Film Festival: An Interview with Founder Stacy Spikes
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Urbanworld 2004: An Interview with Founder Stacy Spikes
By Wilson Morales
How tough was it to put this film festival together for the 8th time?
Stacy Spikes: It was much easier this time because we ended up having some great teams. We had Maria Weaver Watson and Gabrielle Gore who are our executive producers and they did such an incredible job that it made the festival a whole another level and we had a strong PR team so we are really excited about that.
Is the scheduling of films one of the toughest part?
SS: Yeah, that's always hard. I think the harder part is making the cut of the films that will show in the festival. Once you've made the cut, scheduling is a little easier. It's just getting down to those 70-80 films that actually get to play. That's the hardest part.
In the last few years, the films have been shown in different locations such as the Magic Theater in Harlem, as well as the Loews Theaters on 34th St. Why so many locations?
SS: We try to have a presence in Magic. We wanted to be in Harlem and we wanted to be in 34th St. In years past, we had been in one building. There was one year where we were in Times Square, the BAM Theater in Brooklyn, Harlem, and even the Director's Guild and I find that it has to do with the way filmmakers promote their movies. If the filmmakers come, and there's 92 films here, and people are going to make decisions and they are impacted by the promotion of their movie and if a filmmaker doesn't promote their film, it doesn't really matter where they are. They are not going to get the same visibility as if they were fighting for it.
Do you give the filmmakers the option of having the talent within the film to be available for marketing purposes or do you make it mandatory?
SS: We don't make it mandatory but clearly if you bring talent you will get a better position in the festival. If you don't, we try to bring people out because that's very important as well.
Did you make an assessment of the previous year to see what improvements needed to be made for this year?
SS: Yes. We always look at ourselves and to look to see what we can do to improve things so we are on a constant vigil to make that happen.
How were the sponsors of this year's festival compared to last year? Do you feel that you got more out of them?
SS: Well, MTV was really the big catastrophic difference which was them being the presenting sponsor and we found it very good to work with them. They had a sharp team. We were very excited about their involvement in the festival. They played a role in some of the bigger films coming here and we were very excited about that.
Urbanworld is the biggest of the African American festivals that play throughout the year. With the Hollywood Black Film Festival and the American Black Film Festival as well as this festival playing within one month of each other, how do you market Urbanworld to folks who may live near the other festivals and may have seen a film or two that played elsewhere?
SS: There are a couple of differences. One is that we started originally as a black festival. For years now, we've been an urban festival because we have the Latin and Asian influence and also our studio perspectives, you're really getting the high end and we tend to show more movies than the other festivals, so it makes a little bit of a difference from that standpoint but you do run the risk of people saying, "I've been there and I've done that already."
In terms of marketing, do you feel you've done as much as you could to get ads on the web or on TV?
SS: Yeah, well marketing is always a challenge because it's something that you don't have the marketing dollars to spend and you have to be creative with it and you have to use friends and you have to do barter deals and from year to year those aren't consistent variables, so every year you are negotiating things and quite often if you had a boatload of cash it would be very easy to do, but you don't and you've got to try to get on the radio and get on the web and on websites and get blast out there with very little money.
You mentioned earlier that Marie and Gabrielle came on as new producers. What is it that you were looking from them to help you run the festival smoothly?
SS: I was looking for people who have strong driven areas where they can take over that space and you don't have to really worry about them and that consists of having production experience and web experience or marketing experience or programming and it's sort of like a virtual company that comes together for 3 to 6 months out of the year. These people are assembled and often they are doing day jobs as well that they come together and assemble their own area. It's like the new way a car gets assembled on a conveyer belt where there are specialists in each area and putting things together to make the perfect automobile.
You were able to get "Collateral" as the opening film and it was great to see Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett-Smith come out to show some love to the folks, but how exciting was it having Tom Cruise come to Harlem as well?
SS: Having Jamie and Jada was definitely a key to the opening. Having Michael Mann, with films such as Heat, and all of a sudden having Tom Cruise come out really took Urbanworld to the next level and it's definitely attributed to our PR firm which made that a possibility and we appreciate Tom believing in Urbanworld and believing in Harlem that he wanted to be here.
You also had "Hair Show" and "The Seat Filler" as well, and with "Hair Show" slated to be in theaters this October, how did you come about in choosing "The Seat Filler" as the closing film when it doesn't have a distributor as of yet?
SS: Part of that is we look for things whether they have studio deals or not. We love the energy of them. Strange Fruit had a lot going on. They had talent that was willing to show up and we wanted to give them the shot and also we wanted to help them with their distribution by giving them the opportunity to be the closing night film.
Starting the festival made you a pioneer in the business, but if not for that, you also started Urbanworld Films, which put you on another level. Many were expecting you to launch a bevy of independent films that wouldn't see the light of day from major studios and while you started off releasing a few films, a lot of time has gone by with no product. What is the state of Urbanworld Films at this point?
SS: Urbanworld Films is waiting to put some things back together again and some of those have been economy affected with the weather out there. Investors have been a lot more skittish with the war and we're waiting to put that back together again in order to be able to go back and bring these films to the market, but I made a conscious decision that if films were not properly capitalized, we would go on and continue to have failures when they weren't real failures. They were not properly capitalized to start, so they weren't going to do anything and so that was a decision that I made that if the company is not properly financed, I'm not trying to do things on a shoe string.
Folks outside and inside the business are wondering why isn't the Audience Award winner or the Best Feature winner released in theaters through Urbanworld Films. Can you answer that?
SS: I think there are factors that go into play that the audience doesn't have to deal with. There are legal clearance issues and there are rights issues. You may see a film that has a jumping music in it but none of it is cleared and if you have to pay for it, it would cost about a million dollars. When you decide to distribute a movie, there are factors that go into play, that's a natural thought, but when you get to the business of it, it's not that quite easy. Will the talent support the film? There's the release date. Are you going to give the production company the money that they looking for. These are all factors that go into a film getting released.
So what's next for you?
SS: I'm doing a first quarter college tour with MTV and we are also looking to move our distribution deal. We're doing some property that we are hoping to get to market, helping with financing and other things and we begin, believe it or not, on the Urbanworld 9. We're coming up on the 10th Anniversary and so we have an important two years coming up that are defining moments and by the time we hit our stride with #10, we really want to make a loud noise in the marketplace. Our goal is to reach of level of attendance similar to Sundance and Cannes Film Festival, so while we hover around 30,000 people now, I want to see those numbers increase to 50,000 - 70,000 over the course of a two week festival and we really want to get the state and the city more involved in Urbanworld that the support from them would have an impact on the local economy and we can help each other. We want to expand our visibility up in Harlem as well.
Running a festival as well as a production company takes a lot of work and time. What keeps you grounded?
SS: I think early on, I tried not to do everything. I deal with programming. I'm not watching every movie. I'm watching every movie that will ultimately play at the festival but you have to rely on other people. My idea of a vacation is going to a remote place but it better have a movie theater because I love watching movies and so I love what I do and it's not an effort to me and I love the journeys that these films take. Everything else is really being handled by other people and so that's not work for me, that's a joy.
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