Fresh off Tomorrow Ever After’s Best US Film win at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, I sat down with filmmaker and friend, Ela Thier.
I met Ela shortly after reading her open letter on filmmaking, first published by the blog Women and Hollywood. After reading the line…”after years of trying and falling and getting up and trying, something finally dawned on me: maybe I’m not the most unlucky bastard that ever lived. Maybe I’m female,” I knew we’d hit it off. We did. That was almost 8 years ago.
Last week Ela and I chatted about filmmaking, crowdfunding, and last but not least, her new film.
THERE’S AN OLD SAYING: THOSE WHO CAN, DO. THOSE WHO CAN’T, TEACH. DO YOU EVER WORRY THAT TEACHING FILMMAKING KEEPS YOU FROM BEING A FILMMAKER?
I became a filmmaker because I taught filmmaking. Every film I shot was crewed and cast from among the inspiring people that I’ve gotten to teach, and their network. My producers, DP, art department, my entire crew really – most of them studied with me. A few were brought in by someone who did. That’s how my films have gotten funding too. I invented crowdfunding when I went into production on my first film. My students rallied together and made that film happen.
I held no auditions for Tomorrow Ever After. I wrote that script for the actors in my classes, whose talent was blowing my mind week after week. I felt lucky to get to work with them. And by writing for actors I know and care about, the characters came to life easily; I felt surrounded by their interest and encouragement as I was writing the script. Writing for people I love made the writing process less lonely.
And all that really paid off, because now my actors are as invested in this film as I am. We’re a team of people who really care about this film. It’s our baby.
DID I HEAR YOU SAY THAT YOU INVENTED CROWDFUNDING?
Early summer of 2009 I decided that hell or high water, I’m making my first feature. I didn’t care if all I had was 20 bucks and a friend with a camera, I was done waiting around for a sexist industry to take me seriously. It had been decades of people telling me I’m a genius but not taking a chance on my work. I was gonna shoot my first feature that summer. I had a great script. I had my cast. It was time to go.
But there was no money. None.
So yeah, it was one of those lightening-strikes-your-brain-
Kickstarter, the first crowdfunding site, was 2 months old at the time. No one had heard of it, including myself. One friend who heard of what I was doing pointed it out to me. I remember checking it out: all of the projects on there were displayed on their home page. I didn’t really get what it was for and I just put a PayPal button on my website.
So yeah, that’s what I did. And people came through. Not initially, it took some trial and error. The thing that finally set it off is my writing “An Open Letter from a Female Director” about my experiences as a woman in the industry. The letter got circulated like wild fire and I raised $30-some thousand or something like that.
I felt like I was living through one of those It’s a Wonderful Life moments, where every filmmaker who I had trained came through for me.
Many people donated in many other ways: locations, equipment, time and help, sandwiches. You name it. It really felt like a community coming together to make something happen. It was overwhelming.
By the time I was raising money for post-production, in 2010, Kickstarter was around and crowdfunding was more of a thing, though it was still relatively a new concept.
To be completely honest to the story: I naively thought that I just needed one big push out the gate. I didn’t imagine I would crowdfund the next film and the next. But at this point, I’m …how should I say it …I could say I’m “resigned” to it, but maybe resigned is not the right word. Maybe the word is “inspired”.
It occurred to me: I don’t have to rely on one rich person to decide if my films are worthy or not. It’s up to the many. Maybe if my films get produced through crowdfunding for the rest of my live-long life – maybe that’s a good thing
YOUR MOST RECENT CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN IS ANOTHER TRAILBLAZING TALE, NO?
Only 5% of the films that get made these days are picked up by a distributor. This means that one can work this hard to get a film made, and then the film never sees the light of day. That’s a nightmare. If you’re not a filmmaker, you can’t imagine what that actually means. “Years of work” are three easy words to say. Don’t get me started…
Hell if I let the 25 people be in charge of which films live or die. I’m sorry, but those 25 people who run the main distribution companies (23 of them are white men) aren’t smart enough to make those decisions. They must know that, no? They keep picking the same obvious choices. They’re good and well-intended people but they can’t take risks because their jobs are on the line. None of them have been smart enough to pick up my film, and almost every person who’s seen it burst into tears saying how good a film it is.
So yeah, I did something I haven’t done before, and never seen someone do: I raised money for a Do-It-Yourself distribution campaign. I’m sure someone has does that, but I’ve never seen it. Crowdfunding money for distribution is certainly not widespread, but I think it will become more and more apparent that it’s necessary.
ANY TIPS TO OTHER FILMMAKERS MAKING SMALL FILMS?
Absolutely. My tip is to remember that our films aren’t small. That’s manipulative language coined by the industry; calling a film small is a subtle and undermining insult. Movies with lots of money and famous people are not the “big movies”. No way. In fact, some of them are vapid and exploitative cliches. Truly powerful film that are grossly under-resourced are not small films. That’s classist bullshit and it infuriates me. Saying rich movies are the big movies is like saying that rich people are the more important people. No way. Never. The dollar amount does not determine the size of a film. How deeply a movie impacts its audience determines the size of a film, and by those standards, my film is one of the biggest movies you’ll ever have the fortune to watch.
YOU MENTION A MICRO-BUDGET TRILOGY?
Yes, kind of nutty. I’m talking about creating sequels to a film that’s not proven itself yet. But it’s proven itself to me and that will do for now. So yes, I went ahead and wrote the sequel.
Tomorrow Ever After, from its conception, was the beginning of a series of movies. Its radical premise lends itself to infinite possibilities: someone comes from the future in which caring rather than greed governs society. The comedic and dramatic possibilities as she navigates our world are infinite. The first film only scratches the surface. So for the sake of honesty here: it’s not really a trilogy. It’s an octology. I see creating 8 films in the series
Crowdfunded micro-budget “octology”…? Only by necessity. It’s not like I enjoy working 100-hour weeks and being under-resourced. Dream case scenario is an 8-picture deal with creative control. The studio smart enough to take this project and my team under its wings will double its assets.
The Black TV & Film Collective a 501c3 organization that operates as a NYC film collective. In our work, we support all artists of color including but not limited to black filmmakers. We are a collaborative platform that represents diversity in film and supports inclusion in Hollywood and TV. Our professional network of New York City filmmakers gives knowledge to those who want to learn how to produce film, how to make a web series, how to budget film projects and more. We host NYC film workshops that welcome a variety of experience levels from first time filmmakers who are either students in film school or to notables within the television and film industry. See how you can make a difference in the world of cinema by becoming a member of our NYC film collective.
Huriyyah Muhammad is the Founder of the Black TV & Film Collective and Managing Partner of Infinite Wings Media. As an independent feature film producer, she has led the production of multiple independent feature films from development to market, and most recently completed filming projects in Nairobi, Kenya and Madhya Pradesh, India. Huriyyah will soon make her narrative directorial debut with the supernatural series, Keloid. In addition to these projects, her filmography includes over 14 other works. It has not been easy, but it has certainly been fun.
Huriyyah is an avid writer, director and producer who is passionate about creating long-lasting opportunities for people of color within film and TV. She holds an MBA from the NYU Stern School of Business and a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Computer Science from Spelman College.