Film Interview

Interview with American Black Film Festival Founder (ABFF) Jeff Friday

His first step into entertainment was in 1996 when he became president of UniWorld Films, a company that provided advertising services to film distributors. At the helm of Uniworld they formed relationships with major studios to market movies, including DreamWorks’ Amistad, to the African American audience.

Attending Sundance for the first time in 1997, he realized that Black filmmakers did not have access to the same opportunities their mainstream counterparts had. Three months later, Jeff acquired the Acapulco Black Film Festival as an industry retreat and market for Black cinema. He moved the festival stateside and renamed it the American Black Film Festival (ABFF). The festival is viewed as a vehicle to connect Hollywood insiders with the independent Black film community. In its first year, Jeff was able to secure HBO as the Founding Sponsor. The immediate success of the festival put him at the forefront of the Black film movement and fueled his commitment to promote diversity throughout the industry.

The ABFF is regarded as one of the top film festivals globally, attracting more than 10,000 attendees. This year the ABFF celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Central to Friday’s legacy is his track record and keen sense for identifying young people who have the talent and commitment to succeed in Hollywood. Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station), Will Packer (Ride Along, Think Like A Man), Omari Hardwick (Power) and Emayatzy Corinealdi (Roots, Miles Ahead) are among those who credit Jeff Friday and the ABFF for changing the trajectory of their career. The ABFF in association with Screen Nation runs from to 27th to 29th September at Picturehouse London.

When you set up ABFF in 1997 did you anticipate it being considered the most prestigious festival in the world for Black content?

In 1997, I knew there was a need for this platform, but I didn’t fully know that ABFF would become the prestigious festival that it is today. I had a vision for the festival. My aspiration was that it would become a platform for Black artists to network and create and succeed.  Its current success has exceeded my expectations.

Since 1997, what have been the moments you are most proud of when it comes to the talent that have been launched from the event?

Many proud moments but the things that happened after the festival have made me the most proud are when young artists, ABFF Alumns post festival into successes are loud like actor Omari Hardwick’s success on Power, producer Will Packer accomplishing ten number one films, director Ryan Coogler directing Black Panther, and writer and producer Issa Rae’s success with Insecure.

The landscape has changed since 1997 – how do we quantify or define black film?

From my point of view, Black film today is essentially what it was twenty years ago; films directed by black people and centered around the black experience. What’s different today is that those films are now being consumed and appreciated by a much broader audience. For instance, Black Panther, Hidden Figures, Moonlight, etc.

Tell us about the Screen Nation and ABFF partnership how did that come about?

Screen Nation, based in the UK, is an organization dedicated to promoting film and television talent of African descent. Founder Charles Thompson has been dedicated to this mission, similar to ABFF in the US. Working together seemed like a great fit. ABFF London was programmed in association with Screen Nation, which provides a space to screen both US and UK independent films.

What can we expect from ABFF London and what do you feel you are bringing to this market that is unique?

ABFF London will provide a thought-provoking line-up of shorts and narrative features as well as the opportunity for creatives to network and share similar and varied experiences. The unique perspectives and complex backgrounds that create the African diaspora are global – not limited to specific countries or borders. What’s unique is that we are celebrating the work of African American and Black British creatives, highlighting content that will ultimately bring about a stronger community, and fostering greater collaboration between African American and Black British filmmakers.

What is your film fave for 2019?

My favorite movie of 2019 focused on the African American experience is The Black Godfather about legendary music executive and entrepreneur Clarence Avant – whom I’ve always admired.

Let’s talk about diversity in Hollywood in the last 10 years what has made you optimistic and what do you think needs to change?

Hollywood’s embrace of the creative community is very encouraging. There are many more black films and television shows being produced that are providing opportunities for writers, producers, directors and actors. What is still troubling is the scarcity of top executives of color, particularly black men, who are responsible for greenlighting projects and will ultimately ensure Hollywood’s infatuation with diversity is not just a fad.

Alongside the ABFF tell us about the other projects you are involved in as ABFF Ventures LLC?

Our next major event is ABFF Honors, an annual awards gala celebrating excellence in Hollywood. The show celebrates Black culture by recognizing individuals for their contributions to American entertainment through their work as well as those who champion diversity and inclusion in Hollywood. Our first documentary feature will debut on HBO, Storm Over Brooklyn. The film is an in-depth account of the events leading up to and surrounding the murder of black teenager Yusuf Hawkins by a group of white youths in 1989.  We’re also hard at work planning exciting and innovative programs for ABFF 2020, June 17-21!

Meagan Good is making her directorial debut tell us about that?

After many years of being a successful actress, I’m excited to see Meagan expand her career as a director. She co-directed “If Not Now, When?” with Tamara Bass and the film was chosen as an official selection in our narrative features category for the 2019 ABFF. The film is about sisterhood, family, and personal triumph and the fact that it is helmed by two African-American women is quite unique and very encouraging!

Alongside finance what are some of the major challenges to getting “black” films financed?

One of the major influences of a film’s likelihood for financing is its projections for universal appeal and international success. Hopefully, the proven success of recent films like Black Panther, Get Out, Us, and Hidden Figures will make global financing of black films more accessible.

What are the other cities that the festival is going to?

Our plans are to make ABFF London an annual event and visit other cultural hubs around the world with ABFF Global, including Madrid, Paris, and Cape Town.

More info here: https://www.picturehouses.com/event-details/0000000026/american-black-film-festival

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