Report of our EXpedition

Friday, January 20, 2012

If a Movie is created and not shown, does it exist.......

I often think about the many hurdles, creative people have to jump, in order to make it. This comes to mind as I think about the excitement, and in some circles, controversey, revolving around the movie, Red Tails. It's not surprising (at least not to me), that it took a White, male, billionaire filmmaker to point out how difficult it is to fund, produce, and distribute a film by, starring, and about African Americans. This whole chapter brings to mind my own struggles as a filmmaker and animator. It also makes me think about those friends and acquaintances of African decent, who also strugglrein this cinema fraternity.

It's hard to believe that I have been in and around animation and film making for nearly twelve years. And at no time during this period have I ever felt that I've made it, or that I am secure where I am. Within the first year and a half after coming out of graduate school, my first film was in four film festivals, but I was sleeping on a air mattress on the floor of a friend in Harlem and then the home of a friend of a friend in Jersey City. Although during that time, I was only able to find work as a TA at NYU, I thought I was about to make the big time, by having my film seen in New York and LA.

Little did I know during my first year and a half out of school, that my education would continue, in a very real way. I was applying, in person to studios for 3D animation work, and not even given a chance. But I remember after a screening of my film at the Urbanworld Film Festival, I thought my fortune was about to change. I was approached by the owner of a distribution company, who was very interested in my film. This company will remain nameless, but it has been responsible for putting many African American films on TV.

I received the paperwork for an offer from this company, not too long after the film festival. This is where another class in film making was about to take place. I reviewed the offer/contract, and was shocked to see how much power I would have to give up, in return for so little money. The offer was a exclusive license of my film, for a period of five years, where I could not sell, could not exhibit, could not put my film online, and could not distribute this film for employment purposes. All of this for the grand, handsome price of $1000. My film would have been shown during Black History Month as a syndicated program of films, shown on Saturday afternoons on network TV.

I heavily pondered this offer, but could not get past how little I was offerred and how little control I had over my own work. I thought, one year of work for $1000. I couldn't even pay rent and eat off of that for one month in New York. I didn't respond for two weeks, when another offer of $2000, came to me. It was then, that I wrote back that I could not accept this offer. I though of this as a slap in the face, for one year of work, that I completed on my own. Another thing that rubbed me the wrong way, was that this was a White owned company, solely acquiring African Produced films.

Now, before anyone gets offended by the last sentence, understand where I, and many African Americans come from, in our suspicion and even anger. The goal of creating films is to have them seen, and hopefully to the largest audience possible. But just as important, is that we can make a living from all of the education and hard work that we have put into our creation. African Americans have very few outlets for financing and distribution. And most, if not all outlets to have our works seen, are through entities that are White owned. 

It's difficult to explain to anyone, what racism and discrimination are to those who have never and will never experience it. Many African Americans complain, that their images are not seen, or even seen truthfully on mainstream television or on the big screen. I don't want my work relegated to 1pm on Saturday afternoon, with little marketing, and few people in front of the TV. If I had accepted that deal, few people still would have seen my work, and I would have only had $2000 to show for it, while the distribution company had full control over my work, without my say so. 

I have seen so many great short and feature films by Black people from all over the world. The problem is that many millions more will never see these great works. It's sad to say, but until I became an animator, I never even though about going to film festivals where these great works are screened. And many of these great works are relegated further, to only being seen at African or African American film festivals. I witnessed sci-fi films, action, drama, and experimental film, most of which I have never seen again. 

I hope that the publicity of Red Tails will open some doors for some of the great films I've seen and those yet made by African Americans. I want to see films by African Americans and all peoples on over 2000 screens like any other major or blockbuster film. I want to see creative people, from writers, crew members, directors, animators, actors, and the like, making a good living at entertaining and educating all of us. I don't want to see people of color having to accept being taken advantage of, in order to have their works seen.

I applaud George Lucas for enlightening the world, to the plight of the African American filmmaker. I challenge more Whites to confront the innequality that we as people of color face,  not only in the film industry, but within American life in general. I challenge the African American community to pool our resources to create distribution companies, own movie theaters, and promote our films. All people have a right to create and have their voices heard and images seen. We all have stories to tell, and it is the responsibility of all of us, to make sure that these stories are told, and that the creators can make a good living by creating them.

James Bowman
Artist, 3D Animator, and Arts Educator