Ebony and send out a street team. I wanted to do something that was like the Tyler Perry brand. Everyone knew of Tyler Perry before his deal with Lionsgate, he was an undercover brand. So I was always finding new ways to tap into the African American community and networks to bring my clients’ projects to them in new ways,” said Duvernay.

“In becoming a filmmaker, I knew that I could tap into those networks for promotion, but there weren’t clear cut pathways for distributing films, especially not for films I was interested in making. I started thinking about those wonderful black film festivals that I had started visiting with my first documentary, This is the Life. I went to a lot of these festivals and film series and got to know the organizers. A lot them were these amazing, stellar leaders with bold ideas and well formed infrastructures and adamant about creating a space in their local communities for the black cinematic image. There were about 4 or 5 really dynamic people and I thought they should all know each other. And that lead to the idea of self distributing my film. And that lead into ‘Why would I build up an infrastructure for self distribution and then dismantle it?’ I see so many filmmakers self distribute a film and get into the rhythm and really understanding how to do it, and then they walk away from it. Then they have to come back later and start all over again, or why don’t they leave the structure in place for the next person?”

“All of those thoughts were in my head when I decided to approach those festivals to see if we might all work together to distribute a film and, if it really worked out, we would leave it standing to distribute more films so that other filmmakers could come through it.”

It is no small feat to get a group of enthusiastic and strong people to commit to working together in an organized way. Each usually has their own agenda and personalities can clash causing the effort to fail. Ava said this hasn’t been a problem so far. “Each member is the distributor in their market. I don’t pretend to know what to do in Philadelphia, or New York, or DC. I know about the marketing and publicity and the bookings. What they brought to the table was expert knowledge of the audience of their regions. There was no stepping on toes. We curate the films together. It was structured to be very respectful of everyone’s lane.  While we had heard early on that we probably wouldn’t be able to all get along, we’ve never had an issue. These are all well rooted organizations that have been in their markets for a long time.”

“They benefit. There’s financial benefit, there’s branding benefit as there are only a handful of festivals that are branded AFFRM festivals, they have all seen an increase in admissions to their normal festival activities, they’ve seen increase in local press coverage. Really, it is about giving these films a theatrical presentation that they otherwise wouldn’t have. No one is getting rich here believe me, but we strongly believe in the theatrical presentation of the films and a cultivation of the audience.”

I know that it can sometimes be difficult to get a filmmaker to commit to a smaller or emerging distribution entity. I can even imagine that filmmakers do not want their films branded as “black cinema” hoping instead to reach a mainstream audience. But Ava explained that AFFRM films are not denied the ability to reach wider, either in press coverage or in the theaters they are shown in.  ”We don’t just distribute to the black community. Our films are playing mainstream theaters in Times Square New York, on Sunset Boulevard in LA, those theaters are open to any audience. We get press coverage in the New York Times, LA Times, NPR. Every filmmaker who has gone through AFFRM has had a CNN piece and we do very intentional outreach to black press as well. The press our filmmakers get, I would argue, is above and beyond what one would get from distributors like Cinema Guild or Strand Releasing. We get mainstream and niche press. So they get a NY/LA run at minimum and VOD after that.”

“Unfortunately, there is no one else here in this space. I think there should be more people in this space, and I hope people will duplicate this model in the Latino film space, the women’s film space, the LGBT film space, anything outside of dominant culture. This is a great way to distribute films theatrically without needing a lot of financial resources.”

Ava explained that the 2 films released so far that were made by other filmmakers, Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda and Andrew Dosunmu’s Restless City, were destined to go straight to home video and would not have been released through conventional theatrical. “They were going to be going to DVD, nothing at all in support and we thought those films should be seen. When Roger Ebert called Kinyarwanda one of the best films of 2011 and I knew that 7 months before, it was headed to DVD only release, I am proud that we didn’t let that happen. I want more people to see the work of Andrew Dosunmu and Bradford Young and Alrick Brown and for them to have a proper theatrical release and proper reviews. AFFRM is nourishing the filmmakers and also the black arthouse community.”

Any conversation about film distribution will inevitably lead to money. I wondered if AFFRM is really a service company, being paid to release films theatrically. If so, how much do they charge? But Ava set me straight. “No, I am the crazy one putting my own money in. We lost money on some of the films, but I loved them and couldn’t stand to see them go by the wayside. We license the films because, as a filmmaker myself, I set this up to be beneficial to filmmakers and I am not going to tie up rights longer than the standard theatrical window of 3-6 months. We give the filmmaker a theatrical window and the promotion of their film, a full scale multi market promotional push that comes from having a theatrical release. They are no longer only going straight to DVD/VOD, they can get the momentum from a theatrical that will propel those ancillaries to help make their money back and make another film. No one is getting rich here though, most theatrical campaigns as you know do not make money. Someone has to take the plunge and cultivate this audience and no, it isn’t going to make money right away.  But this isn’t about just money. We work tirelessly for 3 months on these campaigns to make up for the advertising we can’t buy so we’d better love and believe in what we are doing because there isn’t necessarily going to be a check at the end of it.”

Many of those working with AFFRM are volunteers called AFFRM Mavericks. A small army has been amassed of people willing to devote their own time and effort to spread the word about the films. “They are just people around the country who are activated around the idea of having options in what films they are seeing. Most of the AFFRM Mavericks are just regular people from plumbers, bus drivers, mamas with 3 kids, to professionals who run companies and have creative ideas. Folks that are canvassing posters and postcards on the weekend, barbers who put all of our branding in their shops. Basically we say what can you do, what do you want to be involved in?”

“They sign up on our website. We have a national maverick coordinator who talks to them to find out what they can do, make sure they will be responsible and helps to coordinate all the efforts. We have about 500 people. We also have digital mavericks who live in places outside of where we will be screening the films who just want to help in some way. There are 20 people manning Instagram, 75 people covering Twitter, a maverick digital captain coordinates all of them. It is very cool the amount of support we have from volunteers.”

On March 15, AFFRM’s new label ARRAY (which is now handling multiplatform releases, instead of only theatrical) will release their next film, Storm Saulter’s Better Mus’ Come, in New York and LA as well as one night screenings on March 13 in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Houston, London, Sierra Leone, Trinidad and Amsterdam.

I often hear filmmakers complain about having to think about and set aside time to promote their own films and about a lack of significant theatrical release options. I asked Ava how she found the time to do this work, not just for her own films, but for filmmakers she admires. “I would be remiss if I didn’t say I have a background in marketing and publicity at a very high level before I became a filmmaker. I could say ‘Hey, just do it’, but I came from a history of this kind of expertise. It is very second nature for me to do the publicity and marketing. The hard part came from learning the booking side. It was challenging and still is because of all the politics that surround it. It is hard to break in to that community with new films from people that cinemas  don’t already know.”

“What I have struggled with is the balance between the creative and the business. If I want to go shoot for 3 months and I don’t want to go into the office, I can’t do that yet. Or if I need to do office things, but I want to go edit. It is hard for me to mix my days, creative and business. I can’t do business related things in the morning and then go into the edit suite or go write or go scout locations in the afternoon. I can’t do that. I do it by days. This is a director day, or this is a distributor day. It is about finding what your strength is and tapping into other people who have what you don’t.”

“But you have to be willing to stretch yourself because in 2013, you’re kidding yourself if you think all you will be doing is directing films. That is an antiquated model, the old guard of filmmaking. Very few of us will be able to make a film and hand it off and know that it will be well taken care of. It certainly isn’t me or anyone who looks like me. No women, maybe one came to mind, can think like this. You no longer have an option to say I don’t want to do that.”

Thank you Ava, from being so giving of your time and sharing your knowledge with all of us.


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