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We tweeted yesterday about Urbanworld Digital, but, even bigger, the 16th Annual Urbanworld Film Festival kicked off last night with the opening film Being Mary Jane. Starring Gabrielle Union (number 22 on The Root 100) and written by Mara Brock Akil (number 51, who also wrote Sparkle, Girlfriends and The Game), the BET Networks movie is about a single TV news anchor (Union) making a way in her personal and professional life.
Before the movie, however, there was the red carpet (we snapped a quick pic of Gabrielle Union for the cell phone, along with the dozens of photogs and reporters who showed up for opening night). In addition to Union, Akil, BET CEO Debra Lee, Tika Sumpter, and other stars and notable names turned out for the event.
Though Urbanworld has been around for more than a decade, it’s still hard work to finance and organize the event.
“It’s definitely a comprehensive labor of love,” said Gabrielle Glore, the festival’s executive producer and head of programming, who spoke with us over the phone just before opening night. “No one is getting rich off these festivals. Not even the big ones.”
Among the big ones are, of course, Sundance, the Toronto Film Festival, which got a lot of attention this year because Kristen Stewart made her first pre-scandal debut, and Cannes. For all of these festivals, publicity — for the films, for the event itself — is important. Last night’s media turnout no doubt drums up a good deal of attention for the festival.
But more than that, sponsors are important to Urbanworld. “It’s all about sponsors,” said Galore. HBO is Urbanworld’s founding sponsor; BET is its presenting sponsor. “It lets people know that there’s some credibility. The sponsor piece is critical.”
According to Glore, it’s the marketplace that determines the level of sponsorship. “The years that have been more difficult in terms of funding, it’s about what’s happening in the marketplace,” she told us. She says they’ve already started working on the slate of sponsors for next year. The sponsors help determine festival activities, like the digital events and labs.
In addition to that, the festival operates on a strict budget.
“We’re lean and mean and we have money to make it happen,” said Glore.
Historically, Urbanworld has showcased some big-name movies. Collateral, starring Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise debuted there. Night Catches Us with Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington opened there two years ago. And there were the showings of both Barbershop films and Secret Life of Bees, among others.
Though many of the movies that the festival screens aren’t necessarily blockbusters on the level of Twilight, they are successful (as that list shows). More than that, they give famous actors the chance to attach themselves to indie projects that they’re passionate about. And it gives filmmakers a chance to show their work in a theater, something that many of them might not otherwise be able to do.
“We definitely don’t characterize ourselves as a black film festival,” said Glore, while acknowledging that many of the films they include involve African American artists. “There’s a cross-cultural sensibility that reflects what America looks like.”
Which is very good for enlisting sponsors. ”Companies want to align with brands and with what’s the future,” Glore adds.
Among the other films showing this year are Won’t Back Down, about reform at an inner city school starring Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Rosie Perez; The Girl is In Trouble a crime movie starring Columbus Short, boasting executive producer Spike Lee and directed by Julius Onah; and the closing night film, Middle of Nowhere, directed by another Root 100 honoree, Ava DuVerney, who was the first African American to win the director’s prize at Sundance for this movie.
For the complete Urbanworld schedule, click here.
I have a confession Mesdames. One of my favorite movies is Menace II Society. Before you begin to judge me for my hostile taste, let me explain why. First I should begin saying that I don’t condone the actions of Caine nor O-Dog (if you haven’t seen the movie, these are the two young and reckless main characters). But what this movie, among the others that came out during this time symbolized, was ‘our’ presence in film and media, a presence that unfortunately reflected a lot of the negative that was plaguing our communities, but also highlighted the positive and relevant. Yet and still, it was entertaining, and for some, a glimpse into another world that they didn’t even know existed.