A Distribution Success Story: I Will Follow - Written and Directed by Ava DuVernay

by Melissa Silverstein
March 17, 2011 3:47 AM
10 Comments
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I started seeing information about I Will Follow a little over a week ago on twitter. People were sending me tweets about the opening and then they forwarded a very positive review from Roger Ebert. I was curious. Here was a movie written and directed by an African American woman, Ava DuVernay and about an African American woman. Now it's not always surprising to me that a film by and about women doesn't get the attention it deserves, in fact it's pretty common. So I thought here is a another little gem that will go unrecognized especially because it wasn't on any upcoming release lists and wasn't screening.

But this film is different. It was buzzing big time on twitter and then I saw the piece that had been written about the film and Ava in the NY Times in January and I got it - these people have created a new distribution model.

Here's what I love about this. Ava DuVernay had a story to tell and as she said in an interview last night she was tired of waiting for permission for someone else to tell her her story was worthy. So she "green lit" herself and made the film. But the most important piece she imparted is that women need to know what is going on with the business in order for their films to be successful:

The traditional models are collapsing so if you want to be a filmmaker you are no longer just able to make your film you have to shepard your film into the world and you have to take care of your film and you have to know where it's going and be smart about the business. It's not enough to know how to handle the camera and get through post. Now part of the definition of filmmaker in 2011 especially for women when our stories are being dismantled and dehumanized more and more is to tell our stories and know how to share our stories. Sharing your story is not just putting it on film it is actually getting it in front of eyeballs. You gotta know what's going on now.

What Ava and her colleagues have done is so smart -- and yes, subversive -- yet it makes perfect sense. She decided to set up a new entity, a new distribution network made up of the African American film festivals across the country to distribute African American films. It's called the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) Ava's film is the first one to get a release.

What they proved last weekend on five screens and in five cities is that they are able to put butts in seats. Think about it. These film festivals have lists of people who are interested in films by and about African Americans and probably in the past only heard from their local festival around festival time. This new distribution entity allows the festivals to activate their audiences who trust them for other films besides the once a year festival. Brilliant.

Here's Ava's reasoning for starting the network:

Why would I set up this whole network and then walk away from it? Why not formalize it and get some infrastructure going and make this a mission and a mandate to foster black films beyond just my own. So mine is the first. It is basically a collaboration of all the best black film festivals in the country that are getting together to simultaneously release a movie. We opened on March 11 and had a big first weekend and now we expanding.


I Will Follow expands to 22 screens in 15 cities tomorrow. It is a film about love and loss. It's small and quiet and quite beautiful with a terrific performance from Salli Ricahrdson-Whitfield is her first starring role.

The thing is you have to have a good film in order to make this work because the stakes are high. People are watching warily and it will take time for this model to be taken seriously in the film business. But the good news is that the film made over $11,000 per screen last weekend and that is a serious number and I'm sure the industry is now taking note.

The reaction to the film has been very positive. As Ava said:

It is infused with people of color because so often we don't see ourselves as regular people and that might sound strange hearing but for folks who love films and only see themselves as caricatures or in very broad comedies, it's nice to see and make a film that was not about heightened situations. This is about an everyday situation and this is why folks of all colors and backgrounds have appreciated it but especially the African-American community where we hear again and again the common refrain is thank you for showing us as we are.

There are many lessons to be learned from the success of I Will Follow. First, you can do it. Just be smart. Second, work together. Why couldn't women's film festival around the country create the same approach? Could we all possibly work together in this way? Ava is setting an example and is very up front about wanting to help other communities learn from her hard work. People should take her up on this. In a world where everyone says the sky is falling, this model is clearly a huge positive step forward.

I Will Follow - Trailer from AFFRM on Vimeo.

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More: Ava DuVernay, Salli Richardson-Whitfield

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10 Comments

  • CINEMATIQ Magazine (In Print magazine on Blk image | April 3, 2011 12:06 PMReply

    "If they begin to open films every month, they become just another distributor." By Film Person on March 17, 2011

    Humm, you may have a point. Only time will tell. However, I think, the over all objective is to give the movie goer more options beyond your average stereotypical "black" theme film. I Will Follow gives you stories of African-Americans in truth.

    I hope that it expands to releasing more than 2 films per year and doesn't have a restriction on film dates. There are a lot of films I had a chance to screen and so have many film festivals in the past that does not have distribution. It would be nice for some of the older films, 2006 to present see the day of light beyond their film festival debut. A few examples that come to mind are: Money Matters, Mississippi Damned , Dirty Laundry ( I think this is being distributed by code Black) but it would have been nice if it had a theatrical release.

    I believe in 2007/8 Noah Arc: Jumping The Broom had a limited theatrical release. More than likely, it broke even. This was before the AMC Independent program or AFFRM. There were no major marketing for this film. This was before facebook and twitter. One could image how successful it could have been if it came out through or at lease partnered with Logo Releasing(Viacom) and AFFRM.

    Having a theatrical is so overrated because it's so expensive however, it can all be worth it if you team up/work with/go through/join an organization like AFFRM. It's kind of like a rapper selling their cd's out the trunk of their car. When it's time for that mainstream deal, they have a better chance of getting a better financial deal because of their self distributing numbers. If you are an independent filmmaker, you are use to working hard to get your product out there so it's no different. Anyways, do your research and do what's best for you.

    My two Cents
    Continued success to Ava DuVernay, I WILL FOLLOW and AFFRM

    Peace & Light

    CINEMATIQ Magazine,
    http://www.cinematiqmag.com

  • RVCBard | March 23, 2011 5:45 AMReply

    Here’s what I love about this. Ava DuVernay had a story to tell and as she said in an interview last night she was tired of waiting for permission for someone else to tell her her story was worthy. So she “green lit” herself and made the film.

    Exactly. The same thing is going on in the theatre blogosphere as women, people of color, and working class theatre artists are realizing that waiting to be picked won't get their work seen. They have to be more than "just" the writer or actor or director - they have to be the creative engines behind their projects. What I think we're realizing is that we have a lot of power already; we just have to use it.

  • brandi | March 21, 2011 8:26 AMReply

    Well, we have to start somewhere right? If you go see it, its just the beginning.

  • Mark Ridley | March 20, 2011 4:59 AMReply

    To all the wonderful people that made comments. Don't be so fast to say this wont' work. and to put to put it as an anamaly. this is what always happens. The nay sayers doubt, and I can understand why. But it was said of Civil Rights, women voters, Flying planes. and even our on BLACK Leader of the free world, and every thing else under the sun that has made great history.
    Open your minds and hearts and join in a NEW way of doing business... and stop waiting on old ass hollywood and their offsprings to tell you how it should go.. love and blessing to you all

  • kim adelman | March 18, 2011 9:48 AMReply

    Ava and what she's doing should be an inspiration to us all.

    In fact, the FFC Female Filmmaking Collaborative is holding a panel discussion next week on Sunday March 27th to talk about emulating Ava's model and how more and more women filmmakers are making their own opportunities.

    Anyone in Los Angeles who wishes to join in the discussion is welcome. Details: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=208392572506310

  • nicole johnson | March 18, 2011 5:18 AMReply

    I don't know that what Film Person says is necessarily true. I think the problem is consistency. I think if there was a schedule people would jump on board. If every second weekend @ AMC theaters was "people of color" weekend showing a new film, I think this could really work for all involved.

  • Akiva Penaloza | March 17, 2011 11:56 AMReply

    This is what I have been saying women should do, except on a larger scale. 1) Acquire financing from superstars and women of wealth in Hwood and beyond. Bring in Streisand, Streep, Beyonce, Oprah and as many progressive minded men as possible etc. 2) Start a studio run by women for films made by ONLY WOMEN (writing and directing in particular) ABOUT women. This must be strictly adhered to. 3) Find some real gems and get them released. 4) Get women's voices out there while bringing in cash to make and distribute other movies by and for women.

    We have the wealth. We have the films. We have the talent. Let's get organized and get working!

  • Film Person | March 17, 2011 7:03 AMReply

    @NYo --- I agree, wholeheartedly, that there is an audience out there for non-commercial, non-stereotypical cinema (of all kinds).

    My issue with this piece/proclamation is that i don't believe this is a new or sustainable model. Just because a respected festival recommends a film, people won't necessarily run out to see it. It will be treated just like a regular film opening and subject to the same variables - advertising, reviews, word-of-mouth, etc.

  • NYo | March 17, 2011 6:17 AMReply

    @ Film Person - I think you miss the point.
    The problem has been that the mainstream system rarely produces/distributes films such as "I Will Follow" that reflect African Americans in a non-stereotypical way. What their success proves is that there is an audience that is hungry for such stories and when made aware and given the opportunity, they will support them at the box office.
    From what I understand, their plan is not to "open films every month"...but to support a few films per year...films that have been promoted through these festivals to the very audience that is currently underserved by the mainstream system.

  • Film Person | March 17, 2011 4:42 AMReply

    This is an anomaly. Festivals have been trying to tap into their lists for years but it works for the festival itself, not a single movie.

    The reason people go to a film festival is less about the festival's recommendations and more because they want to go to a festival, and be part of the festival experience.

    This particular situation worked because its the first one and received press as a result. it will not be so easy for the second, third, fourth, etc., film in this model.

    A festival experience is special because it happens once a year. If they begin to open films every month, they become just another distributor.

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