Jeff Friday, who heads up the entertainment company Film Life Inc., was operating on three hours of sleep and several cups of coffee, when I met him at the offices of the affiliated media conglomerate, Black Enterprise, one Tuesday morning in early June. 

If Friday appeared frazzled, it's for good reason: The 19th annual American Black Film Festival, which he founded in 1997, kicks off June 11 with a New York City premiere screening of Rick Famuyiwa's critically acclaimed Dope. The festival, which highlights films, filmmakers, and other industry executives of color, will run through June 14.

The ABFF drew 19,000 attendees last year alone, a huge uptick from its inaugural year, when it had just 90 attendees and 14 film submissions in total. The festival has spawned the careers of producer Will Packer and up-and-comer Ryan Coogler, of Fruitvale Station fame, among others. The four-day event will also include master classes, panel discussions, celebrity talk-backs, and it will culminate with the traditional "Best of the ABFF" awards ceremony.

Previously an advertising executive at the entertainment studio UniWorld films, Friday was first inspired to launch the ABFF when he attended Sundance back in 1997.

"It was void of diversity," he tells me of the festival, "They were all white. So my mind got going about that." What was most interesting about the experience, he adds, is that the film Love Jones--an independent comedy/drama featuring two upstart black actors--won the Sundance audience award that same year.

"How can a film by two new black actors by a first time black director win the audience award at a film festival with movers and shakers that don't look like the people in the movie?" The answer, he says, is simple: "Good stories are universal."

Three months later, in Acapulco, Mexico, the ABFF was born. Spike Lee, Halle Barry, and Debbie Allen were all in attendance, thanks in part to Friday's connections, as well as to some old-school PR tactics. Friday recalls that many left in tears--testament to the emotional impact, he says, that such a festival could even exist. Now, 19 years later the ABFF is thriving--but it hasn't been a smooth road.

Building Out the Business

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the business of supporting black artists is far from easy. By year three, the ABFF was hemorrhaging money, losing sponsors, and struggling to raise sufficient funding. Friday had to launch a series of side businesses, and be choosey about his brand partners, to keep the festival afloat. While an initial budget of $500,000 was sufficient in 1997--an amount that Friday quips is his go-to estimate for any new venture--that figure is far from realistic these days. 

Money to produce the ABFF comes primarily from selective sponsorships. The ABFF's first and most important brand partner was HBO, which it went after for its long-standing reputation for diversity. The car company Cadillac is another, as well as American Airlines. Friday pointedly did not choose Southwest Airlines, because he says they do not market themselves particularly well to his audience. 

"It's like dating," he says. "We try to attach ourselves to companies that value our audience and who can help do what they do in terms of [moving] their business." That being said, the ABFF is not always successful at winning over brands. Currently, it doesn't have a credit card partner, because Friday hasn't been able to attract his top choice provider, American Express. 

The second, perhaps most important key to the ABFF's staying power has been the advent of various "mini-businesses," as Friday calls them, which have helped to bring in added revenues. Four years in, the ABFF created its own DVD label in partnership with Warner Brothers, for example--a time, Friday recalls, when the home entertainment business was outperforming the theater. This "created a farm system for getting films, and creating revenue for filmmakers," Friday explains. Other profitable side businesses included a television show on TNT--the "Black Oscars," effectively--as well as an NFL filmmaking boot camp called Pro Hollywood. Later this year, Friday plans to launch a movie streaming service--the "Black Netflix," so to speak--in Europe and Africa. Perhaps rightly so, Friday considers the U.S. market too competitive for this service at present.

The newest challenge, and one arguably not unique to the ABFF, is staying relevant in the digital age. 

"The landscape of what being in the movie business is, is very different than it was twenty years ago," says Friday. "The platforms are smaller, and the windows for distribution are changing." For what it's worth, Friday doesn't see festival competitors as posing much of a threat to the ABFF, since he views it as doing much more to launch and bolster the careers of traditionally under-served artists. 

Affecting Tangible Change

The industry still has a long way to go where diversity on screen is concerned: "That's controlled by the major studios," Friday explains, who tend to tackle minority representation in a "tokenized" manner, or by hiring the same few actors to fulfill what seems to be a conceptual diversity quota. Rather, "I'd like to see more of a commitment from studios to make stories about people, where the story lines are more specific to these ethnicities." Dope--which Variety aptly describes as a "nerds-in-the-hood" tale--is a good example. 

Next year will be the ABFF's 20-year anniversary, and you can bet they'll be pulling out all the stops. It will feature a documentary about the ABFF, set to be called Because Hollywoodn't, and Friday promises that the festival will have an added emphasis on television. "The renaissance that I've always hoped for in film is now happening in television," he says. That has something to do with the fact that television studios are existentially chained to advertising in ways that film, perhaps sadly, is not. 

Discrimination may inadvertently play a factor in whether or not the ABFF is able to attract the attention of white audiences and advertisers, but Friday is optimistic. "I understand race in America, so I accept certain things about the way people think, and the psychology of wanting to see yourself [on screen]," he says. 

Then, after pausing for a moment, he adds: "Yes, the world would be better if we all respected other cultures. I'll settle for respect." 

Published on: Jun 10, 2015