Writer/Director Malcolm Lee and Festival Director Tanya Kersey at the Hollywood Black Film Festival,
October 3, 2013, Los Angeles, CA, photo by Joy Bennett
I am currently attending the excellent Hollywood Black Film Festival in Los Angeles, which is outstanding. The festival offers lots of great filmmakers, directors, panels, workshops, parties, and of course plenty of films both shorts and feature length, most of which are top notch. It’s known as the Black Sundance, and attracts the very top of the entertainment field. It is being held at the glamorous and very comfortable W Hotel in Hollywood, with screenings at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre just steps away. For more information on the film festival, visit HBFF.org, it’s still going on as of this writing and tickets are still available.
One outstanding speaker was Writer/Director Malcolm Lee on Thursday, October 3, 2013 at the W Hotel in Hollywood. Malcolm Lee is Spike Lee’s cousin, and is well-known for such films as Scary Movie, The Best Man, and the soon to be released The Best Man Holiday. Festival Director Tanya Kersey deftly moderated the conversation. Here are some of his pertinent and helpful remarks from an industry insider, edited for content.
Mr. Lee’s stated goal has been to make middle class black films, in an attempt to make Black Cinema go mainstream. Despite his track record, it’s still hard to do, he said. He said filmmakers should make a lot of films. Just keep working on projects. Keep refining your filmmaking skills, and find and refine your unique voice.
He encourages filmmakers to use social media such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. to get the word out and market their films, and get plenty of feedback and notes from different audiences. If notes or criticism is consistent, that may indicate you need to make a change, but the filmmaker always has final say of course.
Mr. Lee suggested you have actors do live readings for fundraising with studios and potential investors, etc. He mentioned he attracted heavyweight studio interest for one of his major films only when the cast did a reading for the studio executives. Malcolm works mostly in the studio system, where art and commerce go hand in hand.
Mr. Lee suggested you know exactly who your movie is for. “Know your audience,” he said. Malcolm says he’s a writer/director, and recognized his cousin, Spike Lee who helped him get a break. At one point, Spike basically told the studio executives that here is a good movie from Malcolm, and Malcolm is going to direct it or else there’s no deal.
Malcolm said he likes to have ‘friends and family screenings’ for feedback. He usually screens the movie for several different groups, and gathers notes or feedback from all, and then revises the film as he feels necessary. Mr. Lee said that although it’s a good year for African American movies, with the success of The Butler, etc., it is still very hard to produce and market feature films.
He talked about the studio screening rating system. He said studios have rating sheets for screening feedback. The top two boxes are very important: would you rate the film excellent or very good. One of his films rated 99% in the top two boxes, and 97% in the ‘would you definitely recommend to a friend category.” His films usually score very well in this system.
Lastly, he mentioned the difference between a film’s playability and marketability. These are two very different factors, and it’s important to know the difference, he said. Playability is how the film screens, do audiences enjoy it and can follow/believe the plot and premise. Marketability is how easy it will be to sell. Are there precedents for similar films, and how did they fare in the marketplace?
Thanks to Mr. Lee for sharing his insights into the challenging, and constantly changing film industry. For more information about the Hollywood Black Film Festival, visit hbff.org. It’s the final day today, but tickets are still available. It’s held in the heart of Hollywood, near Hollywood and Vine. One tip, if you do attend and are in the industry, bring your A game. Bring plenty of business cards, film postcards if you are shopping a film or short, and dress to impress. The folks here are playing at the top of their game, and you should too if you are trying to make it in this fascinating business.