March 7, 2024

Interrogating the Festival to Awards Pipeline | Beyond Resilience

Firelight Media hosted a Beyond Resilience conversation on YouTube Live on Thursday, March 7, from 4-5 pm ET, co-presented by Distribution Advocates, to interrogate the festival to awards pipeline.

Accessibility Notice: This event includes ASL interpretation and closed captions.

Moderator Avril Speaks (Co-founder, Distribution Advocates) was joined by Sierra Urich (Firelight Media Documentary Lab alum and director, Joonam) and Darcy McKinnon (Producer, Commuted, The Neutral Ground)  to discuss the findings from the recently launched podcast "Distribution Advocates Presents," following dozens of interviews with industry insiders about navigating the festival and awards pipeline. Introduced by Lucy Mukerjee (Firelight Media Documentary Lab director and former film festival programmer).

For emerging filmmakers and general audiences, the film festival and awards system can seem irresistibly glamorous. There are vaunted festival premieres that rocket filmmakers into “newfound” stardom and awards shows whose red carpets and gilded trophies symbolize a triumph of creativity, hard work, and cultural connection. But even a cursory interrogation of a festival’s programming practices or an awarding body’s nomination process can unearth a system driven by handshake deals, corporate sponsorship, ego stroking, and, yes, a whole lotta money.

Because conversations interrogating the state of film festivals and awards systems are often relegated to backrooms and whisper networks, emerging filmmakers can be woefully underprepared for the realities of a film rollout. But now, thanks to public conversations from our own Beyond Resilience series and podcasts like the recently launched “Distribution Advocates Presents,” the festival-to-awards pipeline is being re-examined and filmmakers have greater access to information that empowers them to choose a rollout strategy that best suits their film’s objectives, their career aspirations, and the needs of their audience.

What are the new economic realities of film festivals and awards systems, and how do they impact emerging documentary filmmakers? How can independent filmmakers design festival strategies and awards campaigns without the support of deep-pocketed distributors or philanthropists (or can they)? Could a filmmaker devise a festival and awards strategy that benefits audiences as much as it benefits a distributor?

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The Beyond Resilience Series is sponsored by Open Society Foundations. Beyond Resilience is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Field of Vision.

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Participant Bios:

Avril Speaks has been carving out her path as a bold, innovative storyteller for years, not only as a Producer and Director but also during her days as a professor at Howard University and as a film educator through Film Independent, the Sundance Institute, and Distribution Advocates. Avril produced the award-winning film Jinn, which premiered at SXSW and won Special Jury Recognition for Writing. Jinn gained distribution throughMGM/Orion Classics and continues to be seen throughout the world. Avril has also produced several films including AfricanAmerica, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, four African MovieAcademy Awards and streamed on Netflix. She also produced the Black America Is… project, which premiered at the Afrikana Film Festival and won Best Feature Documentary at theBaltimore International Black Film Festival. As a director and show-runner, Avril has worked with companies such as  Now This and Vox Media Studios on docuseries such as Uprooted: The Untold Keith WarrenStory and Keep This Between Us, available on Discovery+ and Freeform. She is currently a Creative andProduction Executive for Vox Media Studios, where she is co-show-runner for the upcoming Files of the Unexplained to air on Netflix, and also helps to develop new projects. Avril has been selected for producing labs with Film Independent, Sundance, The Gotham, Rotterdam and Cannes, was a 2020Sundance Momentum Fellow, and is a 2022 recipient of the Dear Producer Award.She is one of the founding members of Distribution Advocates and of the newly formed Producers Union. She is also a board member for the Black TV and FilmCollective.

Darcy McKinnon is a documentary filmmaker based in New Orleans, whose work focuses on the American South and the Caribbean. Recently released projects include A King Like Me and Roleplay, premiering at SXSW 2024, Commuted (PBS, 2024), Algiers, America (Hulu, 2023), Under G-d (Sundance 2023), Look at Me! XXXTENTACION (SXSW, Hulu, 2022) and The Neutral Ground (Tribeca, POV, 2021), recipient of LEH Documentary of the Year 2022. Current projects in production include Jason Fitzroy Jeffers’ The First Plantation, A King Like Me, Abe Felix’s Turnaround, CJ Hunt’s Unlearned and Suzannah Herbert’s Natchez.  Her work has been on POV, Reel South, LPB, Cinemax and Hulu, and has screened at Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW, CPH:DOX and more.  Darcy is an alum of the Impact Partners Producing Fellowship and the Sundance Institute Creative Producing Fellowship, and a recipient of American Documentary’s Creative Visionary Award in 2023.

Sierra Urich is an Iranian-American ("neem-rooni"), award-winning filmmaker, and interdisciplinary visual artist based in Vermont. She was recently honored in Doc NYC’s 2023 40 Under 40 list, and is currently nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. She was an artist-in-residence at The Banff Centre for the Arts 2017, Sundance Nonfiction Directors Residency Fellow 2018, Points North Fellow 2018, Firelight Doc Lab Fellow 2021, Chicken & Egg Eggcelerator Lab Fellow 2022, and was twice shortlisted for a Creative Capital Award (2020, 2021). Urich’s first feature film, Joonam, premiered in competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, and took home three jury awards for Best Documentary at the Cleveland International Film Festival, the Bentonville Film Festival, and the Sharjah Film Platform. She works professionally as an editor and director.

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Program Notes:

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