Since she was five years old, Tanya Kersey has been in the film and entertainment industry, first as a child model in New York, then an actress in Los Angeles, the author of how-to books for black actors, and the creator of the trade paper Black Talent News. Now she’s also the founder and executive director of the Hollywood Black Film Festival (HBFF).
The HBFF works to not only highlight the work of black filmmakers and writers, but also to bridge the gap between this community and those movie executives who can buy and greenlight such films, bringing more African-American-focused movies into theaters.
The festival launched in 1998 in response to demand for an African-American film festival with roots in the movie industry, that would lead to acquisitions, development deals, and connections with distributors and agents, Kersey explained to Madame Noire. Using Sundance as an inspiration, Kersey started a program that would go on to attract support from Sidney Poitier, Forest Whitaker, Spike Lee, Sanaa Lathan, Antwone Fisher, and Blair Underwood, among others.
“Hollywood is a white mans’ world; that’s the fact,” Kersey told Madame Noire. “By focusing on African-American filmmakers, we’re giving them attention and carving out this time to really focus on them and showcase them and highlight what they can do and show the world and the industry that there is some great talent out there.”
This year’s festival was held in Hollywood from October 25 to 28, and featured 40 movie screenings of films from the US and around the world at The Montalban theater. Additionally, the HBFF included an educational and networking component, with panels, workshops, and networking events held at The W Hollywood.
“In the true spirit of a fest, the line up of featured films was reminiscent of a renaissance period,” wrote Valerie Milano and Somalia Smith of HBFF 2012 in newsmagazine Hollywood Today. “The variety of viewings swept the gamut from the woes of a racist South, to the short story of world-class staring champions and their quirky relationship with their master teacher, all of this captured from the highly creative and uninhibited perspectives of a new era of multi talented filmmakers.”
Additionally, entertainment news website Monsters and Critics posted photos from the event in late October.
There are other black-focused film festivals across the country, each with its own niche: New York, Pan-African, Afro-Centric. Kersey describes HBFF as having a Hollywood angle with access, opportunity, and deals within the industry: “You have access to the industry at large through screenings and panels. Opportunity is the chance to take a step forward in your career. And deals, you can actually make deals at the festival.”
All of this is important, Kersey noted, because she feels that the black community has actually moved backwards in Hollywood compared to five years ago.
“Five years ago, we may have had 15 or 16 black films released theatrically. Nowadays, we have only three or four,” she said. “We can’t make films about ourselves and get them greenlit unless we have people to greenlight them and unless we have people in the industry that are sensitive to our stories and who understand that just because it’s a black story doesn’t mean that it’s not universal.”
“We’ve been fighting this fight for 40, 50 years now,” she added. “We’ve had our ups and downs. At the end of the day, filmmakers have to take the reigns themselves.”
So far in 2012, several films led by black actors cracked the top 25, according to Box Office Mojo. Will Smith’s Men in Black 3, which has made $179 million year to date, comes in at number 11, the Denzel Washington-led Safe House made $126 million at number 19, and Think Like a Man, based on Steve Harvey’s book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, came in at number 25 with $91 million. Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection earned $65.6 million in 2012, coming in at number 34, while Perry’s latest film, Alex Cross, debuted in October to bad reviews.
Animated film Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, featuring several black actors’ voices including Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Cedric the Entertainer, is currently the 10th most popular film of the year, earning $216.4 million.
Not only does the HBFF help gain access and attention in the industry, but one of Kersey’s goals is to make the educational element more hands-on, with workshops in cinematography or using social media to gain a following. She would love to see attendees get started creating a film while at the HBFF workshops. Another goal is to create a separate day for international films. Currently, there is no special spotlight or time during the HBFF to focus on the international submissions, and Kersey hopes in future festivals to set aside specific time to do so.
When asked about her advice for people who want to come to Hollywood, she encourages perseverance and hard work: “Be honest with yourself. Look at the industry and figure out where you fit in. Realize that this is a process and it doesn’t happen overnight.”
As a Christian, Kersey said she turns to God for inspiration. “I would rather pray on it than anything else, so that is my inspiration and it is where I personally come from.”
“Everything that’s happened was is God’s plan,” she added. “It wasn’t something I planned. I planned to be a famous actress and I ended up doing this. It was something that came about due to supply and demand and divine intervention.”
As the HBFF continues its run in Hollywood, Kersey hopes to keep growing and improving each year—and bringing people together. She added that many speakers and executives from the industry are inspired by the amount of talent and people they meet at the HBFF.
“This industry is about relationships,” she said. “We’ve made a conscious effort to bring in non-black people and people who have the power. There is such an ocean between us in the industry, so we like to use HBFF as that connection.”