American Black Film Festival founder Jeff Friday talks Hollywood vs. black films

But Friday counsels aspiring filmmakers to not bank on theatrical release.

“I think the big opportunity for independent black films now is not in theaters,” Friday says. “It’s on television. Every time you hear about a new channel that launches — [for instance] Magic Johnson has a new channel called Aspire; and my company happens to have a show that’s premiering on that channel called “ABFF Independent” which is centered around just what we’re talking about: giving independent films a chance to make it to television. So I think that the new opportunity for independent black filmmakers is really television. Every time a channel goes up, every time a new digital platform is announced, it becomes another revenue stream or another distribution outlet. And technically, if HBO acquires your film, your film will be seen by more people than any theatrical release you’re going to have in normal cases.”

Friday believes that in the current environment, aspiring filmmakers have to reset their goals, and pivot away from the traditional movie theater.

“I think filmmakers have to recalibrate how they think about their film, [and ask,] is it realistic that a big studio’s going to pick my film up and it’s going to be on 3,000 screens? Probably not. But can I come to ABFF and get in front of all the major networks that support us, and get exposure and possibly get acquired by HBO or one of the other networks I mentioned? The answer is yes. So TV (and the internet) are really the next frontier for independent film. The theatrical thing I think might just continue to be a challenge.”

Another challenge Friday sees is expanding the scope of black film, to incorporate a fuller range of stories — the way things were in the 1990s. But Friday says one hurdle faced by today’s directors is the existence of fewer well-known directors and films to model.

“When you see what I call those monolithic type movies,” where studios say, “we’re going to give you only two types of movies; might give you more than one of them, but they’re only going to be in two genres, you know – the urban stuff, and we’ll give you the lowbrow comedy stuff, and you’re not getting anything else; we’re not giving you relationships. There won’t be any romance and heroes in these movies. Forget about it. So when that culture changes, what the filmmakers, the person who sits down at the computer to write that script, they don’t write what they don’t see” in their real lives, Friday says, “because they don’t think they have a shot (for it) to be successful.”

Instead, he says, “you started to see films just that [were] just a regurgitation of what they saw in Hollywood.”

“So what we’ve done, we’ve allowed the industry to get in our heads.”

But that doesn’t mean Friday isn’t an optimist.

“I think true artists have to stay on course,” he says. “Because art breaks through. Art breaks through all kind of biases; I truly believe that.”